A restless searching

The passion of artist Grainger McKoy, who reached the pinnacle of success — and found it wanting

Grainger McKoy shies away from using the word “create” to describe what he does for a living. Though he has spent more than 30 years pushing the limits of what is possible in wood, bronze and silver, sculpting birds that seem to defy gravity as they rise, fall, wrestle with predators and with one another, he remains in awe of the natural world that inspires his work. 

“You look at these feathers and you look at nature enough, and it just brings you to your knees,” he says. “People say, ‘you must love creating,’ and I do love that process of discovery. But whether I would call it ‘creation,’ I would question — because all I'm doing is plagiarizing God.”

Through his painstaking attention to detail and the groundbreaking realism of his sculpture, McKoy has helped transform what many critics once dismissed as little more than folk art into a serious fine art form, and seen his work featured in solo exhibitions at the prestigious Hammer and Coe Kerr galleries in New York and sold to museums and collectors around the world.

His world, however, is a long way from the streets of Manhattan. The youngest of three sons, McKoy has lived for most of his life in small towns in South Carolina, where he discovered art in his early teens by carving wood gathered near his childhood home in Sumter.

After father Adair died of a heart attack when Grainger was nine, his mother Priscilla remained determined to encourage his interest, driving him 70 miles to Columbia every weekend for drawing lessons and keeping his shelf stocked with books on art, despite earning only modest wages as a secretary.

When he graduated from Clemson University in 1969, McKoy met Gilbert Maggioni, a bird artist in Beaufort, S.C., who recognized his talent and urged him to develop his gifts. Understandably hesitant at first — he was newly married and already had the first of two children — McKoy nonetheless took Maggioni's encouragement to heart.

“He said Grainger, try it now, and don't wait — give it six months, give it a year. Try it and you can always do something else,” McKoy says. “I was young enough, risky enough, foolish enough to [do it]. I look back at it and shudder, because it didn't make sense. He's the one that really challenged me.”

Today, his studio sits just 100 feet from his rural Stateburg, S.C., home, overlooking four acres of lush, green lawn that slope down to the nearby Wateree River.

Filled with sawdust-sprinkled carving, sanding and polishing tools and still-in-progress sculptures in every corner, it's where the 58-year-old McKoy, dressed in his everyday khaki work shirt and pants, enjoys the space and the time to contemplate what success means, something he wrestles with even today.

“Success is, it's a pretty elusive word,” he says, pausing in mid-thought to make sure he gets his words exactly right. “I'm just constantly redefining success.”

His re-evaluation began all the way back in 1976, when McKoy was 29 and then a rising star in the art world. His first solo exhibition at the Hammer Galleries on 57th Street was a smashing success.

“Anywhere in the world, that would be the place you'd want to be,” McKoy remembers. Every one of the 15 pieces he'd been commissioned to sculpt for the show sold out in three days, and critics raved at his gift for capturing his subjects in motion with breathtaking precision.  

But after the show, which he left with a check in his pocket larger than any he'd seen before in his life, McKoy suddenly realized he felt… nothing. After two and a half years of working 14- and 15-hour days, seven days a week to achieve his goal, he asked himself, was this all there was?

“It was just, there must be something else,” he recalls. “It just hadn't satisfied an itch way down in me. Was that the treadmill I was on now? Was it to work just as hard to get back to that very point?”

The problem, McKoy realized, was “not with where the work was headed, but where I was heading with it.”

His work had begun to take a heavy toll on his life. Relationships with his wife and two children, to say nothing of those with his friends, had been crowded out by days on end spent almost entirely in his studio. McKoy remembers telling his wife once in those years that he hoped she’d never ask him to choose between his work and his family, as she'd be disappointed with his answer.

Now, his thoughts began to shift. “I read somewhere that you can climb the ladder of success and at the end of your life, you can find out that that ladder was leaning against the wrong building.”

Upon his return home, he had a chance meeting with a childhood friend who was dying of kidney disease. McKoy and his friend re-established contact and began writing to one another; a few weeks later, when it became clear his friend's condition wasn't going to improve, McKoy came by his home for one last visit.

“He had a certain excitement that really caught me off guard,” McKoy recalls. “He told me about the hope he had for my work, for the life I had yet to explore and live. I was so confused, because here's a man that in the world's view has nothing. He was sick, I wasn't sick. Yet he was more excited about living than I was.”

As he reflected on that moment over the weeks and months that followed, McKoy became aware of a restlessness inside himself. He had a growing awareness that his religious faith was becoming more and more important, and as his faith grew, he felt a renewed urgency to change his life — and deepen his relationships with his loved ones.

“I can't deny that I love working with my hands,” says McKoy. “But I know that when I'm on my deathbed, that I won't be telling my wife Floride to hand me my pocket knife, I want to do one more bird. What I'm going to be reaching for is her hand.”

“If I have any regrets, it will be regrets that I hadn’t spent more time in that relationship, or honored that relationship more,” McKoy adds. “If it’s going to mean so much, or it should mean so much, then let’s make it mean more now.”

His work has also taken on a renewed life, he says, but in an unexpected way. “At one time, I was looking at [my work] as a mechanism to achieve,” says McKoy. “But these birds are just a vehicle to something, to a deeper relationship. This is important, [but] only because it's an avenue and a springboard, and it's not the end-all.” 

Sculpting became less a means to accomplish than a way to grow, and to seek truth through his art.

“Really, the work is me. I’m the work as a result of what I do — I’m the one growing,” he says. “It’s a wonderful marriage for me — the stage is plenty big. And I can’t even approach its beauty. All I’m doing is bowing by doing it.”

A few other things Grainger told me…

On focus

“Years ago, I heard a wise person say once, ‘choose to do one thing and do it well.’ That didn't ricochet — that penetrated and stuck, and it's just one of those little gems that I heard and I would refer to it when I would think otherwise,” says McKoy. “People ask me to do mammals or [other animals]. I say, I don't do fur, I only do feathers… birds, to me, give you so much more to work with as a subject matter, because of the space they create.”

On seeking out what makes you uncomfortable

“I do my best work when I’m uncomfortable, when I’m scared that I might not be able to do it,” says McKoy. “If I’m comfortable, I can do it, but those people don't get their money’s worth. It’s not that I want to fail, but if you can keep your gift right on that edge of adventure, that’s where all the excitement is. It’s on that front line. It’s not in that comfort zone, that you can go to your file drawer, and pull out something you've kind of done before.”

On embracing your vulnerabilities

McKoy's latest work, Recovery Stroke, an eight-foot-high sculpture of a single pintail duck wing commissioned as an inspirational piece for the Medical University of South Carolina’s Hollings Cancer Center, holds a special significance for him. “With the power stroke and the recovery stroke, the whole idea is that it's the weakest wing position a bird can be in,” he explains. “It’s not one you would choose to be in. Yet to me, it has a grace that [the power stroke] doesn't have.

“It’s not in our strength that He is seen, it’s in our weaknesses that He is seen, but yet, we never want to show our weak side,” he continues. “When somebody goes to reveal something about themselves, there’s something attractive to that, in that weakness. Therefore this whole thing with recovery — and all of us are in recovery somewhere, in relationships, physical, all of us — we’re all in that, we don’t like to admit it, but somewhere in our lives, we’re all in recovery.”

On staying true to your own strengths

While in college, McKoy studied architecture for two years before changing his major to zoology, after working for an architect one summer and realizing his talents weren't a fit for the profession. “I loved the school of architecture, but then I worked for an architect and I saw the practice of architecture and it's just not something that I really wanted to do,” he says. “It’s just that business, the hustle. It burst my bubble and I wasn't attracted to that element of architecture. It's just not what my gifts were.”

On embracing struggles and challenges

“You can get a walnut tree that grows on the southern side of a mountain, by a stream and it'll grow big and it’ll look so nice,” says McKoy, a longtime hunter. “But you get a walnut tree that grows on the north side, and it’s raggedy and in poor soil, when you cut into it, that’s the one you want to make gunstock out of. Because its grain has struggled, and there's a certain beauty in that struggle.

“There's something to struggling,” McKoy says. “You see a butterfly trying to struggle out of a cocoon, if you go and snip it, and try to help it get out of the cocoon, you will deform that. Because its strength, its muscle — all that is part of the process of strengthening, forming those muscles and wings for it to fly. If you help it out, it will cripple it.”

— Terrell

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