Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello. I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine. Today, I have with me Joyce Grasso who is joining me from her home in Connecticut. Nice to see you today. 

 

Joyce Grasso:

Wonderful to see you. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I'm enjoying all the lovely pieces that you have behind you with all the shades of blue. And I have a nice piece behind me with all its shades of blue. Is blue a color that you enjoy? 

 

Joyce Grasso:

I think it's my favorite color. I'm still exploring the many variations of blue. I didn't realize there were so many.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

That's a really good point. What is the type of blue that is most recently of interest to you? 

 

Joyce Grasso:

I think the deep, rich blues.  A couple of years ago, we were in Sicily and I saw the Ionian sea. That blue is very similar to the blue of Maine. It’s a cold, deep blue, which is very rich and dark. So I've gone from very light blues all the way down to dark. And I think that I'm coming out of that now and going back to a lighter blue. I think what I see behind you is “Out of the Fog,” which is very ethereal and very soft. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. It's a lovely piece. And, and you're right. There is a softness to it and it is much lighter than the blue in the pieces that you have behind you right now. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

So depending on my mood and depending on the season, I think it, it's not a, I'm not aware that I'm doing it, but it's just, I follow whatever zone I'm in and it just takes me there. But afterwards, I see that I've been affected by the light, the winter, very white light or in the summertime the late days and the long sunsets and then I exaggerate them. So that's the difference, but I don't really know that I'm doing it. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Yes, that makes sense. So the piece that's behind me, what would you, what season comes to mind when you're looking at this piece, 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

What season? Well, I would say it could be a number of things, but we travel to the south of France and the light it's bright out until about 10 o'clock at night. And you get that very hazy light. And it's very similar to the very early morning light of Maine when the sun is just coming up and you get that glistening feeling. So it's more about the feeling of my art, rather than the reality of it. You get a sense of the light and place, and depending on where you've grown up or traveled, then you amass a memory. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Yes, I can. I can hear what you're saying. And I'm thinking about the travels that I've done to various places, and you're right. There is something about the way that the light shifts that changes the colors and changes the palette of the landscape or the seascape or the plants. So it does make a difference. 

 

Joyce Grasso:

And in Maine, that can happen moment to moment.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

That is very true. Earlier this week, we had quite a bit of fog and as the day started out, it was kind of dark. It seemed like it might get overcast and just stay that way all day. But as the fog burned off, then all of a sudden it was very bright and the sun was sparkling on the water. So I think that the sometimes it can be a little deceptive in Maine .

 

Joyce Grasso:

That's right. And then the thunderstorm rolled in later. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Exactly. Then those are very ominous clouds that can be very intimidating, actually, especially if you're gonna be starting to drive down the highway, going home from work, which I think one of the days, this week happened to me. So yes. Joyce you grew up in Portland, correct?

 

Joyce Grasso: 

Yes, I did. I grew up right up the street from the Boulevard on Back Bay. So again, I saw the water every day, the tide coming in and going out very different from the ocean.  We were always at Old Orchard Beach or Cape Elizabeth and the terrain is so different in each space. And again, the light is affected by that. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Yes, that's true. And your parents owned, I believe it was Kay Brook Shoe Store in the middle of Portland for many, many years. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

Yes. For 53 years, it was right across the street from the Longfellow home. He had a small shoe store there and retired in the, I guess it was the late seventies. I'm forgetting exactly when it was, it all runs together, but he had a big sale in a big snowstorm and we drove up to help him sell out all his shoes and then they were all gone. And in the middle of the storm my father said, should I order some more? And we're like, no, that's it, 53 years is enough. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

So Purchase was around during that time frame as well. Not too far away, I believe. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

Yes. It was a very vibrant downtown at the time. It was before Purchase, isn't that what became the art school?

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Exactly. Yes. It's, it's interesting because many times people think of Portland as this, this kind of hip and new foodie scene and, you know, this kind of the working waterfront and we've got all these wonderful things happening, but it, it actually used to be kind of grittier. I remember when I was growing up people, my parents, would not let me go down to the Old Port because that was a little bit of a challenging space back in the day. Congress street had some issues for a time. So it's not always been the city that we know it to be now. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

No, it was very different. I had friends who worked in fish factories in the Old Port and it was very gritty. It was a very different place. My mother used to take me to the butcher, which was on Middle Street, across the street from the gallery. And it was cobblestone then.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

My grandfather graduated from high school, actually many decades before you graduated from high school. And I was surprised to know that he had lived in Portland for as long as he did. There were always enclaves of people, Irish, Italian, all kinds of different people from different places that used to exist in Portland.

 

Joyce Grasso: 

My grandfather was born in Portland in 1988, up on Munjoy Hill, which is very unusual. Well, then they moved back to Boston and eventually he had, my grandfather had a shoe store as well in Worcester, Massachusetts. So it was very different back then. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And if I'm not mistaken back a few years, that was where people who had Italian backgrounds lived was up on Munjoy Hill. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

Well, yes. And well, I guess that was an area or in the late 1800s, there was a synagogue up there as well. And there's a Jewish historical museum on the edge of Munjoy Hill. And I think it's on Congress Street as well. That was, I think one of the original synagogues, don't quote me on that, but yes, there were many different enclaves at that time. Yes. No restaurants in the same way there are today. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

No, no restaurants. Well, except maybe there were smaller ones. We just not the ones that we think of today, correct?

 

Joyce Grasso: 

Yes,

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

And, and I know exactly where the synagogue is because I believe it's actually located where Lavinsky used to be, which is near, where I've trained as a family medicine resident. So you and I have these kinds of parallel and intersecting experiences of Portland over the decades. It feels like between us and our families. 

 

Joyce Grasso:

Yes. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

So how did you come to live in Connecticut? 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

I went to school in Connecticut and eventually I applied for art teacher jobs all the way from Cape Elizabeth all the way down to Stanford, Connecticut. And the only two jobs that came through one came through at Cape Elizabeth and the other one at the time, because there weren't a lot of art teachers back then, came through in Stanford and the one in Stanford paid $3,000 more. And so that's how I ended up at Stanford. I took the higher paying job. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

And you were a teacher for many years? 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

Yes. 35 plus years. And I taught in an art magnet school with a lot of scenery and it was quite an experience, very different from a regular school because the kids had the opportunity to choose whatever art they wanted. Whether they wanted to take art, music, dance , problem solving or critical thinking skills. And they rotated through every six weeks. So we had the opportunity to do a lot of shows and scenery which is very unusual for elementary school. So that was very exciting. And eventually I pulled myself away from that so that I could pursue some other things, but I was very fortunate that I started teaching when I was 21 years old, way back then you could get an undergraduate degree in art education. And then I had a master's in reading and then a sixth year in correlating art with children's literature which has influenced my art quite a bit. All of those children's books and the kids of course. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Tell me about that. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

Well, the kids were amazing and since it was an art magnet school and children chose to come to the art room they were there because they wanted to be there and it was a very exciting place to be. And I learned so much from the kids. I learned about color, light, spontaneity and their joy of learning. So I've taken that with me, I think in my artwork, especially since my work is a bit imaginary, it's a compilation of my photography and my art and my art background with the students and my education was with Joseph Albers and hard edge. And so this kind of an imaginary whimsical quality to my work, I think 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

I can see some of the whimsical elements in this piece that is also behind me, which we will show to those who are watching on video. And some of the work that you did during COVID actually took a slightly different turn. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

Yes, I had these sketches in my head and I think that I was collecting them in my head over time since we were alone, it was just my husband, John and I. And we spent a lot of time on the deck and in the house. And I think I was collecting vessels and then thinking in my head about food and wine and, and we couldn't have our children here, our family here. And we're used to having very big holidays and eating all day long and a lot of festivities on every holiday and our opportunity was gone. So this collection in my head of vessels and wine and food and flowers and fruit and then just one day I went to do a landscape and then I just said, I'm gonna do a still life. And it just all poured out of me all at once. And then one led to another one and another one. And I think I'm influenced by Matisse and Picasso and a bit of a hard edge on those and the whimsy of the kids from my students. And I think it's come together pretty well because they make me feel like we have company.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, this piece that is in the studio with me today is just, is, is a lovely little piece. And it does feels very social and homey and it does kind of make you feel like you're sitting in a sunlight kitchen with your best friend in a cup of tea, just enjoying the ambience. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

That's exactly what I was conveying and feeling that I missed. And I was thinking about that I would like to be surrounded by paintings in my kitchen, in my dining room that are fun to help us through this time. And even when you do have company to have that a part of us. I think there's a thread with my other work, because that has the same feeling. I think of optimism and hope and the future being brighter. I sounds like a cliche, but I really feel that my art helps me through these these times. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

I would agree with that. And also, I think what people may not know about you is that you're making a very conscious decision to have this sense of hope, not only about COVID, but also about your own life and your own health. You've had some significant health challenges over the years 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

I have, and I've overcome them. I have had an autoimmune disease since I was 34 years old and nobody knew but my husband and kids and it was 20, at least 25 years of dealing with it until one day, it became life threatening and I had to do something about it and that was that I had to have it removed. And the reason I'm sharing this is I feel like I'm educating others to understand that not everybody has all their parts and is dealing with other health issues. The majority of us, I would say have something and I was fortunate enough to have an organ that could be replaced. It's a daily, I wouldn't say it's a struggle. It's not a struggle, but it takes a lot of planning throughout the day. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

And I am not a planner. I'm more spontaneous. So I think that the most difficult part is that my mornings are difficult and I have to plan my days. So I feel very fortunate that it could be taken care of. So again, that comes out in my art and when I'm doing my art, I'm in a zone and I don't think about anything else. I forgot to eat lunch. I'm sure a lot of creative people are the same way. And I get in a zone. And I have an idea of what I'm going to do because I am also a photographer and take a lot of pictures and I have patterns of the waves and pictures of vessels or whatever I'm working on. And the painting takes over and it takes me on a journey. 

 

And until I get to the end, I never know where it's going to take me. And I think authors are the same way when they're writing a book or a story that the characters take over. It's the same thing. And I'm not thinking about anything else, but I am in another place. And I'm very relaxed. During the beginning of COVID, I was paralyzed. I couldn't do anything. And then I said, I'm gonna start to paint. And sure enough, that was the answer it took right over. And I painted in the house with my husband. He was a school principal, John in the back room and he was on zoom and I was a couple of feet away in this little 10 by 10 foot space, and I was painting and he was being a principal. So that was actually quite an experience. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Yeah, I hadn't actually thought about the fact that, I mean, I know the teachers had to make pretty dramatic changes with actual classroom work, but I would assume that people who were doing administrative work and leadership work in the schools had their own very different set of challenges. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

Oh yes. He would have six or seven or eight zoom meetings with each grade level. So I would have to be very quiet. But sometimes he'd say put that painting over there so that some of the teachers can see the painting, put the easel over there. So just for a little levity we would do that sometimes, but it worked out very well. It was a bit tight and I was kind of limited. I didn't do anything any larger than 36 by 48 in that space. Eventually I got back to my studio, but there's now a brewery downstairs. So it's a bit noisy. And that's why we're not there today. Sometimes I work at this, in this little space. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

So it sounds like you've gone from one extreme to the other.

 

Joyce Grasso: 

Right. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Now you have all kinds of social going on right near your studio. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

Yes, exactly. Those people are very anxious to get out. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, I think that makes a lot of sense. I mean, I think we are all very, even those of us who are introverts, and I've often mentioned that I am one, I think it's still important to have the human connection. And I do know that that's one of the things that had happened during COVID is that inability to be connected to other people and that has impacted many people and still continues to impact people. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

I agree. It's very different. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

I wanna go back to something that you said that I also find very relatable and that is that we don't always know what other people are dealing with. And in particular, we don't always know who's walking around, perhaps without a body part, which, you know, in, in my case, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I decided to take out the natural breasts and replace them with falsies. Let's just call them. And I don't think most people know that unless they know my backstory. I don't have to plan things to the same extent that you do, but it just strikes me that there are probably more of us wandering around who have had to make accommodations based on things that have happened to us in our lives than maybe other people realize.

 

Joyce Grasso: 

I think that we need to share that a bit more because I think it educates others. And the reason being is that maybe we would be kinder to one another when we are in the supermarket, for example, and somebody turns around and says, you know, why aren't you hurrying up? Or somebody says something rude anywhere today. Everybody's dealing with something. And, and I think that it would cause us to be more educated and kinder to others. And that's why I don't, it's not a part of, I don't let it rule me, but I don't hide it because of that. I feel that we need to tell people something about ourselves, so that there's a connection to one another. Like, it's a connection I didn't know about you and that you may not go around speaking about it, but it gives me a part of who you are. It's just a small piece. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Yes. I think that's very true. And, and I do think that you're right, that even when people have say an autoimmune disease, I mean, that's kind of an invisible thing to the rest of us, but for you, it was very present and it was very, probably at times quite difficult to deal with. So it's interesting that it was just you and your husband, you knew about it, other people didn't, but you dealt with it on a very regular basis. 

 

Joyce Grasso:

I don't know how I, when I look back at it, I don't know how I taught every day with it. But I think again, we all deal with something. I don't think anybody's life is perfect and we all deal with it in different ways. And my way was my art. And I understand you are a runner and that's your way of getting peace and calm. So I'm hoping that we all have that ability to do that and let it out somehow. And lately I've been meditating. I've been using this program Headspace. And I just saw a podcast about the guy who started it. He was a monk and he left and he started this Headspace and I just couldn't get over where he came from. And I do love that app and try to use it every day. And I don't even need him anymore, but I like his voice. So we try to do that every day as well. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. I also like his voice. He has a lovely calming British accent, and I think it makes it kind of almost something that you look forward to. 

 

Joyce Grasso:

Yes. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

How did you get into meditation? What was it that prompted you to take that practice into your life? 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

Well, again, like you said, we've had some challenges and we're dealing with another challenge right now. And I needed some more tools. I didn't have enough tools and it was wintertime and it just wasn't enough. I like to walk by the water and you can't do that as much in the winter. And so I said, what else can I do? And I'd heard about Headspace and I was hooked the minute we tried it. So we don't miss a day. So that's been terrific. Now I have a few other tools along with reading, walking and painting. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Tell me what you like to read. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

Well, right now I'm into Daniel Silva. It's his murder mysteries. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Yes. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

Because they have an art background and he was an art in the story. He's an art restorer. So I enjoy him and, and the bit of truth in his stories as well.  Sometimes I think they're more fact than fiction, but hopefully not. So yeah, I do enjoy them and it's a great escape. So that's what I've been reading right now, but I found a lot of books about these art nonfiction books right now as well. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, I also like you, I enjoy reading and I also enjoy the kind of escape books because I keep a variety of books on my nightstand and also in my office and also in my meditation space. And it's always nice to think, oh, well, I'm in this kind of a mood today, so I'm gonna reach for this book, but today I just want an escape piece. I'm gonna listen to this book. And I think that actually goes along with what you were describing, that, you know, you go into the book as if you are going on a journey and sometimes when you can't go on a physical journey, the ability to go on that emotional intellectual journey by reading can be very nourishing. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

I agree. I find that all of the things that these extra activities are all positive, upbeat, and very nurturing. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It's also important. One of the things that you mentioned is this idea of having tools. And I know that one of the things, when I talk to patients, I talk about just even relaxation breathing, you know, if meditation seems like it's a little bit out of their comfort, we do some relaxation breathing and I kind of approach it the same way as I would saying, you know, go out for a walk every day, because I think if you have these tools and you engage in something like meditation, relaxation, breathing on a regular basis, then your body's already used to doing that. So when you feel stressed, it's just like picking the book up off the shelf, you pick the tool up and your body already knows how to do it. And it just gives you the chance to just kind of sink into something. And then depending upon the situation you're in, you just, you choose the tool that you need. So I think what you're describing is very wise. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

I like taking an active role in my way of well-being. That makes me feel like I'm participating and not letting any negativity take over.

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

And that, I think, is important. It's, I mean, this idea of self authorship and I mean, all of us have challenges that exist in our lives, but it's how you approach the challenges, how you frame them, how you work with them. And it sounds like when, if somebody has a piece by Joyce Grasso, maybe they have a piece of how you have worked through some of your challenges. Perhaps. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

I just want them to look at the piece on the wall and have it make them feel good if they can't get down to look at the view of the horizon, they're just gonna look up and see this piece of artwork that has that light and positivity, and maybe an imaginary, bold color or light to take you on this journey. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

That's wonderful. I guess Joyce Grasso's mission is to provide people with things that will kind of inspire them to feel more well in their current lives. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

Well, I think that's the thread of people, and the thread of the abstract people don't think they're similar, but they really are. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

So how is it that you have managed to keep the frame around your life that is positive and that is affirming, and that is more of a self authorship approach, despite all the things that you have dealt with? Is this something that when you were growing up, this is the approach that your parents took? Is it something that you've learned over time? How is it that you've incorporated this into your life? 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

Well, I think as a female I've been determined to stand up on my own two feet. And as I've gone through all of these challenges through life, I had a sibling six years older. So I was kind of like an only child. And at the time we didn't have any family in Maine. They were in Massachusetts. So I think I was determined to not let anybody get me down. I was determined that no matter what came my way, I was gonna plow through it, get through it and see the positivity of it. And I think maybe you can see that right now, the determination as women that we were on our own, especially back then, you were supposed to be a teacher. I did have an interest in medicine actually but I was told I could be a teacher or a secretary or a nurse. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

And so I chose a teacher because that's what my father said. He wasn't gonna put me through a school unless I became an art teacher. If I wanted to be an artist, forget it. And he was actually right because I started when I was 21 and I got to retire at 54 and start another career. Back then, women weren't given the opportunities. And so I felt that I'm gonna do it no matter what nobody's gonna get me down. So I think that's my it's, it's more of a determination. And the way that I got there was through these paintings and optimism that everything was gonna be okay. Even if it was just this, a silver lining, a small light. So I think that's the female aspect of it. And I won't go into how women were treated as teachers back then. It was very different, a history until Anita Hill came along and put it into the light of everybody being aware of how women were, were treated just with remarks that were made to women. I won't go on and on about that, but I think you get what I'm trying to say about standing on your own two feet. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Yes. I think that what you're describing is something that is not actually that far in the past, that I've like you, I have experienced personally. And I think I had the benefit in my family of, I was just the next generation in, from my mother. Also, she thought about going into medicine and decided that when my father was going to be a doctor, that she would do what most women were doing, which was become a teacher and her mother was a nurse. And even doing those things was actually, you know, working outside the home, even at that point, working outside the home was considered somewhat unusual if you were a female. So it's very interesting to talk to young women now, including my daughters and the perspective that they have is just very different than those of us who  have walked the earth a few more years, let's just say.

 

Joyce Grasso: 

Right, exactly. I actually had to fight for becoming a teacher even because my mother was of Ukrainian Russian descent, and they escaped from Russia. Although on my father's side, they were already here, like I said, with my grandfather being born in Portland, but my mother escaped with her family and it took them five years in Europe to get into the United States. So I'm the first generation on my mother's side. So I was treated again, as a female, I wasn't treated that you go out into the world and work. So again, I've fought for myself, 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

And this is another great example of something that we don't always know about people, you know, there's the health issues that we may not know about people, but then there's also the background. You know, everybody has their own story, perhaps I assume of some sort of being treated as not enough for whatever reason, whether it's related to where your family came from or the gender that you have been assigned at birth. So it's, it's interesting to kind of just take that into consideration as well. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

I think that that's what I like about the richness of this country is that there's so many different cultures. And again, it goes back to the food. So many different kinds of food to eat. And I think that's one of the connections that connects us with people, with people that aren't like us, is that we like certain kinds of food that we're exposed to. And, and that's another thread that brings us together. Even what you had said about Kevin when we spoke yesterday, where he comes from in Northern Maine is culturally very different from me coming from Portland, which is a much larger city, but we did find something in common. And I learned a lot about you today. So I think that you're right.  If we stop and learn something about people, then it will be, like I said, a kinder place because we know that we all have something in common. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

That's very well said, Joyce, I appreciate the sentiment that you're sharing. And I absolutely agree. Well, Joyce, I also very much appreciate your moving out of what you've described as your comfort zone to be willing to have this conversation with me today.  It's been quite wonderful to get to know you better, and I hope that others will take the time to go to the Portland Art Gallery website to see your work there, or even better see it in person. And maybe when you're back up in Maine, again, we'll get a chance to connect. 

 

Joyce Grasso: 

I'd like that very much. Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure. 

 

Dr. Lisa Belisle: 

Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure for me as well. I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you have been listening to, or watching Radio Maine and my conversation with artists Joyce Grasso. Thank you, Joyce.