By Susan Johnson
Hugh “Red” Argraves, who was a familiar figure to many in the Rockford area, especially moviegoers and art lovers, passed away June 23, 2010. He was honored in a memorial service held at 2 p.m., July 2, in Brooklyn Cemetery in Compton, Ill., which included a salute by a U.S. Army unit. The funeral was handled by Torman Funeral Home in Paw Paw, Ill. Cremation rites were accorded.
After serving in the military police at the Potsdam Conference in 1945 and in the Army in World War II, where he served in Patton’s Third Army, Hugh “Red” Argraves returned to his home city of Rockford and devoted the remainder of his life to the arts. Locally, he was known for his commitment to managing various local theaters, such as the Coronado, the Times, the Midway and the State. He had also spent some years in Hollywood, where he worked as an extra on movie sets including Casablanca, Music for Millions and Salty O’Rourke. He wrote numerous plays, short stories and poems, some of which were published alongside such authors as Jack Kerouac and Franz Kafka.
Though he took only two college art courses, Red was an accomplished self-taught visual artist who worked in oil and watercolor. He found his inspiration in the works of artists such as George Grosz, Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso. In later years, he was honored as the Rockford Art Museum’s 1997 Jessica Holt Purchase Award winner for his oil painting “Cubist City,” which is now on display as part of the museum’s permanent collection. Upon receiving the award, Red humbly stated, “My mother would be so pleased because she is the one who encouraged me in art and used to bring me to the [Rockford] Art Museum.”
In “Cubist City,” an oil on canvas-board, Argraves jumbled the picture plane, challenging traditional rules of perspective. The human face is broken into a series of geometric shapes that are reassembled into a grid-like form. Facial features are repeated and juxtaposed. The resulting ordered architectural structure is playfully reminiscent of the work of Paul Klee.
Red was nominated by Matthew Herbig, who was Rockford Art Museum’s curator of collections at the time. He said in his nomination: “Mr. Argraves, while primarily a self-taught artist, has for many years created visual works that respond to ideas in ‘modern’ art while filtering these ideas through a personal iconography. His interpretation of ‘Cubism’ has produced a body of work in which a hierarchy of shapes organize themselves upon the surface of the picture plane in an almost hieroglyphic manner.
“In many of Mr. Argraves’ oil paintings, ‘Cubist City’ being a prime example, the more clearly defined shapes (faces) float upon a surface of reworked paint which seems to be the signature of a restless, intuitive, creative process. This organization of pictorial composition has little to do with the style of ‘Analytical’ and ‘Synthetic’ Cubism we observe in the work of Picasso or Gris.
“Regardless of compositional style, the vital shared aspect of the revolutionary art movement and Hugh Argraves’ work is this: that art should be concerned with depicting ideas rather than observed reality.
“I find that ‘Cubist City’ depicts some compelling ideas and look forward to this painting’s inclusion in our permanent collection.”
Following his win of the Purchase Award, Hugh Argraves wrote a letter to Herbig asking him to thank Jessica Holt “for the great kindness she has shown me” and expressing his appreciation to Herbig as well. In his letter, he also mentioned his play (The Great Depression), which he read in a taping, since the theater group that was considering it decided not to present it at the time. The tape was later played on TV at the museum gallery.
Hugh Argraves was a quiet, unassuming man who didn’t want any sort of ceremony, but his friends felt he deserved at least a simple tribute. The graveside service was preceded by a celebration of Red’s life at Morrissey Law Offices. Mourners present were attorney Joe Morrissey and his wife Josephine, and Ms. Maria Apolloni, all of whom knew “Red.” Argraves was given a full military funeral with the honors due a veteran, including a flag ceremony and the playing of “Taps.” The flag was presented to the Morrissey family, and it now hangs in a place of honor in Joe Morrissey’s home.
From the July 21-27, 2010 issue