Erik Gronborg has been ahead of his time in many ways over the years. Visiting him at his immaculate home in Solana Beach, one could easily see him as an understated and underrated purveyor of the craft and DIY art movement that all the hipsters love these days, but really, he's so much more.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the back yard where it becomes quickly apparent that of all the hats Gronborg wears, he was way ahead of the game when it comes to landscape and horticulture design. Decades-old cacti intermingle with mature succulents that are now large and producing pristine flowers. A majestic tree hangs over the backside of the house that Gronborg says he planted as a seed. He designed it this way not because the Danish-born artist had any premonition about drought-tolerant landscapes. He says he just liked cacti because they looked "exotic" to him.
"We moved here in 1976 and haven't stopped gardening since" says Gronborg, pointing out the rocks and original sculptures he's placed in the garden throughout the years. "We just started it and kept chipping away at it."
In many ways, Gronborg's award-winning garden is what he calls "an extension of the art." For over half a century, he's been quietly working as a sculptor, ceramicist and woodworker. Much of his work, while often instinctive and improvised, takes an extraordinary amount of patience and precision to construct. In his living room are masterful, avocado wood chairs and a coffee table that looks as if it belongs in a museum.
And it soon will be. The living room will be recreated just as it is in Gronborg's house, for The Erik Gronborg Experience, a years-in-the-making exhibition opening Aug. 6 at the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park. The exhibition, which was curated by Dave Hampton, will present Gronborg's work in what Hampton calls "geographical phases" or, rather, in his different creative periods in the cities he lived in during the past 50 years.
"I wanted to see if we could come up with an installation that wouldn't just be one object after another, but to break it up in different ways," Gronborg says.
The show's first "phase" begins when Gronborg moved to Oakland in 1960 to begin attending UC Berkeley. He had no formal arts training, but eventually got both his bachelor's and master's degree in sculpture. His work in this period was mainly centered on metal casting and woodwork. In 1965, he accepted a teaching position at Reed College. Gronborg describes his time in Portland from 1965 to 1969 as "very productive," not only because he met his painter wife Irina, but also because his work evolved more into ceramics. He began to use multiple materials for one piece, often combining clay, metal and wood. It was also in this four-year period that Gronborg established himself internationally and landed shows in Portland and Paris. This second phase culminated in a one-man-show at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York.
After Portland, Irina and Erik moved to Las Vegas (the third phase) for four years. Gronborg chuckles and describes Vegas as "a different world." He says his work around this time became more vibrant and subtle. He says it was there that he came to love the desert. When a job at San Diego State University opened up for a ceramics instructor in 1973, he jumped at the opportunity. In 1975, he got a job at MiraCosta College in Oceanside and worked there until he retired in 2001.
Hampton didn't have to go too far to collect the works in The Erik Gronborg Experience, as many of the pieces were ones that Gronborg had created for his own home. There have been many shows over the years featuring Gronborg's work, but Hampton says Gronborg is mainly known internationally as a ceramicist and wanted to present an experience (hence the name) that painted a larger picture of the artist.
"Within all these periods, Erik made considerable innovations within a very compressed space of time," says Hampton, who also decided to include some of Gronborg's writings within the exhibition. "This is meant to be a very holistic, whole view of a person. Most people know him as a ceramic artist, but some of his other works have never been shown. Ceramics are part of his story, but they're not the whole story."
Gronborg seems to be the most fond of this fourth phase in San Diego. Just as in his youth in Copenhagen where he whittled any piece of wood he could get his hands on, he says this fourth and final phase represents his sense of home. Creating art to make domesticity more brilliant and spirited.
"We love living with our own art," says Gronborg, who also makes a point to show off Irina's paintings. "A lot of the furniture, especially the works created when we first moved here, were created out of necessity. We needed furniture so I just thought I'd make it."
He pauses before adding, "I can't imagine being anything other than an artist. I'm happy just to be able to make it."