Ralph Greco

Irene Wapnir

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This article by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 9, 1999.

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Man — and Surgeon

He was determined. She was curmudgeonly. He wanted

to start sculpting in stone. She said that was a typical male perspective.

He said, Well, I am a male, so that’s that. She said, Make me a head

in stone and I’ll see. "So I did and she liked it and gave the

go-ahead."

Since sometime in the 1980s, when Dr. Ralph S. Greco, surgeon, art

collector, and sculptor, first studied with Lilli Gettinger of the

Princeton Art Association, he has worked in stone of all kinds, and

in wood and terra cotta. Fifteen of his works are on view through

July 4 at Quietude Garden Gallery, East Brunswick, as half of the

two-artist show, "Men of Stone and Steel."

A mix of figurative and abstract, Greco’s sculpture at Quietude spans

the ’90s and includes two terra cotta pieces and several works in

wood. One of a few female torsos was cut from limestone with architectural

details retained, and a second is done in white marble on a green

marble base. An ebony totem pole represents his family, and abstracts

in avocado wood and black marble complete the assemblage.

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Ralph Greco

For a surgeon whose livelihood depends on his manual dexterity, Ralph

Greco is, well, pretty offhand about his use of high-speed power tools

such as sanding disks and cutting wheels in the production of his

sculpture. Asked how he protects his hands, "I don’t do anything

special," he says. And he has the accident story to prove it:

the cutting wheel that got away from him.

Attentive to both negative and positive space, Greco makes holes in

stones for some of his sculptures. On one occasion, the wheel bounced,

shaved his index finger, and hit his leg in two spots. He pulled the

plug, and, in a classic case of "physician, heal thyself,"

treated his own injuries.

The next day he went back to work on the piece.

Greco understands how the accident happened, and although

he doesn’t wear protective gloves or safety goggles, he doesn’t expect

a repeat. That’s that.

Asked recently by a delivery person, "How do you find time to

do this with your day job?" Greco replied, "Don’t you do anything

you love?" "No," came the answer, to which the sculptor

said simply, "That’s too bad."

Making sculpture is something he loves. It’s his. He knows the creative,

and creating, process he goes through to make a sculpture, and he

frankly savors his finished works.

Inspiration comes first, and in this stage, he’s buoyant, optimistic.

"I feel it’s going to be the best thing yet." Part two is

getting going: "It’ll never amount to anything." He keeps

going. By phase three, when the basic form is made, he’s getting "a

relaxed feeling of accomplishment." It may not exactly match his

initial image, but he likes what he sees developing.

Chief of surgery at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, in New

Brunswick, Greco works outdoors on his stone sculpture between May

and November. During the winter months, he works inside on terra cotta

pieces. Though he occasionally makes sketches, and even more rarely,

maquettes, he usually works directly in the stone. From his New York

source, he usually brings home stones up to about 300 pounds, selecting

pieces with enough volume or bulk to work in. Marble and limestone,

ebony and onyx: the materials come trippingly off the tongue. Greco’s

latest purchase, which may kick off his outdoor season this year,

is a 400-pound slab of limestone he couldn’t resist. It will be delivered.

A stone sculpture may take him three months, a terra cotta piece,

two days. It all depends. And mood doesn’t matter, for he quickly,

and happily, loses himself in what he is doing. About six or seven

years ago, he recalls, making sculpture had transcended the hobby

stage.

One of two boys, Greco was born in New York in 1942. His mother was

an elementary school teacher, while his father designed women’s lingerie

— which the sculptor jokes may have influenced his own interest

in art. His "artsy-craftsy" childhood included car models,

and he later "played around with oil painting," stressing

that he was untrained in that area. He graduated from Yale Medical

School in 1968, served in the Army, and finished his residency in

1973. In his current role for two years, he also runs the residency

program and performs endocrine surgery.

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Irene Wapnir

With his wife, Dr. Irene Wapnir, a breast cancer surgeon at Robert

Wood Johnson, he is the father of Justin, who turns 10 this month;

Eric, going on 8; and Ilana, soon to be 5. His family can easily see

his sculptures-in-progress, and he says his wife is his best critic

("though I’ve thought she was wrong once or twice, she’s had reason

to think I’m wrong more than that"). She observed that on one

of his rare animal sculptures, the buffalo’s face was too human, motivating

her husband’s research via video. Obtaining a copy of "Dances

with Wolves," Greco stopped action at the parts that allowed him

to check out buffalo features. Result: he built a better buffalo.

As evidenced by one of the works at Quietude, "The

Id and I," Greco enjoys titling his works — and words in general.

He is considered "dextrous with English," he says, proving

it with his story of an artist’s model whom he recognized as a former

patient. She announced she wanted him to take another look at her

thyroid, to which he replied he’d soon be taking a thorough look.

(Ah, an intersection of art and science: the twain do meet!)

In his leisure time, Greco reads about sculpture and sculptors, citing

Brancusi as a particular hero. He also collects art, predicting that

his "serious" collection of Haitian art may someday be museum-worthy.

He has traveled to the island numerous times over the years, claiming

he knows how to avoid "tourist art." What with the Haitian

collection, the work of an admired Israeli artist, and Greco’s own

sculpture, he says, "The place looks like a damn museum,"

and he hopes to "cull the herd" of his works during the Quietude

exhibition.

The East Brunswick sculpture park site started in the late ’70s, when

owners Sheila and Ed Thau — long-time collectors of contemporary

art and garden tourists — decided to combine their two main reasons

for world travel closer to home. They bought the hilly, wooded four-acre

property and commissioned some sculpture. In 1987, when they began

exhibiting and selling it, Quietude Garden Gallery was born.

By now, Quietude represents some 110 artists from around the world,

with more than that number of pieces displayed in the park, via a

winding, mile-long walk. Indoors, smaller works by some of the same

artists are on view, along with jewelry and other gift items.

From insistent novice sculptor to "man of stone," with works

in collections around the country. That’s Ralph Greco’s trajectory

— with not a phone booth in sight. And he didn’t have to leave

his day job.

— Pat Summers

Men of Stone and Steel, Quietude Garden Gallery,

24 Fern Road, East Brunswick, 732-257-4340. A shared exhibition of

sculpture by Ralph Greco and Paul Jeffries. Gallery is open Friday

through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., and by appointment. Website: www.artnet.com/quietude.html.

To July 5.


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