We had the good fortune of connecting with Gretchen Grunt and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Gretchen, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
The birth of my business started at age nine (1979) when I realized I was an artist and wanted nothing but art to think about. Then at the age of eleven I had a premonition (while a local artist, Don Malone was doing a pencil portrait of me) that I was going to have my own business. As a matter of fact, the premonition was so strong that it actually took place in the very building I am sitting in today writing to you right now about my business that’s located here, called the 29 Palms Creative Center & Gallery.
As Don was drawing me, I remember looking around at the thrift store (that’s what it was at the time) and said to myself “someday I’ll do something in this room”. And then a few years after that (1984) when young girlfriends start asking the big question (at the time): what will we be doing in the year 2000 when we’re 30 years old? As that was a big deal to think about as we approached the turn of the century. And I told my girlfriends (as they were talking about being married with children) I said I’ll be self employed and will not be having children and even said I wouldn’t be married either (truth be told, I’ve had 2 wonderful marriages but still no children, unless you count my grown-up step children).
Then, the premonition started materializing in the late 90’s when my mom, Jane Van Lahr Grunt-Smith (b.1941-2021), bought a dilapidated compound adjacent to our family resort, the 29 Palms Inn (family owned since 1928). The compound was in disrepair and my mom was hoping to turn it into a day health spa to add to the Inn guests’ experience, but the City of Twentynine Palms denied her in re-zoning the compound to do so. After many conversations and mental preparedness I left the comfort of the central coast (San Luis Obispo, SLO) and headed back home into the desert heat in August of 2003, to make my dream come true as an artist.
My mom and I are not ones to put too much information on paper such as a business plan, for our theory was if its your passion then keeping faith in the passion will guide every step you take towards succeeding in our business ventures. So without a business plan, tons of sweat equity, hard-work and total exhilaration I started selling art by the fall of 2003, with the Open Studio Art Tours (organized by the Morongo Basin Cultural Arts Council, MBCAC). While at the same time, my husband at then, Don Andrade, and I kept working to fix up the huge compound of art studios and gallery. We successfully sold art every month until the crash of 2008. Quickly, thereafter, Don had a change of heart about living in the desert and moved back to SLO. Leaving me to figure out what was next to survive this dire time when the art market disappeared over night.
Up to this point I had done a little teaching with kids and art but nothing too noticeable. So as the economy struggled to get back up from the ’08 crash, I started online schooling for a Masters degree, thinking that plan B of teaching at our local JC, Copper Mountain College, was going to have to be a solution to the dire situation. Then of course as I’m approaching the completion of my schooling, the economy starts to kick back in and I decided that instead of having the sale of art be my main source of income, it was going to be teaching private art classes from my studios. I was enjoying the community building aspect of teaching, much more than selling art, plus that seemed to be the pulse of the public so I went with it, and married my second husband, Doug Whitfield who did stained glass and taught too. (Doug passed away in 2020.)
Now here we are again with a financial crisis looming but so far art classes with both children and adults has been better than ever. Plus, I’m organizing clubs (clay club, printmaking club and gallery club) to help me get the gallery back up into action. This is exciting because instead of thinking I have to do all of the work alone, I am organizing artists to be a part of the team, and again building community, which also seems to be the pulse after such a lonely time in our covid caves. (folks are really grateful for being together again and working for a common good).
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
Foremost, I have lived a very charmed life! I’m exceptionally blessed to have been supported by my father before I even knew that I was an artist. Then, the support has continued throughout my life in innumerable ways from family, friends, husbands, mentors, strangers and clients. Even when it appeared from the outside that I had given up, I was always busily working in the garage doing art and creating challenges. Knowing that the hours spent creating were only going to make me a stronger artist and someday it’ll be pay back for sticking to it. Or there was no pay back and I was sincerely spending endless hours doing what makes my spirit sing and push me to grow as a sentient being in this wondrous world.
I am most proud that I have found a place of gratitude and humility that serves my students in such a positive way to help them believe in themselves as artists. Nothing is more endearing then when a past student gets in touch with me to tell me how I was a voice of support that kept them pushing forward. This is truly what I have been placed in this world for: be a voice of believing and seeing persons for who they truly are inside and giving them space to figure out their voice for the world to hear.
Living in a society that has trouble financially and culturally supporting artists as a valued member of the economy has always been a big hurdle. In times like these, I turn to my creative space to get me through. Creating a world that inspires and provokes. This makes me think of a seriously troubling charcoal drawing I drew, inspired by Hieronymus Bosch that I kept close to my heart for many years until I finally let it go to a collector, called “Victims of Ourselves by Society’s Command”. This always reminded me that only if I give in to the pressures of the world will I loose my identity, and therefore loose myself. Finding sources of strength in nature, other artists and friends of passion (like musicians, dancers, performers and scholars); and not to be over taken by cowardice and fear is where my spirit wants to fly. This spirited attitude is found in staying active in my community and living up to my nickname, Sparkle Plenty!
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Oh dear, this is a big one since I live in such an exciting and eventful little desert community, where outsiders expect anything but amazing culture!
We live at the north side of Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP), so we’ll have to go get grounded by hiking through the Wonderland of Rocks. Nature’s rock art and funy Dr Seuss trees are endlessly inspiring and will give us a sense of belonging immediately, and we could potentially spend the whole week up there but we won’t. This of course will build up a mean appetite and no better place to eat than my family’s resort, the 29 Palms Inn, now run by my sister, Heidi Grunt. She’s fourth generation owner and we’re only 5.25 years away from hitting 100 years of ownership, WOW! We’ll sit poolside listening to live music, drinking Heidi’s homemade Booch, introducing my friend to many local folks and eating the best food in our area.
I’ll have my best friend stay in my tropical themed guesthouse cabin that has an adjoining outside bathroom that is screened in with mesh looking up to the mountains of JTNP, and the only critters to see us walking around naked are hawks, coyotes, lizards, pack rats and any other desert critter that happens by since I have my 5 acres in a wildlife corridor.
At night we’ll stare up into the starry night sky on my outside living room area and enjoy listening to howling coyotes and night hawks as we talk late into the night with a fine wine on our lips.
The next day, on our way to The Palms Restaurant & Bar in Wonder Valley, we’ll have to stop by my favorite art gallery, the Glass Outhouse, which of course has 2 outside glass outhouses now and we’ll have to go use them to experience the real thrown of the desert. Here we’ll meet up with retired school bus driver Laurel who owns and runs the gallery. When I asked her years ago why she started the gallery, she bluntly replied (like she always does) because all my friends were dying and I needed to make new friends. Laurel is now known as the grandmother of Wonder Valley with her open heart and supportive ways with artists to sell their artwork without taking any commission. After feasting on all the art and walking the most hysterical art trail on Laurel’s property, we’ll once again be hungry and head more east to The Palms for one of Laura’s yummy vegetarian dinner specials, drinks and either open mic night or some amazing music to dance to. Either way, we’ll have a blast as The Palms has turned into my other family in recent years, where I also perform in a performance art group called Stage Frieght. Our performance is difficult to describe as it’s totally unique and the brain child is Lolly Goodwoman. Most people who see it for the first time act like they have seen the second coming because it expands their perception of reality so laughably.
The next day we’ll head up to higher ground to Pioneertown to enjoy my next favorite dance spot, The Red Dog Saloon, where my friend Cate McCabe spins vinyl and knows how to get us wiggling after a yummy brunch and drinks. Plus, we’ll have to walk main street of Pioneertown to see artists of all different crafts in this 1950’s western movie set and possibly see an acted out shoot-out. And if we’re really ambitious we may have started our day with a hike on an old Indian trail called Pioneertown Mountain Preserve, where the landscape is so beautiful with diverse geology of rocks, lava, cottonwood trees, an old miners stone cabin and hopefully running water if the snow from San Bernardino Mountains are still melting.
Deciding what to do next depends on our energy, maybe if we’re feeling like we need a break from all the activity we’ll catch a live play that’s just around the corner from my studios or we could go chill poolside and roam the Inn property where an amazing garden grows food for the restaurant and an ancient Oasis of Mara resides since Serrano Indians brought seeds for the Washingtonian Palms that grace the landscape with shade from the desert sun. This little walk could end us up at the JTNP Headquarters that’s a couple blocks away to learn about more cultural history of the Chemehuevi Indians who were the last tribe to live on this sacred land up to 1917.
Then after a more mellow day, we’ll build up our strength for more dancing at the Out There Bar where they like to host disco night and everyone dresses to fit the occasion with sparkles and glee. And luckily, it’ll be pizza night where my students parents cook up amazing pizzas for us to nash on with our drinks.
To top off the week long visit, we’ll visit with artist friends who have amazing art studios to explore like The Tile House. It’s a house that friend and helpers have mosaic-ed the whole house inside and out. It’s truly mind blowing! And then finish off with good food at either my sister’s house with her family or my cabin and some great conversation as we look out into a beautiful desert landscape, especially now that we’ve had a good rainy summer.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
From the beginning of my life my dad, Ronald N Grunt (b.1935-1991), saw that I was an artist. Most likely knew it before I did. My dad was always signing me up for art classes or something creative without even asking me, and I always found this curious as a child since I always ended up really enjoying the art or drama or dance classes he signed me up for. This was a huge foundation for my drive to be an artist and sticking with it!
Then later, my mom, Jane Van Lahr Grunt-Smith and her still living husband, Paul F Smith, became big supporters. But from the beginning, my mom had trouble believing that I was going to be a hard working successful artist. She was really hoping I would find a more “normal” career path out of fear that I would not financially survive. But then she married Paul, who was nothing but an encouraging voice for my creative drive and by the year 2000, my mom caved in and bought my first etching press (I was a printmaking major at Sonoma Sate University). I immediately started teaching and having printmaking parties out of my garage in San Luis Obispo with my new etching press.
When it comes to school and mentors, I have to give a big shout out to my life drawing instructor, Marion Stevens, and my sculpture instructor, Randall Johnson, who both told me if I wanted to make it as an artist to just stick with it, no matter what. I still think of Marion’s voice when she’d yell in class when it got tough: “ARE YOU A MAN OR A MOUSE?!?”
Lastly, another family member who served as a creative force and just recently past away, was Terry “Elbop, Birdy” Finnerty Burke. He came into our family when I was nine. I was unaware that I was an artist but knew something was different about how I saw the world compared to my siblings. Terry was an artist and through his support of taking the time to make art together, I then realized I was an artist too. Suddenly at age nine I knew my life’s purpose and the blinders have never come off since!