TWO WEEKS BEFORE his death on August 10, Bruce McGrew painted his last watercolors. Ill though he was with pancreatic cancer, the prolific painter set up in a well-lighted entryway of his house at Rancho Linda Vista in Oracle, with the help of his wife, clay artist Joy Fox. There were a couple of works to finish.
"The last place he'd painted in the field was at the (Boyce Thompson) Arboretum in Globe, and at the nature preserve in Patagonia," Fox said. "I had those out and he finished one and then the other. Then he started a new one. He worked a couple of hours."
It was a fitting finale for the beloved painter whose lovely watercolors and oils of the local landscape had won him enduring affection and a measure of fame. McGrew managed to keep up a prodigious painting career all during the 33 years he taught at the University of Arizona.
"He was amazing," said UA art department head Andy Polk. "He did art like one breathes. He was always an active artist. And he was an incredible teacher...His knowledge of art, coupled with his love of poetry and nature, helped him teach art in a broad way...
"Bruce was one of our most valued faculty, extremely popular with students, faculty, alumni and the community. He's not the kind of person we're going to find another one of."
McGrew was an even-tempered man whose personal generosity was well known in the department, Polk said.
"A holiday didn't pass without him giving gifts to our secretarial staff -- one Christmas it was 10 bottles of wine -- and everyone on the staff and faculty at one time or another received a little watercolor done specifically for them."
McGrew, age 61, had scheduled an early retirement in May of this year, with plans to paint and to teach part-time in the University's locations abroad, Polk said. He had taught regularly in Guadalajara and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was hoping to teach in Florence, Italy, in the spring semester of 2000.
The painter was a native of Wichita, Kansas, educated at Wichita State University. He headed West to get a Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Arizona. He stayed on to teach, and over the years contributed much to the local arts community. He and his wife were among the founders of Rancho Linda Vista, an artists' colony that managed to outlast its '60s countercultural origins and continues today as a center for arts in Southern Arizona. McGrew was an early member of Dinnerware Artists Cooperative Gallery, an important launching pad for legions of local artists. And though he showed in such big art venues as Santa Fe and New York, he remained loyal to his hometown, exhibiting regularly at Tucson's Davis Dominguez Gallery.
The gallery plans a McGrew show in February and a lifetime retrospective show is in the planning stages for a few years hence at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, said his dealer, Candice Davis.
One of Tucson's favorite painters, McGrew was a crossover artist whose work appealed both to lovers of traditional landscape and to proponents of pure painting. McGrew pushed the conventional landscape away from literal realism and into a paradise of color and light. Best known for his paintings of the Sonoran Desert and the mountains around Oracle, he also painted pictures of Scotland's remote reaches and Mexico's coasts.
His wife said that he rarely noted on pictures where and when they were painted. In the weeks leading up to his death she methodically brought out dozens of his watercolors to show him, and he told her the vital statistics on each one. Early this week Fox was tackling his studio, beginning the arduous task of sorting out all the art, slides and photos.
"We've got a lot of work," she said.
The husband and wife, married for 37 years and the parents of a grown son and daughter, were frequent collaborators. One recent work, an "Adam and Eve" painted in oils by McGrew, was part of his experiments with painting figures in the landscape. Fox surrounded this small painting of the first couple with an elaborate clay frame.
"He was my mentor too," she said. "It's hard to think of working without him there."
The UA art department is organizing a public memorial service for McGrew, scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday, September 19, at the Center for Creative Photography. A memorial fund has been established at the UA in the painter's name, and will probably go toward establishing a Bruce McGrew scholarship, Polk said. Contributions may be sent to the UA/McGrew Fund in care of the Art Department, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721. For more information, call 621-7570.