It’s appropriate that Gregory J. Lago, a storyteller who carves, paints, pounds, sculpts, cuts and engraves his tales into a dizzying array of mediums, has titled his featured exhibit after a well known ballad.

“Bird on the Wire: The Art of Greg Lago” runs through Oct. 22 at the Thousand Islands Arts Center, 314 John St., Clayton.

Mr. Lago’s “Bird on the Wire,” a wood engraving, is one of the a pieces at the exhibit, which is a retrospective of his career with about 60 prints, 10 oils and 15 carved pieces. On a visit last week to the center as his exhibit was being prepared, the artist walked over to “Bird on the Wire” to share a closer look at the engraving and to explain its inspiration.

Its title is taken from one of the signature songs by the late Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen. Greg quoted its opening lines:

“Like a bird on the wire

Like a drunk in a midnight choir

I have tried in my way to be free”

“That’s one of the things about making a living this way,” Greg told me. “In a lot of ways, you are kind of free.”

He said that could be “an illusion,” but he went on to explain the reality of his “Bird on the Wire.”

“There’s a midnight choir and they’re singing,” he said. “It’s late at night and a bird is watching.”

The scene, he said, reminds him of what was known as “O’Brien’s Hotel,” now O’Brien’s Restaurant and Bar in Clayton.

“Now, it’s not owned by the same people. It was across the road from Frink’s iron works. People came to the hotel to have their meals and to have a drink. Basically, most of them cashed their check there and got just dollars back, from a running tab.”

But that engraving is just the beginning of the stories based on the village and St. Lawrence River area that are reflected in Greg’s creations now housed at the center’s gallery for all to conveniently see.

“All of these things are kind of about the whole journey, but a lot of them are about Clayton and local history,” Greg said. “The figures are based on local characters.”

For example, in one corner, a wood carving, stands a resolute waitress with a stone-cold expression. Greg said the waitress, Brenda, once worked at the Koffee Kove, 220 James St.

“She was kind of like the Henny Youngman of waitresses,” Greg said. “She was very sarcastic. But she had a following.”

He calls the piece, “Waiting on Tables.”

“But it’s about that waitress,” he said. “I think she knows about it. She waited on me a thousand times. She was an OK waitress, but definitely a personality.”

Nearby, there’s a carving that Greg sculpted out of northern red cedar, his favorite wood to work with. He noted that traditional St. Lawrence River skiffs were made out of it.

“It doesn’t rot. You can steam it and bend it. It polishes up just like marble. It’s very dense, beautiful and lasts forever,” he said.

Perhaps because of that, he created the sculpture he now stood in front of for someone special.

“This is actually Karen, my wife,” he said of the piece. The sculpture, “Karen,” features a woman holding a net with something in it.

“The idea is there are geese in this net — the idea of how women capture men,” he said.

When asked what his wife thinks of the piece and his interpretation of it, Greg gave out a laugh before his answer:

“Well — she said, ‘Too bad you can’t let them go!’”

Greg only uses only traditional tools in his wood carvings, such as hand saws, chisels, knives and “lots of sand paper.” The fine detail is especially noticeable in his “Dock Mom” sculpture.

“This is a piece of western red cedar that I got from Will Salisbury,” Greg said. “It was dock timber, below the water line and it was still in great shape.”

“Dock Mom” features a woman holding books, each one of them titled, including one for “summer reading”: “The Book of Knowledge and Wisdom.”

“This is about the women who are on the docks every summer waiting for the boats to come in or leave,” Greg said. “It’s the mother of the cottage who greets everybody, all the different family members who come week after week.”

But across from “Dock Mom” and perhaps to balance out its good vibes, stands a creation Greg now calls “The Jilted Woman.” He said he created it out of nearly 100-year-old white cherry and that a customer commissioned it for his wife.

“She liked this dress and that’s what she wanted to show off,” Greg said. “But they got divorced before it was finished. I wasn’t as timely as I should have been with the piece. When it was done, they were divorced.”

On the bottom of the piece, there’s an update in the form of a newspaper clipping. It’s about the sale of a waterfront home.

“He had to sell it for the settlements,” Greg explained.

Greg captures the essence of a local character, complete with a narrative and cartoon-style drawings, in his “Matti Pananen” sculpture. Matti was the son of Victor and Mina Pananen, a couple from Finland who had a farm on Grindstone Island. Victor came to the U.S. in 1906. He and Matti sailed the Great Lakes before the family settled on Grindstone. Matti died in 1985.

Greg’s sculpture of Matti has him hanging on to the opening of a hole in the river ice, with only his arms and head on the surface.

“He was a heavy drinker and he fell through the ice a lot, walking back and forth to Grindstone in the winter,” Greg said.

He added something else, which may have more to do with his artistic vision: “One time, he froze his arms to the ice to keep himself from being sucked under. After that, he always had terrible frost bite on his hands. His family rescued him a few times and dragged him off the ice.”

His wood engravings and woodcuts range from “Old Home Days” on Grindstone Island to “The Sleds,” which features a few people stopped in front of a mobile home with their snowmobiles. A woman, holding a baby, is in the dim doorway of the home.

“It’s about the poverty and desolation that’s here and the lives that people live,” Greg said.

Greg’s father, Roswell Lago, was a native of Carthage who moved to Western New York. Roswell, Greg said, was named after Roswell P. Flower, Theresa native, Congressman and 30th Governor of New York from 1892 to 1894.

“My grandmother named her children after famous local people,” Greg said.

The artist grew up in Middleport, Niagara County, a village along the Erie Canal and graduated from Royalton-Hartland Central School.

“At one point in high school, the math teachers got together and said, ‘You should take more art and less math,’” he said.

In 1967, he volunteered for the Army and was sent to Vietnam, where he was a forward observer for the 1st Infantry Division, which ironically, required astute math skills.

“It was a lot of old-fashioned compass reading and pace counting,” he said.

He spent two years and nine months in the Army.

“When I was a kid, I wasn’t political or anything, but I knew I didn’t have enough stories and I needed to have some adventures,” Greg said. “I needed to get out of Middleport. I had no idea what was going on politically in the world at all.”

He went to college, Buffalo State University, courtesy of the G.I. Bill, after his Army service.

“I fell under the influence of Frank Eckmair, a pretty well-known printmaker,” Greg said.

According to the New York State Museum, Frank Eckmair, 1930-2012, was a master of the woodcut and “created haunting works evoking rural life in upstate New York.”

“He was probably the primary instructor that really influenced me,” Greg said. “But I had taken all the studio courses so I traveled for a couple of years; around this state, Mexico and Canada.”

But he said no matter where he went, he compared it to the Thousand Islands area, a region he first became acquainted with when introduced to it by a high school girlfriend whose family had a summer home in this area. He opened his first gallery in Clayton, North Country Graphics, in 1971. “That was on James Street and lasted for one summer,” he recalled.

In 1988, Greg and Karen opened Winged Bull Studios in Clayton. It’s now operated out of their property of 75 acres on House Road. Each room is dedicated to a different medium: a press room, a painting studio, a room for carving, etc.

For over 40 years, Greg has been creating and exhibiting his work, including exhibitions in San Francisco and New York City, as well as in the British Isles as part of a touring exhibition with the Society of Wood Engravers.

His work is represented in numerous permanent collections such as the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo and the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.He’s a member of the artist cooperative Fibonacci Art Gallery in Watertown.

At the Thousand Islands Arts Center, his sculpture carved from a locust tree of Emily K. Post, founder of the Thousand Islands Craft School, has been greeting visitors since 2004.

“Wood is something that always spoke to me — printmaking, wood block printing and carving,” Greg said.

He was around 17 when he first tried it, but began drawing much earlier.

“I swiped my father’s jackknife and was doing some wood carving and cut my thumb and bled all over,” Greg said. “My father said, ‘If you’re gonna carve wood, you should get some Band-Aids.’”

Woodcut and woodblock printing were once used extensively in publications and Greg, other artists and some publishers are helping to keep the art form alive.

“Because they’re book illustrations, they’re great for storytelling,” Greg said. “And they’re great because you can put static images that people will look at for a long time because there’s a lot of detail.”

But in addition to woodcuts, engravings and carvings,”Bird on the Wire” features his oil paintings. Two large ones were done in the meticulous style of pointillism, which involves using tiny dots of distinct color to create the illusion of form. From a distance, the dots appear to blend together, and one painting, “Summer 2020” almost appears quilt-like from a distance .

The other pointillism piece, also a river scene, is “Summer Solstice 2021,” featuring recreational boats cruising past the village.

Working on it a couple hours a day, “Summer Solstice 2021” took the artist about nine months to complete. “Usually at night, with classical music and really up close with a lot of light,” he said.

If such creative time is, as they say, “of the essence,” Greg, 72, appreciates its value more than ever.

“By the time you get to be 60, you’ll probably be a pretty good artist if you stay with it that long,” he said. “Really good art is about time. And actually, it takes a long time to be declared art. What becomes art is that what survives.”

“Sunday Portrait” is an occasional column featured in the Watertown Daily Times’ Sunday edition. Contact Chris Brock at cbrock@wdt.net

The details

n WHAT: “Bird on the Wire: The Art of Greg Lago.”

n WHERE: The Thousand Islands Arts Center, 314 John St., Clayton.

n WHEN: The retrospective exhibit, which opened Wednesday, runs through Friday, Oct. 22

n HOURS: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays.

n COST: . Admission to the exhibition is complementary to TIAC members and $5 for non-members.

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