James Grigsby, whose elaborate solo performances often achieved an operatic furor, knew how to carve out an impenetrable solitude for himself. Hours before his audience would arrive at the MoMing Dance and Arts Center, once Chicago’s premier performance art venue, he would enter the dark, vaulting theater with his thermos of herbal tea and meditate. Then he would begin a long routine of stretches and vocal exercises–all for pieces that rarely lasted longer than 30 minutes.

One night about two decades ago a fledgling performer named Sharon Evans sneaked in to watch. “Describing his warm-up doesn’t do it justice,” Evans says. “It was the ritualistic quality, the focus and intensity.

Evans, now artistic director of Live Bait Theater, credits Grigsby, who died this spring, with helping turn her into a professional artist. “He understood and respected what he did,” she says. “He was 20 years older than the rest of us. And I thought, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.'”

Grigsby, a self-proclaimed generalist, grew up in Forreston and made his first splash as a baton twirler, winning a scholarship to Western Illinois University to be a drum major. He studied music there and at the Juilliard School, but the conservatory’s exclusive focus on technique left him feeling constrained. He jumped over to the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance for a while before winding up with a master’s in sculpture and design from the Illinois Institute of Technology. In 1977 he helped develop Columbia College’s graduate program in interdisciplinary arts, where he taught for ten years.

His carefully groomed, highly theatrical work was utterly at odds with Chicago’s performance scene in the 1980s, which tended toward the jagged and ragged. While others indulged their every psychological trauma on stage, Grigsby played it cool, a sequined snake oil salesman peddling everything from religious artifacts to marital bliss to lessons in clairvoyance. Decked out in outlandish but impeccably tailored suits and shifting between personae on a dime, he moved catlike about the stage, delivering coiled monologues with a bemused, slightly distracted stare, as though the words were being beamed to him from a faraway galaxy. He was often busy with some absurd task as he spoke: watering a cardboard garden, building an enormous Rube Goldberg machine, operating a mechanical stuffed bird attached to his head.

Like his friend and contemporary Lawrence Steger, he led his audience into a shadowy fun-house world, maintaining a menacing edge beneath his polished veneer. Says Evans, “No matter what he did or said on stage, he was always well mannered, like some really polite serial killer.”

As Grigsby’s performance work blossomed he began to develop an interest in landscape design. He and his life partner, Craig Bergmann, teamed up in 1982 to found Craig Bergmann Landscape Design, and by the mid-1990s he’d stopped performing to devote himself to the business. In March of this year, he underwent surgery to remove a slow-growing brain tumor. Ten days later he was readmitted to the hospital following a seizure, but was discharged again after being taken off blood-thinning medication. On March 19 he died at home when a blood clot in his groin dislodged and traveled to his lung.

When Evans opened Live Bait’s doors in September of 1988, she invited Grigsby to christen the space with a new piece called Terminal Madness. This weekend–when Grigsby would have been celebrating his 62nd birthday–Evans and some of Grigsby’s contemporaries will gather at Live Bait to mourn his death and celebrate his work. Jeff Abell, Carmela Rago, Brigid Murphy, Nick Sistler, Tony Adler, and others will read from his scripts, perform his music, and reminisce about his career. The event will also include a screening of Tom Finerty’s magical 1988 film Trust Me, a 17-minute adaptation of Grigsby’s And the Appurtenances Attached Hereto that captures the artist at his peak.

For all the hubbub at the theater this weekend, Evans will likely be holding on to a bit of Grigsby’s famous solitude for herself. “When I think of James I think of small details,” she says. “A dinner salad with edible flowers. A hand flourish. An exquisite bow tie. When I got married he called me, without prompting, and offered to create a wedding bouquet for the ceremony. I was so touched and proud to have a part of him with me that day.”

The James Grigsby Memorial happens Friday and Saturday, August 23 and 24, at 6:30 PM and Sunday, August 25, at 3 at Live Bait Theater, 3914 N. Clark, part of the theater’s Fillet of Solo Festival. Tickets are $10; a portion of the proceeds will help start an art collection in Grigsby’s name at the Forreston Public Library. Call 773-871-1212 or see the sidebar in Section Two for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Verser Engelhard.