Blog · Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better: the power of arts in education, episode 13

Photo credit: Benjamin Hoste

Graig Kreindler

Graig Kriendler is all about nostalgia. It seems to be the driving force behind his life’s work, which is why this interview feels so special. For a guy who has been interviewed for tons of articles and podcasts about his professional achievements, this discussion was particularly meaningful for both of us.

A Google search of his name will come up with the title of “American painter.” He even has his own Wikipedia page. But I’m happy to say I knew him when…

In this episode, we travel back in time to the 20th century, specifically 1996 through 1998. Graig Kreindler was there during my first few years of teaching at Spring Valley and fortunately, our future paths continued to cross long past graduation.

When he was in high school, I may have had a notion that he could draw or paint, but that’s not how I got to know him. Back then, he was my go-to “tech lord,” before digital light boards were a thing, when the controls were a massive, noisy behemoth of squeaky levers that filled an entire wall. When I needed a light on the stage, he made it happen. I’d have to scream his name across the entire auditorium, which probably scared the bejesus out of him, because I can be really loud. But he was always so good-natured and seemed to really love the job, boisterous director and all. 

After high school, I didn’t hear much from him until sometime after he graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. As his career advanced, his inordinate talent became evident to the world, and his niche of art started to get a lot of attention. He was featured all over big-time media outlets: The New York Times, YES network, The Wall Street Journal, The Sporting News and MANY more. His website features headline after headline that highlights not only his talent, but also how his love of the game of baseball fuels his career.

I don’t remember exactly at what point we reconnected, but there were periodic dinners with a small crew of other 20th century graduates at random restaurants in the area while he was still living locally.  Eventually, he moved to Brooklyn, got married, had two kids, and created an explosive art career. But my love for this guy has never faltered, and in this episode, he graces us with his wisdom, his humor and his kind soul. He is, at least in my eyes, a celebrity, and I am honored and delighted that he sat with me to do this deep dive into his adolescence.

Apparently, it was a nice treat for him, since all of the podcasts he’s done of late talk about his story as an artist who reflects his love of baseball nostalgia in all his work. On this podcast, we got to reminisce about a formative time in his life that he remembers fondly.

Who is Graig Kreindler, American Painter?

Graig is a full-time artist, a painter of historical scenes in baseball history. Certain players, certain moments, ballparks; I focus on every single era there’s been in the history of the sport. He calls himself lucky, having been able to make a career out of his passion for 15 years, but I think his drive, work ethic and dedication to developing his talent is probably more the truth of the matter. Dare I say, there’s something God-given to his ability; he paints with a photo-realism that is not to be believed.

“The Luckiest Man” This is one of my favorites.

The neurotic piece of him is forever waiting for the other shoe to drop: I’m waiting for someone to knock on the door and say ‘It’s time to get a real job. Your time is done‘. Neuroses aside, Graig has a very long list of commissions that will keep him quite busy for a long time. His artwork has been featured in the Norman Rockwell and the Yogi Berra museums. He also has a piece in the collection of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He’s that good.

“Where Fantasy Becomes Reality”

I could go on and on about his craft and dedication to artistry, but that’s not the point of this interview. You can learn more about that at his website.

Time to reflect

Enough about adult painter-man Graig. His work speaks for itself. Let’s get to the good stuff.

Now a 42-year-old who still feels like that 15-year-old teenager, he lives his life as that northeastern, Jewish, neurotic guy. Like most adults, he still feels all of those feelings he had from back in his childhood. Through the rigors of growing up, and having processed all of those feelings through years of therapy, he has gained some considerable perspective. He describes his adolescent self:

I was short and hairy. I was a little weird. I feel like I was a very shy person, but at the same time I was pretty gregarious. I loved being around people and friends. I could be moody at times, brooding, but at the same time really cynical and kind of carefree They’re all kind of these weird dichotomies I feel like I had inside. Very set in my ways; my life was ruled mentally by my obsessions. Whatever was going on mentally, that was going on 100% of the time and churning like a washing machine. It was this obsessive train that I could never really stop.

Welcome to adolescence. Save for the short and hairy descriptors, you could probably apply most of this to 99% of all teenagers today. All of the ways we look back and see the neurotic, anxious conditions of being a teenager are all just the seeds that make us grow into the adults we are now. How we learn to respond to those conditions inform the adult path we will eventually take.

For the most part, Graig had a great childhood. Despite all of those hallmark challenges of adolescence, he enjoyed a close-knit family, friends, and a positive high school experience. Thespians played a huge part in helping him develop into who he was as a person and eventually, as an artist.

It’s virtually impossible for me to separate the experience with Thespians from my adolescent self. My sense of a social life and acceptance, escapism even; it wasn’t something I was interested in for vocational purposes, but working together with you, the actors, the crew, on a common goal producing art that you’re proud of; that was very appealing to me. Without Thespians, I can’t imagine what my life would have been like. My sense of self, confidence, adventure is so intertwined with that experience.

For a newbie, a large part of the “Thespian experience” is about being dragged to a meeting, a crew day, a rehearsal, an audition by someone who has “been there, done that.” That’s precisely how Graig was introduced. His friend Gavin, a senior, told Graig, a sophomore, about this Thespian thing that he did. Graig was hoping to meet some new people through his older friend. At the time, sophomores were the youngest class in the school; there were no freshmen back then.

Check out my interview with Hilary Becker-Jarusinsky, who was in our very first freshman class.

Fun side story: when Graig was a 16-year-old sophomore, I was a 24-year-old aspiring actress who took a gig directing and choreographing a local high school production. Little did I know this would be the start of a life-changing career opportunity. But from my perspective then, I had to figure out how to lead high school kids just six years my junior. I was still pretty green as a director and I had no experience in high school theater, other than when I was in school. Thankfully, the door that opened led to the path that I would ultimately follow for the next 30 years. I’m glad that Graig was there to witness the beginning.

Lessons Learned

Being immersed in the bustle of crew meetings and play rehearsals for months at a time gave him time to test the waters with all sorts of people that he’d otherwise never interact with. Graig was very appreciative of the social connectedness that he experienced during the production periods.

The sense of camaraderie that Thespians provided, the opportunity to meet other people who were different from yourself; it made me feel less alone. You could develop relationships with people that were all kind of “weird” in our own way. I still put great stock in that; I like the fact that we have a very diverse group of friends and always eager to learn more, put[ting] myself in other people’s shoes. It makes me feel less alone, and that helps.

From those early Thespian experiences, Graig learned the importance of having people in his circle of friends who are on the same page as him, with whom he can share common experiences. Today, he has his “non-artist” friends, who he loves dearly, but nothing can replace those people who you can talk shop with.

Talking about the tinting strength of a particular oil color or brand, whatever issues they’re having in the freelance world, and you’re speaking a language to them that your other group doesn’t really understand. Learning that it’s okay that that’s a thing was really important for me and I think Thespians had a lot to do with that.

That’s my mission: turning good kids into better adults by letting them know that who they are is every part as valid as what they can do.

Another thing he recalled back to his experience in high school relates to his attention to detail.

These times that we had together, almost 25 years ago, as vivid as they are, I can remember what people were wearing, what people said, what was going on in their lives, what was going on in my life, what the weather was like – all of these weird, inane details – that’s carried it’s way into the kind of work that I do now. When I paint these historical baseball scenes, it’s very important for me to try and recreate the moments, so I get boggled down in these small details that each individual piece should have.

A great part of his success as an artist relates to how he has developed his sense of historical accuracy when depicting these snapshots of a moment. Those “inane details” are seen through the angle of the sun and how it is reflected through the atmosphere at a specific time of day. He considers how that lighting impacts the shades of color on a uniform. He has to decide who is sitting in the stands and where they would historically have been placed. It’s the minutiae that creates the sense of meaning and nostalgia that are present in every single one of his works.

Thespians taught me the importance of that stuff. I think Thespians just validated (exploited?) his own natural tendencies. It made me realize that that’s how I process my world. Of course, I don’t specifically remember him being obsessively detail-oriented, but when a kid demonstrates a proclivity that is useful for creating a good product, you do your best to encourage it.

Graig young and “old”

I’m still pretty idealistic about things. It doesn’t traverse the fantasy realm so I don’t get caught up in what these things should be. Maybe that makes me more cynical.

Age tends to do that. In high school, kids often have very strong opinions about how the world should operate. While Graig may still feel like that 15-year-old kid inside, many years of experience that weathered him by some of the harsher realities of our world. With that in mind, there are a few messages that the borderline cynic might say to his younger self to ease the way.

  • First, there’s hope, and you will be okay.
  • Second, consider trying medication sooner. I sometimes wonder what my high school life would have been like if I wasn’t constantly living in my obsessions.
  • Third, and this is from a career perspective, try oil painting earlier. If I started earlier I’d probably be a better painter now. I take issue with that notion, because I’m not sure how that is actually possible, but he told me, I’m forever climbing the mountain, knowing that you’re never going to reach the summit, it just gets higher.
  • Fourth, and this was more of a question, would I tell myself to let loose a little bit more? To relinquish a little bit of control and maybe go where your fears are?

What does Graig grapple with now?

Graig, like many of us, has generalized thoughts about the world at large with all of the social and political unrest; it concerns me and affects me more in a way that it never did.

He does have more specific, more pointed grown-up struggles.

Being an artist is hard. As you grow up and mature and continue being an artist/creative of some kind, the definition of that changes. From a job standpoint, I’m super lucky that I’m doing something that I love – I know that’s really rare. I’m able to support my family and that’s great. But there’s a lot of pressure that comes with that; pressure that I put on myself to be a better artist. If I go to museums and looking at the work, I aspire to be where they are, to be at that level – they’re at the summit and I’m at base camp. The pressure that I put on myself to try to always improve with each thing that I create – I grapple with that.

Can you imagine, as a neurotic, young creative, making the life decision to put all of your eggs in the artist’s basket? Seems that’s like signing up for a lifetime of angst. But, somewhere along the line, when your talents and passions actually align in the universe, it’s not as difficult to take that leap. Adequately managing the stress and the emotional fallout becomes a very important requirement; therapy was a most useful management tool in his toolkit, especially once he started making major life decisions, like expanding his family.

Being a parent is hard. Having kids was something that completely changed my life in so many ways.

As any working, career-oriented parent knows, there are so many things that are vying for our attention, energy and personal resources. We do what we can, one day at a time, bringing the best of ourselves on any given day.

That’s hard for someone like me because I’m this perfectionist and if something is not perfect then it’s just not right. Seeing that in my children, how they look at things that way, I’m like ‘Holy crap, what have I done to them?’

He then acknowledged that you have to allow for some grace – there’s really no room for perfectionism when you are a parent. It just doesn’t exist.

The neurotic part of Graig is also grappling with the idea of mortality. Not just of his own, but of his parents and loved ones. Remember, he is now in his 40s; he’s not that 20-something kid who is managing the early stages of his new-found adulthood. Having joined the ranks of middle-agedness, he is acutely aware of the passage of time and everything that goes with it: I miss feeling like I have my whole life ahead of me.

Not everything about adulting is steeped in neurotic dourness: I kind of like the fact that I have more important responsibilities. When he makes those mental lists of things that need to get done and something gets checked off, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. Something about that does feel good. I have a theory about that. Perhaps, because adolescents are just starting to learn about the autonomy that adults possess in order to get life done; our inner teenager is impressed by our adult selves for being able to follow through. That latent, anxiety-riddled narcissist is actually proud of its grownup self for learning how to “adult.” It’s like a high-five to the heart.

Sage advice

For Graig, it boiled down to this:

Don’t take everything so seriously and try lots of different things. Discover yourself. Realize that you should work hard and focus, but it’s okay to try new things, to fail, to flounder; it’s all a part of the growing process.

Self-care

Knowing how much he has on his plate, I almost laughed when I asked him the self-care question. While I expected him to scoff at the concept of self-care, I was pleasantly surprised that he had a few things to contribute.

Going to the gym helps. Being active, feeling like you’ve done something good for your body. I think therapy is great. Being able to talk to somebody who will listen, is completely objective and non-judgmental is worth its weight in gold. Breathing. Going outside and putting your phone down is great.

Those things are useful for taking a little break from the routines of parenting and the grind of adulting in general, but there’s only one thing that is truly transcendental for Graig:

Painting cures all; it provides me with something I can get lost in. Time and space kind of stop and you’re just somewhere else and there’s something else going on that you’ve tapped into. That’s a meditative state that is bliss. I can escape in the work. Doing the baseball stuff for me is so important; tapping into the past, into nostalgia, is what makes me happy.

I can completely relate. When your life’s work is steeped in your passions, going to work becomes so much more than “doing a job.” Sure, there are the stresses of minutiae, deadlines to meet and bills to pay, but when you are working as a creator, there is nothing like becoming so immersed in what you are doing that everything else melts away. There’s no problem you can’t solve, because the solutions emanate from the core of your being. The possibilities are limitless.

If prolific artistry is a state of bliss, then Graig is the ultimate guru.

Follow Graig:
Twitter @GraigKreindler
IG @graigkreindler
Website graigkreindler.com

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