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William Virgil Grotfeldt

Class of 1967

Alumni Wall of Fame Processor:

I am submitting web site links and information, as verification of Mr. William Virgil Grotfeldt's noteworthy artistic accomplishments. The committee could probably secure approval to use any copyrighted material via a request. However, I am submitting Bill, for the wall of fame, as he enriched the lives of everyone he encountered, via his spirit of generosity.

Bill and I became acquainted, because of the standard alphabetical seating arrangement, utilized in our biology class, during the 1965 - 1966 school year. As a result, we shared a couple of comedic moments in class.

In fact, Bill drew a lanky caricature of a basketball player for me, so that I could give it to a fellow student as a gift, from several of his friends.

Bill was born in 1948 and died in 2009, after a courageous 16-year battle with cancer. Bill will be missed and fondly remembered by so very many people, both here and abroad.

Thank you for the opportunity to acknowledge Bill's contributions to the world at large.

Bill's biology class partner

William Virgil Grotfeldt

William Virgil Grotfeldt

Remembering Virgil Grotfeldt
by Meredith "Butch" Jack and Jim Edwards
April 2009
Houston artist Virgil Grotfeldt died on February 23, 2009 after a sixteen-year battle with cancer. He was 60 years old. An exhibition of his last works, Virgil Grotfeldt, 274296, is on view at the Art Museum of South Texas from April 17 - June 21, 2009.

Virgil Grotfeldt, “Man of Mystery” or Good Ol’ Uncle Bill
by Meredith "Butch" Jack
The late Virgil Grotfeldt (a.k.a. Uncle Bill) was a mystery and an open book at the same time. I never saw him gamble, but he always said that if he was going to, he’d bet everything on a single turn of the card. He lived and died that way.

As an artist, he experimented with anything at hand. He did a lot of work in coal dust that his best friend Waldo Bien gave him. During his first bout with cancer, Virgil used the dregs of the medicinal tea that a shaman in Austin gave him; he said that it had iridescence about it as a pigment. He fashioned sculpture from the palm fronds and sticks that fell in his yard after a storm. And, although he complained about how difficult it was to stretch, he would use the finest linen canvas. The image was everything; the material was just stuff. He would only explain his images by saying that he had done too many drugs when he was young and didn’t know what the images were. I always thought of him as a “magic realist”; that somewhere in the cosmos all the forms he saw existed. Maybe he was just an accurate reporter of something that we couldn’t see.

Virgil was extremely supportive of other artists; while he was living in New York he would say that he “had to make it before he could help others to make it”. He never felt he had “made it” in New York, but his dealer would send him bolts of linen canvas to work with and younger artists, with careers that seemed to him far more successful than his, would come to him for advice. He wasn’t a social butterfly, but he made a point of attending openings to support young artists.

At the same time, he was extremely critical of younger artists’ preoccupation with the “market”. He complained constantly that nobody talked about the art, only the business. He was passionately interested in an artist’s intent with their work, but not with whether they could sell it. His son Andy was a case in point; he is an aspiring young artist who is often frustrated with the lack of support for his work. Virgil was supportive of Andy’s efforts, but Virgil questioned him the same as he would have any young artist about what he was trying to do in his work.

And family meant a great deal to Virgil— he was supportive and perhaps even too protective at times. He was proud of his children; he often told me stories about them, how his daughter Jessie had met so many people at a New York party that she introduced him to Frank Stella or that Andy had done a particularly good painting.

Virgil liked knowing things; he read for information from the art magazines or biographies of his favorite artists, but he didn’t read much for pleasure. He read the newspaper every morning and would quote stories from the back pages of the business section as well as the art reviews and front page. At the same time, he was a Luddite who wouldn’t check his emails and had the secretaries at HBU type up his syllabi because he wouldn’t write them on a computer.

Virgil could and would argue anything. He was particularly incensed about farm subsidies; he maintained that the farmers in the area of Illinois that he grew up in only worked a third of the year and then sat at the café and complained about how poor they were before going home in their new pickup trucks. He was equally aggravated that workers in the local tire factories, who made twice his salary, thought that he made too much when he taught college. As an avowed socialist, he could move through every economic strata effortlessly, but he categorized Marfa, TX as a gated refuge for the excessively wealthy, who were motivated by the fear that the proletariat would come after them when the revolution came.

He argued this and everything with a straight face, and you could never be certain when he believed something or was just arguing for the sake of arguing. You found out when he felt that he had won because then he would change places and argue the opposite. The only defense I ever found when he would become too outrageous was to just tell him that he was full of crap and to stop it, but even then he never smiled.

So, here was this man, a series of contradictions, and, even after playing pool with him most weekends for close to 15 years, I’m sure I didn’t know the entire person. There was always more, zigs and zags of behavior or interests, whatever was foremost in his awareness at the time.

In the PBS series Power of Art, Simon Shama opined that Picasso had peaked when he painted Guernica and had to spend the thirty-some years of the rest of his life knowing that he never made another work as powerful as Guernica. Virgil hadn’t peaked when he died; his last show of paintings on MRI scans at Houston Baptist University were the best things he had ever done and hinted at more to come. We’ll never know what astounding pieces he would have made.

If you never had the opportunity to experience the whole man, you definitely missed something; we’re all diminished by his passing. He’ll leave a hell of a hole in my life and yours, even if you’re not aware of it.

His nephew spoke of him as “Uncle Bill” when talking about the things he learned from him. And his wife has an incredible etching hanging on her wall that is inscribed to “Bill & Debbie.” I finally figured out that “Uncle Bill” was the alter-ego of the person most of us knew as Virgil Grotfeldt. His name was William Virgil Grotfeldt, but I didn’t know that until the week after he died.

Meredith "Butch" Jack is Professor of Sculpture at Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas.

The following is curator Jim Edwards’ catalog essay for the exhibition Virgil Grotfeldt, 274296. It is reprinted courtesy of Houston Baptist University’s University Academic Center Gallery

Virgil Grotfeldt: Scans of the Sublime
by Jim Edwards

It is every artist’s wish that at some point within their artistic production, they will produce a work, or a series of related works, that are so uniquely personal that it represents a summation of an entire artistic life. I am thinking of work that, in the originality of its composition and the emotional impact of its gesture, is a true reflection of the artist himself. Mark Rothko’s black paintings, in the Rothko Chapel at Houston’s Menil Collection, case in point. These moments can occur at any time within an artist’s career, early in the case of Max Ernst and the invention of frottage as a method of incorporating rubbings in his drawings for his series Natural History, or later in a career, as in Jackson Pollock’s famous drip paintings. What these extraordinary efforts normally hold in common is a brilliant melding of technique and expression that is so individual that it constitutes the core of an artist’s emotional being.

The sixteen oil paintings on X-ray scans that comprise this exhibition attest to Virgil Grotfeldt’s artistic ability to make the most profound human statement in a personal and original manner. They represent a continuation of a long career as a painter and have been completed under the most extraordinary conditions. Grotfeldt has been a cancer patient for a number of years and he has boldly asked that the title of this exhibition, Virgil Grotfeldt, 274296, acknowledge his patient number at Houston’s University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. The patient number 274296 was first assigned to Grotfeldt in 1993. Additionally, the grounds upon which he has applied his oil paints are MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging )scans of his own brain, a record of his long battle with lymphatic illness. This gesture alone may be a first, since personal brain scans incorporated in the art of painting is practically unheard of until now.

Grotfeldt’s approach to painting, particularly over the course of the last twenty years, has been highly experimental. Early on, he found inspiration in the metallogallic ink drawings by the 19th Century poet, Victor Hugo, whose brown ink blots, stains and washes formed quasi-abstract land and seascapes. Grotfeldt has extended the techniques of Tachism by incorporating bronze and coal dust into his applied stains and washes. The originality of his process prompted Walter Hopps, Founding Director of the Menil Collection, to state, “Not since the early Pollock or the late Arshile Gorky have I seen the dimensionally modeled forms as in the biomorphic abstraction of Virgil Grotfeldt. Nature and abstract form define Grotfeldt’s art as well as sustain its value as a personal meditation upon essential life forces”. Like Pollock, who said that when he painted he needed to be in the painting (stating that he and nature were one), Grotfeldt’s work also encourages us to get into his paintings in imagination. It is our active participation as witness to these paintings that become so seductive.

What impresses in the works of these X-ray paintings is how the translucent white oil paint floats, cloud-like, across the inky black field of brain scans. Grotfeldt has created light-filled forms whose swift movement billows and folds, rendered as a breathing mass of energy. These forms as image are strikingly alive. They seem to be forming right before our eyes. In each painting there exists an ebb and flow, like airborne sea foam suspended above the dark, static grid of scans below. My impulse is to identify these elegant white forms as illuminated by God’s light, light and form as depicted at the moment of inception. The effect is similar to that of the great Chinese ink paintings of Taoism whose artists abided by the first canon of painting and the idea of Ch’i, the spirit of the breath of heaven, a force that stirs nature to life. Ch’i, as an eternal process of movement and change, was thought to reflect the vitality of spirit and the essence of life itself.

Grotfeldt first painted on X-rays in Normandy, France in October 1999, in collaboration with his friend Waldo Bien. The two artists worked side by side on X-rays that had been given to them by the artist Jacobus Kloppenburg. Using drip paint techniques with white enamel and manipulating the paint with their fingers they created haunting images featuring the light color of the paint played against the ghostly light of the X-ray plates. Eighty-two images in all were quickly produced, Grotfeldt completing 33. They titled their X-ray paintings; The End of Sorrow.

Grotfeldt’s untitled limestone sculpture comes from the same period as the Normandy X-ray paintings. He found the small chunk of limestone on the grounds of Chartres Cathedral of Notre Dame, when the famous Gothic church grounds were under restoration. Grotfeldt carved a small face into the soft limestone and when I asked him if his carving represented anyone in particular, he responded, “It is just a portrait”, human in its features, but anonymous as to identity. As I thought about this sculpture and how it related to the X-ray scans, I was reminded of the work of the Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso, who worked primarily in plaster, wax, and bronze, but was during the late 19th century, strongly identified with the French Impressionists, in part, because of his intense interest in light. Rosso used to photograph his sculptural busts with illumination from electric lamps, and these dark photographs often have a diffused, X-ray-like appearance. Rosso’s sculptured heads also express a dream-like sense of emergence, as if the features of his figures are in a state of frozen immortality. Grotfeldt’s sculptured rock face resembles a work from antiquity, as if it has been dug from some crypt. If the carved limestone appears to be petrified in deaden expression, it is the trace of Grotfeldt’s paint upon the X-ray scans that is the most alive gesture.

There is a rich diversity among the paintings in this exhibition. Although basically of the same hue and related tonal range of white oil paint, the forms spew across the dark field of the X-rays in various states of fleshy translucence. In an interview with the art historian David Sylvester, the painter Franz Kline once remarked, “Paint never seems to behave the same – even the same paint…”Grotfeldt has successfully proven that statement to be true. There is never a point of duplication, and each painting remains distinct. The movement of Grotfeldt’s hand in the act of painting on his scans is a literal trace upon an imprint of his brain.

Although modest in scale (each scan image measures 17 x 13 ¾ inches), these paintings suggest limitless expanses. They are works that aspire to a state of the sublime through the exploration of the movement of the luminosity and the imagined movement of the forms and their relationship to the hard facts illustrated on the X-ray scans. What has been achieved in Grotfeldt’s art of the abstract sublime is a condition by which his paintings have created a life of their own. I am hard pressed to think of a more profoundly alive gesture than what these paintings reveal.

Jim Edwards is Gallery Director and Curator for Houston Baptist University’s Art Gallery as well as Associate Professor of Art. Edwards has curated and directed museums and galleries for more than 30 years.

Last Updated ( May 2009 )



Born in 1948 in Illinois, Virgil Grotfeldt has had a prolific, internationally recognized career. He graduated in 1971 with a BS ED in Art Education from Eastern Illinois University, and continued his education at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, earning a Master of Fine Arts in 1974. Since then he has held a number of teaching positions at schools in Illinois and Texas.

Grotfeldt’s career has progressed through a number of phases that reflect connections to both American and European art and philosophy. His early art focused largely on photorealistic paintings, but he later turned to more mystical and anthropological imagery. His oeuvre consists predominantly of experimental materials such as coal and metal dust on paper, though he executes many works in a wide variety of media. For instance, the artist will often incorporate in his paintings found documents such as nautical charts and fragments of handwriting.

In the 1990’s, Grotfeldt turned to complex expressions of natural phenomena. His creations became delicate, biomorphical abstractions reminiscent of early works by Jackson Pollock. It was also at this time that he became connected with the Free International University, and was soon exhibited in its World Art Collection.

Grotfeldt has been shown nationally and internationally in such places as Mexico, Europe, China and Japan. His work resides in the permanent collections of many prestigious museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Whitney Museum of Art, New York; El Paso Museum, El Paso; and the Chengdu Museum, China. In 2003, a major publication of his work, Virgil Grotfeldt, was published.


Virgil Grotfeldt, 1948-2009
By Cathy Matusow in Spaced City
Tuesday, Feb. 24 2009 @ 5:34PM

Photo courtesy Wade Wilson Art

Artist Virgil Grotfeldt died today from cancer. Born in Illinois in 1948, he was part of the Houston art community for many years. "I've always thought of him as a terrific painter, one of the best in the city," longtime friend and HBU Gallery Director Jim Edwards tells Hair Balls.

The artist's works are held by the Menil Collection, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Whitney, The Chengdu Museum in China, and the Fritz Becht Collection in Amsterdam, among many collections, public and private, here and abroad.

Grotfeldt was known for his mix of nature and abstraction. "The forms that he created in his paintings had a kind of mysteriousness about them," says Edwards. "Some of them look as if they're something from the bottom of the sea...They also looked like something that could have been in the cosmos, like forms breaking up in the Milky Way... They had a certain ethereal quality to them." He adds: "Walter Hopps talked about him in the same breath as Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky."

Another longtime friend, Wade Wilson of Wade Wilson Art, has represented Grotfeldt since 2007. "There was nothing like the work he did," he says. "He was an artist who really danced to his own rhythm, and it was fabulous to watch."

Since 2002, Grotfeldt taught at HBU. Edwards curated an exhibition of works by Grotfeldt, called "Virgil Grotfeldt: 274296," which is presently on view at HBU Gallery. Grotfeldt painted directly on his own brain scans for the series. When the artist showed them to Edwards, "I was just totally taken with them," he says. "They are very, very powerful." It was Grotfeldt himself who gave the show its title, taken from the number he was given as a cancer patient at MD Anderson.

There were between 450 and 500 people at the January opening of "274296" - everyone in the Houston art community showed up. "He was a wonderful friend to many, many people in the community," says Edwards. "He was much loved by his students...And his art is going to stand on its own for a long time."

"274296" was set to close this Friday, but the gallery's extending it for view on Saturday and Monday.

Houston Baptist University will host a memorial service in the Belin Chapel on campus Monday, March 2 at 10 a.m. The service will be followed by a reception in the university's art gallery. Houston Baptist University is located at 7502 Fondren Road.

Virgil Grotfeldt, 1948-2009: A Tribute
by Stephanie Buhmann
On Monday, February 23, 2009, Virgil Grotfeldt died after a long battle with cancer at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. He was sixty years old.

Virgil Grotfeldt, “All Things Constant #7,” 2001. Carbon and graph paper, 11 × 14 inches. 27.9 × 35.6 cm. Courtesy Jason McCoy Inc., New York.
Grotfeldt was a prolific artist, who, over the course of four decades, created an oeuvre unique in its take on biomorphic abstraction. While he was never identified with any particular movement, his work was based on, as he put it, “a love of gesture as voice.” His embrace of immediacy certainly evoked Abstract Expressionism, but his strong interest in experimentation and the exploration of the subconscious reveals a lifelong involvement with Surrealism. When asked about particular artists who might have had a significant influence on his work, Grotfeldt drew on the 19th century, citing the Symbolist painter Odilon Redon and the writer/draftsman Victor Hugo above all. Interestingly, Grotfeldt came to abstraction through Photorealist painting. Though his mature period was devoted solely to the non-objective, his work continued to strive for the moodiness found in Redon and Hugo.

Virgil Grotfeldt was born in 1948 in Decatur, Illinois, and studied at Eastern Illinois University and the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. After a brief stay in Chicago, he settled in Houston in 1977, where emerging galleries and alternative spaces such as Diverse Works and the University of Houston Lawndale Annex were fostering a vibrant new art scene. His last teaching position was at Houston Baptist University. Although Grotfeldt frequently collaborated with the Dutch artist (and former student of Joseph Beuys) Waldo Bien beginning in the late 1980s, and remained close to the artist community in Houston, he maintained a deeply personal sensibility.

It is impossible to sum up an oeuvre without addressing the multiple facets that develop over a lifetime, but speaking in the most general terms, Grotfeldt’s project was no less than a search for the mysterious bond connecting all elements. In 1997, he wrote: “Consideration and study of elements that converged to compose planet earth is of infinite interest to me, especially within the context of the evolution of life, culture, and belief systems. The anthropological, sociological, and geological composition of our world is my source of truth.” Grotfeldt’s abstraction is deeply rooted in nature. His compositions often seem to transition between the microscopic and macroscopic. They can appear as dreamscapes, populated by underwater plant forms, or as elaborate cell structures. His imagery, rich in mystical and anthropological overtones, often seems just slightly beyond our grasp, like mist, constantly on the verge of physical transformation.

Preferring a monochromatic palette of earth tones, which contributed to his work’s sense of timelessness, Grotfeldt emphasized texture as an expressive device. He experimented with materials, working with coal powder, clay, ground metal, acrylic, and metal dust on paper, which he combined with carbon, watercolor, or oil. He incorporated found letters, antique maps, and nautical charts to initiate a dialogue between conscious systems of order and the expressive freedom of the subconscious. One of Virgil Grotfeldt’s last bodies of work, a series of sixteen oil paintings completed during the final year of his illness, was based on MRI scans of his brain. With utmost clarity, these works document Grotfeldt’s key ambition to make sense of the many forces life entails, its contradictions, inflictions, and puzzles. By making the MRI scans his material of choice, he abstracted the records documenting the failing health of his body. But by painting on them as a point of departure, he was able to create something vivid and vibrant, a home for the imagination built by an undeterred spirit.

Grotfeldt had numerous national and international solo exhibitions. His work is part of the Menil Collection, Houston; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Chengdu Museum, China; and the Fritz Becht Collection, Amsterdam. In 2003, a major publication of his work, entitled Virgil Grotfeldt, with text by Patrick Healy, an introduction by Walter Hopps and designed by Waldo Bien, was published by Wienand, Cologne.


February 27, 2009
'Virgil Grotfeldt 274296' is a breathtaking final statement
If you haven't seen the final work of artist Virgil Grotfeldt, who died Monday, get over to Houston Baptist University's University Academic Center Gallery. It will most likely be a long time before you have as profound an encounter with art as the one you'll have there.When you go, try to put aside, for a moment, the fact the X-rays on which these exquisite oil paintings were executed are scans of Grotfeldt's brain the artist asked his caregivers at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center to let him keep. And the fact Grotfeldt, who battled cancer for 16 years, died too young at 60 just before the show was scheduled to come down.

These untitled paintings don't need sympathy points. They stand their ground as top-tier, powerfully intimate works any artist would be proud to have created. When Jim Edwards, the gallery's director and curator, drops some big names in his catalog introduction -- Max Ernst, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko -- he's not guilty of pretentiousness or even hyberole for the sake of honoring an old friend. The work is that extraordinary.

The late Walter Hopps, founding director of the Menil Collection, once summed up Grotfeldt's work: "Not since the early Pollock or the late Arshile Gorky have I seen the dimensionally modeled forms as in the biomorphic abstraction of Virgil Grotfeldt. Nature and abstract form define Grotfeldt's art as well as sustain its value as a personal meditation upon essential life forces."

In that respect, this body of work is similar to what Grotfeldt's fans have come to expect. The materials, however, are different -- and since Grotfeldt was as deeply engaged with his materials as any artist, it's utterly new.

Perhaps to remind us of what we're used to, Edwards placed a small selection of Grotfeldt's paintings from a few years ago just outside the gallery. They're executed in acrylic and either coal dust or gold dust, and their draftsmanship and their multitude of mysterious forms are remarkable.

But while you can tell the artist who created those paintings also made what's inside, the older work doesn't prepare you for Grotfeldt's last stand. The white oil paint's sensuousness and the X-ray scans' cold, dark translucence look like they were made both for each other and for the billowing forms that seem to metamorphose before your eyes.

"In each painting there exists an ebb and flow, like airborne sea foam suspending above the dark, static grid of scans below," Edwards writes. "My impulse is to identify these elegant white forms as illuminated by God's light, light and form as depicted at the moment of inception."
I second that impulse, which is reinforced by the paintings' presentation. Each is pressed between two sheets of glass, allowing the white of the wall to backlight them as they seem to float in space.

The exhibit is supplemented with a few of Grotfeldt's earlier experiments with painting on X-rays during a 1999 collaboration with his friend Waldo Bien in Normandy, France. The artist Jacobus Koppenburg had given them the films, and they had used drip-paint techniques in enamel for a series titled The End of Sorrow. Edwards has chosen three paintings by Bien and three by Grotfeldt. They're terrific in their own right, but they barely anticipate the virtuosity that Grotfeldt achieved in the more recent works.

As I said, these paintings don't need extra credit for the courage Grotfeldt showed in using his own brain scans -- records of his long, tenacious struggle with lymphatic illness -- as the grounds for the works. Or for the fact they served as his artistic farewell.

But you can't unknow what you know. The circumstances in which these paintings were made, the gesture they represent -- even down to the show's title, Virgil Grotfeldt 274296, which takes its name from his M.D. Anderson patient number -- and the example they set make them all the more powerful. We'd be robots if they didn't.

Your heart breaks and heals in the company of Grotfeldt's breathtaking final statement.


When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. today, Saturday and Monday

Where: The Gallery at HBU, Houston Baptist University Academic Center, 7502 Fondren; 281-649-3678.

Memorial services:

10 a.m. Monday in HBU's Belin Chapel, followed by a reception in the gallery; 281-649-3600.

2 p.m. March 8. Call Wade Wilson Art at 713-521-2977 for details.

Posted by Douglas Britt at 01:36 PM | Comments (1)

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