BLOOMINGTON — Barry Blinderman will always remember Harold Gregor as "a constant inspiration."
"He helped us see the beauty in the agrarian Midwest," said Blinderman, former director of Illinois State University's University Galleries, upon learning of Gregor's death on Monday. "He was one of those individuals who exemplified aging with grace, working each day, carrying paintings up and down his steep studio stairway two steps at a time.
"May his memory be a blessing."
Gregor, a retired distinguished professor of art at Illinois State University whose work was displayed at the White House under President Barack Obama, died at age 89, leaving behind the downtown Gregor Gallery and a celebrated legacy as a landscape painter, teacher and mentor.
"Much of our understanding of contemporary landscape painting, especially of Midwest imagery, is due to his teaching and his legacy as an exhibiting professional artist," said McLean County Arts Center Executive Director Doug Johnson, one of Gregor's students at ISU.
"If you think locally, (every artist), myself included, pursued painting and landscaping as a major part of our practice as part of the great teaching that he provided," said Johnson. "You can't throw a dart into a crowd of ISU alums without everyone knowing a little bit of Harold Gregor."
Gregor, a Michigan native, already was well-traveled when he started to oversee the Ph.D. candidate’s program in the ISU art department in 1970. He studied and taught across the nation, experimenting across painting styles before becoming an early master of modern realism.
"He took something we could all recognize in the landscape and really made it exceptional," said Kendra Paitz, now director and chief curator of University Galleries. "It's not always an obvious beauty in the way a mountain or a sunset over an ocean is, but he found what was special and heightened that."
Mike Wille, director of the ISU School of Art where Gregor once taught, said it's important to acknowledge Gregor was renowned not only in Central Illinois, but around the world.
After retiring in 1995, he continued to contribute to ISU and Bloomington-Normal while exhibiting work in Chicago and New York.
Wille said he especially valued talking to Gregor about painting and about those benefiting from an endowment created by the artist and his wife, Marlene, to help ISU art students learn by traveling — as Gregor did.
"It's amazing to think that for 70 years (as an adult), if not all 89 years, each day he thought of himself as an artist, and he had something in his mind he had to get onto canvas. ... Each time I saw him he had a little paint on his hands," said Wille. "He was not only a special human being but a special painter the world can continue to enjoy."