Interview with SAIC alumnus Jeff Greene

January 23rd, 2009
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It’s easier to teach business to an artist than art to a businessman

In New York I had the opportunity to sit down with Jeff Greene (’76), founder and president of EverGreene Architectural Arts, and I learned how he used his education at SAIC as a steppingstone to building a world-renown restoration company. His company is known for using innovative technologies and interdisciplinary approaches to successfully meet challenges that once seemed impossible, as well as for constructing stunning original murals, mosaics, and sculptures.  He and his team of approximately 200 restoration technicians, conservations, and decorative painters have done astonishing work on the Library of Congress, the Hayden Planetarium, the American Museum of Natural History, Radio City Music Hall, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the Mirage Hotel in Dubai, just to name a handful of their award-winning projects from the last three decades.

Morgan Gliedman: Do you think art school is useful?
Jeff Greene: Absolutely, not only to produce artists and technicians, but also to help a certain segment of the population to think and act creatively. The health of a society can be measured by its creative culture.

MG: When did you enroll at SAIC, and why?
JG: I enrolled in the fall of 1972 right out of high school—actually, I was expelled about two weeks before graduation for celebrating prematurely, but since I was a good student and the faculty liked me they agreed to give me my diploma if I went straight to college. Strange how fate works.

MG: What were your favorite and least favorite aspects of the school?
JG: Coming from a progressive, experimental high school in Vermont where we set our own curriculum, went to school year-round, used 1/4 of the year for work-study, and where I had my own painting studio, the lack of academic challenge at SAIC was a little disappointing. Of course, my ego was out of control, and I thought I knew everything, which didn’t help. At the time, SAIC didn’t have academics other than Art History classes (which were great), so I had to take all my academics at Northwestern’s medical school campus. I almost became a medical illustrator.

My SAIC studio was in a building on Wabash, not in the school, which was housed in the basement of the museum. Walking through the museum galleries, spending hours at the Ryerson Architectural Library, and studying the museum’s print collection were probably some of my best uses of the school’s resources. I learned the details of every one of those paintings by heart. The urban environment was great and there was a buzz of creative energy in the air that was infectious, especially with the graduate students. I also liked that I could use all of the school’s facilities, like the printmaking studios, recording studio, Moog synthesizer, film and video equipment, sculpture department, etc. I don’t know what it is like today, but it was pretty unstructured back then and a kid with a little self-direction and moxy could certainly get far in those freewheeling days.

MG: How did you support yourself when you were a student?
JG: I drew many portraits both in Old Town and on the street, including one of a gang member who had been killed; I designed a prototype for a McDonald’s game board; I did nude modeling for art classes at other schools; and I would regularly get art jobs from the school placement office, one of which led me to win a mural competition. Mostly I was just poor. But I cannot remember a time when I was more alive, engaged, happy, and creative.

MG: What makes Chicago a unique place for an aspiring artist?

JG: Chicago is a lot more laid back [than New York] and has all these wonderful ethnic neighborhoods, so I think it is slightly easier to negotiate your way in Chicago. There was not the same vibrant art scene that was in New York, but there was a very well established Chicago School, kind of an idiosyncratic alternative to NYC. Unfortunately, as a realist painter in the ‘70s, I was a fish out of water, and when I graduated from college was told specifically not to apply to grad school at the Art Institute.

MG: When did you have the idea for EverGreene?
JG: I was exposed to the community mural movement in Chicago, and that is where I was introduced to the idea of public art–not specifically at the school as much as in the air of the city at large. When I moved to NYC I got a job painting the billboards in Times Square, which was my real apprenticeship for mural painting. There was a union strike and rather than walk a picket line I decided that I could work for my self, hence EverGreene. I was incredibly naïve!

MG: How did you start your business, and do you think your SAIC education helped?
JG: I started EverGreene by doing whatever kind of work I could get while trying to promote the idea of mural painting. I put flyers under doors and literally knocked on doors offering to paint a fancy sign or mural. I have to explain that my education was not really at SAIC as much as facilitated by SAIC. I stayed in Chicago through my first year then used the then-new work-study programs to transfer credits back through various other schools and to embark on self-initiated study abroad, so that at the end of the four years I could return to SAIC with all of my academic credits and enough studio hours to graduate with my BFA.

It went something like this: my first year I lived in Chicago on the Near Northside in an illegal loft on State and Chestnut; I spent the summer in Colorado working construction, had a second job as a sous-chef, and painted all the time; then a stint in Western Massachusetts as a drop-in student at Bard College’s Simon’s Rock painting program while I worked at a lithographer’s and did silk-screening, among other odd jobs; then two semesters painting and doing some film work at the Nova Scotia College of Art.

Then I took a six-month trip through Mexico and Central America learning Spanish, doing architectural drawings for some French scientists from the Sorbonne, and botanical illustrations and ethnological studies at the Museo Na Bolom in the Chiapas Highlands. I landed on my first real business venture when my father lent me $500 to bring Indian clothing and artifacts back from Guatemala, which I sold on the streets of Chicago, and then I went back to Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia to do more botanical illustrations and earn more work-study credits in anthropology, ethnomusicology, and language. This was followed by a stint in New York, just painting sixteen hours a day and attending SVA, the National Academy, and the Art Students League, while I drew portraits on Sixth Avenue in the Village to help pay the rent. Then I went back to Chicago and collected my BFA.

All in all, I feel like I got a better education by learning how to manipulate the education system while also learning how to get over on the street and in the real world. Granted, I did not find these opportunities through the front door but rather the back, but they taught me how to negotiate and support myself, and all of these experiences added to my confidence that I could get on in the world and succeed in doing what I wanted and enjoyed. I would say that the specific skill being promoted in art school is how to think creatively and how to problem-solve “out of the box”—the emphasis was always on originality. The only downside, from my perspective, is that most folks aren’t provided the basic tools or fundamental principals with which to apply this creative thinking.

MG: How did you pick up the business side of things?
JG: I think I learned some aspects of how to be a good, fair businessman from watching my father conduct his business. He had a massive sense of integrity. The hard knocks of business, how to screw and cheat people, I learned from the Jewish merchants on the Lower East Side and from the New York real estate sharks I did business with early on. I essentially learned what to watch out for and how not to be taken advantage of, and that it wasn’t necessary to compromise quality or what you believe in just to get over in the business world. Learning how to keep my books in order, pay taxes, and build financing was really on the job training and there is still more to learn there.

MG: What advice do you have for current students on how to capitalize on their talents?

JG: Don’t have an inflated ego; mostly the young think they already know everything, but know what you don’t know and set about learning it. Work hard, and use your time in school to learn the fundamentals that you can use as a foundation to build your ideas on. Personal expression is overrated. One’s own voice or vision comes from experience and it can’t be artificially manufactured. Gain experience by living and experiencing life fully and intensely, and then you will have something to say with your art.

There will always be a need and a place for people to think creatively. People who can see the world in a new or unique way will always attract the majority of the rest of the world who wants to follow, and that different way of looking at things is needed now more than ever.

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