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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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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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