Greg Jaris Unleashed

For those who miss Northern Michigan when vacation is over, Jaris has a series of daydreamer sculptures. With a real No. 2 pencil clenched in a wooden hand, the daydreamer spells out "I wish I was at the beach." But Jaris doesn’t stop there. He delves inside the daydreamer’s mind and fills it with tiny figures of beach bathers, seagulls, a beach umbrella and the ubiquitous dog. "The more dog art I do, the more people want."

Dogs have always been part of Jaris’s life. He grew up with canine companions in Oxford, Michigan, a rural area in the 1950’s now swallowed up by the Detroit suburbs. His parents ran a mom-and-pop grocery store, and left young Greg to entertain himself. "I was outside all the time. Mom felt guilty that she didn’t give enough attention to me, but I considered it wonderful, and my mother was my best friend."

It doesn’t take long before you can pick out from Jaris’s art which dog is which in the long line of Jaris dogs. He always owns a dog, often two or three. Sadie is the tan one. Like all Jaris dogs, she was a mutt and a pound dog. Sadie’s the one you see paddling beside a blond swimmer, or taking the stern seat in a rowboat. It’s Sadie who grins in the picture, "My Dog Smiles When I Come Home." In the distance, the owner’s car careens down an impossibly vertical angle on a make-believe driveway. It’s another joyful Jaris moment. "There’s enough sadness in the world, don’t you think?" he asks.

Jaris rattles back down the drive in his pickup and heads to Trick Dog. A little more than a mile away from his house, the gallery perches at the edge of the dunes overlooking Betsie Bay. Outside, purple dogs chat to purple people, and you know you’ve entered Jaris’s world.

Inside his gallery, Jaris never stops moving and introduces each art piece with the pride of a school child showing off his latest project. With a flick, he spins a wooden statue of a dog out for a walk. The dog’s legs swivel, and it’s mounted on a rotating lazy-Susan base. But that’s not all. "A bouncy leash!" he exclaims, twanging the metal leash. "It makes it more fun."

Even his prints and paintings seem to move. Next to the spinning dog sculpture hangs a block print showing a dog with three rows of teeth. It’s a portrait of a dog wrestling transferred to two dimensions. Jaris snaps his hands to mimic the action of puppy play. "Gnash, gnash, gnash! Dogs’ jaws move so fast."

Block printing is just one of the mediums Jaris studied formally at MSU art school. He also studied drawing, ceramics and sculpture, but he’s a self-taught painter. "My sculpture professor found out I was painting. ‘Great!’ he said. I told him I wasn’t taking a painting class. ‘Better off!’" Jaris starts each painting as a sketch, each sculpture with a model. "You have to draw every day. You have to draw to be an artist. No matter if it’s sculpture or anything. That was pounded into me by my art teachers."

Jaris credits two MSU art professors as mentors for his art: Lou Raynor and Mel Leiserowitz. He keeps a portrait of the late Raynor by his pencil sharpener. Mel, and his wife, Nancy, still teach and live in Mason. "We had no idea how gifted he was," Nancy says. "His success with the gallery couldn’t have been predicted." Mel’s voice is gone, but he emailed impressions. "He could never get enough. He has the gift of enthusiasm … accompanied with a twist of irony or humor. The results have always been a little surprising." Adds Nancy, "He’s a Renaissance person. There’s nothing he can’t do."

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