Once a side project, John Grieco's art now gets to shine
If there’s one thing to be said about John Grieco, it’s that he doesn’t slow down.
Grieco is one of Rochester’s best-known metalworkers, but he’s also a fireman operating out of the city’s South Avenue station. He works continuously at his craft, splitting his time between his workshop and the fire station. Now, as he approaches retirement from the department, Grieco has time to reflect on what he calls the twilight of his career.
“I don’t believe in slowing down,” he says. “I’m just going to go through this doorway”—to begin a new chapter. “I’m shutting the door, and I got a bigger door I’m going through next,” he adds.
Promoted to lieutenant three years ago, he has found parallels to leading his team back at his studio on Railroad Street, saying that the two careers go “hand in glove.”
“Yeah, I almost pinch myself. I figure, they’re paying me to learn,” he says, noting his responsibility to supervise people at the fire station before doing it at the studio.
Grieco began learning his trade through woodworking, something he started as a hobby. He would typically use “dimensional lumber” for his projects, referring to wood that is cut to specific measurements and is readily available. Working with these accessible materials proved useful for him as a learning tool, allowing him to gradually improve his technique.
“I think of it as any discipline, whether it’s being a writer or a baker, a woodworker or metalworker. If you’re not picking stuff up, time to move on. And the cream rises to the top, too. If you realize it’s not for you, you move on.”
Grieco learned a lot during this phase, such as the difference between wood types and the effects of the material’s age when it came to shaping it into the finished product. But once he discovered metalworking, he found a whole new world to explore. And it all began out of a very specific need.
“We needed a coffee table. And our design sense was a fair amount of junk and antiques. So very eclectic. So to find a coffee table was virtually impossible, as far as what we wanted at that time.” Grieco and his wife purchased several prefabricated tables they thought were “kind of hip,” but none of them fit their particular style. Fortunately, he soon found his solution through a fellow firefighter.
“At that point, I found some old fence and had a fireman weld it up for us. And I found some old granite, and that was the top. And it was just a cool piece. People dug it. So I kept on designing pieces and having him make them. It got to the point where I said, ‘you know what, I want to be more of a part of this process.’” As a result, he enrolled in Edison Technical School, where he took a series of vocational classes to learn the craft. Being known for his ability to work with different types of metal also proved useful from a business perspective. “There are probably more woodworkers around than metalworkers,” he says, “so there’s a little bit more of a niche there.”
For many of Grieco’s works, functionality is key, though that doesn’t mean it needs to be generic. “I don’t think utilitarian and cookie cutter are synonymous at all. Nothing we do is cookie cutter. I mean, we replicate things, but I’m more of a utilitarian human being,” he says. “I would much rather have a decorative table that would serve a function.”
“I like functional art, I guess, is the bottom line.”
As a result of his perspective and openness in using salvaged materials for his works, Grieco has cultivated a diverse clientele. Beginning in local arts festivals in the greater Rochester area, Grieco has managed to expand, allowing him the opportunity to create a variety of works for both private collectors and larger organizations.
One of Grieco’s patrons is Raymond Ruby, chairman of the Ruby-Gordon furniture chain. Ruby’s relationship with the artist began twenty-five years ago, when his daughter purchased tables and cabinets for the store. They’ve been “friends ever since,” according to Ruby. Grieco “saves cast-offs and turns them into beauty,” Ruby says, something he and his wife, Donna, both appreciate and enjoy incorporating into their historic home.
“He doesn’t see it as an old, broken piece,” Donna says, referring to Grieco’s habit of reusing older materials. “He sees a design.”
Grieco himself considers his use of salvaged materials for his own projects to be part of his upbringing, having been the last of eight children.
“I grew up pretty challenged and pretty poor. So certainly out of necessity,” he says, adding, “Social consciousness was very important to my family. And so to try and do your part to preserve where we live is just as important to anything, to me and my family.”
This ethic of making do with older materials carries over into deciding whose projects to take on. Grieco rarely refuses a request.
“There are certain segments of the city that are more or less challenged that we support, and we try to help everybody. No matter what someone wants, when they come here, we don’t turn them down. And that’s one of our mission statements, that we’re here for everybody, because everyone’s been there for us.” Objectmaker.com
Patrick Harney is a freelance reporter who covers the economy, real estate development and local events in Monroe and Ontario Counties. Follow his work on Twitter at: