Bernard Gruenke, a true artist
By Gitte Laasby
Published in Milwaukee Journal Sentinal
Bernard Gruenke, a true artist
By Gitte Laasby of the Journal Sentinel
April 15, 2012
Bernard Gruenke's passion for the arts developed early
and had as many facets as the religious mosaic-like stained-glass works for which he became famous.
Gruenke, a renowned stained-glass artist whose work decorates churches around the country, died March 31. He was 99.
He began his art explorations at the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, spent time at the Corcoran Art School in Washington, D.C., and drew portraits in South Carolina before he sought out Conrad Schmitt's architectural arts studio in New Berlin.
"He had heard of Conrad Schmitt's reputation and wanted to go work there," said his granddaughter, Heidi Gruenke Emery, who now co-owns the studio with her brother, Gunar Gruenke. "He sat on the front stoop and waited for Conrad to come. He said, 'I'd like to work here.' (Schmitt) said, 'Why should I hire you? Come back in six months.' The next day, my grandfather came back: 'I don't care if you pay me or not, I want to work here.' "
So he did.
Gruenke drew inspiration from his strict Christian upbringing and some tough losses in his early life as he worked on stained glass features in impressionistic-style windows.
"He lost a brother at birth and then he lost a sister when she was maybe 25 to (tuberculosis,)" his son, Bernard Gruenke Jr., said Sunday. "Things that tend to send a person in the right direction and make you think of the hereafter."
With inspiration from France, Gruenke in 1949 produced one of the first faceted glass windows in the United States, setting thick slabs of colored glass into an epoxy rather than the traditional lead. He was fond of playing with light and dark and often created deep shadows in his works.
In 1951, the Sheboygan native bought the renowned national art studio in New Berlin. He went on to make murals, stained-glass works and decorative paintings for thousands of churches, synagogues, theaters and public buildings throughout the United States. His works are featured in the Basilica of St. Josaphat in Milwaukee; the seminary at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.; the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians, at Holy Hill in Hubertus; and the Pabst Theater. His work earned him a lifetime achievement award from the Stained Glass Association of America in 1996.
As soon as his son, Gruenke Jr., was old enough, he started accompanying his father as he traveled to jobs around the country.
"I was about 5 years old, and we'd go to New Orleans or any place in Louisiana," Gruenke said. "My job was to keep him awake, that's what my mother said. We were together since then."
Gruenke and his dad drove everywhere together. They took time to hunt and fish in Canada, scuba dive in Wisconsin, and fish in New Orleans. They also took trips into nature, where they painted landscapes in water color.
"He was a great teacher. We went out painting quite often, even when I was quite young. As we got older, we had so much fun together because we'd go and (use) water colors at a farm here or there or a river and stream here in Wisconsin," said Gruenke, who originally intended to study business but developed an interest in working professionally with his father.
"I think he developed it in me. I remember when I was little, I was also with my dad and met a lot of clergy - priests and nuns and rabbis. They just seemed to be always friendly."
At age 14, Gruenke's son officially started working with his dad. For more than 50 years, the two formed a great business partnership. The son did restoration work on statues and interiors, and "Senior" was the creative one who decorated anew.
"Later on, I just realized he was a very, very talented person. If you put a felt pen in his hand, it was like a person with a saber. It was so fast! He'd say, 'Here's what I think this could look like.' In six minutes, the client would say, 'I want that!'" his son said.
"He'd say to me, 'Bernie, what do you think of . . . ? And he'd start drawing. I'd say, 'Why don't you speak?' That's what he did. He would speak with his art, with the sketches."
Gruenkes carry on
Before his death, Gruenke passed his passion on to a third generation.
"I remember going to his house when I was little, I kind of even dreaded it, because he'd make me sit still for portraits," said his granddaughter, Heidi Gruenke Emery. "We're thankful because we were working on his house (Saturday) and we'd find all the grandchildren's portraits."
Gruenke also chaired the Gruenke Foundation for the Arts, which gives tours and lectures to help people understand and appreciate fine art and provides scholarships like the one that allowed himself to go to art school.
"We couldn't go to a restaurant without him drawing on a napkin. He certainly was passionate about his art," Emery said. "He drew funny stuff for the kids. We were just going through his things. He drew pictures of Jesus all the time."
Gruenke was lucid until the end. He played cards every week, and even after retirement came for weekly visits at the studio, which Heidi and Gunar, have owned and operated since 2010. Even into his 80s, Gruenke still would climb the scaffolds in the studio as he trained others.
He continued to make water color paintings and write poetry until his fingers got too stiff in the last weeks of his life, his son said.
"We'll miss him," he said, "but his art and his love of art I think will carry on through the generations."
Other survivors include daughters Anne (Harry) Konczal and Jeanette Janie Gruenke, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Services have been held.
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