Sunday, Oct 21, 2018
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Artist Greg Justus brings inspiration to the canvas, cancer patients

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    Greg Justus works from his home in Maumee. Justus is a full-time artist who sells between 60 and 80 painting a year while also doing commission and side project work.

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    Greg Justus gives an art lesson to 15-year-old cancer patient Kalie Fisher, at Mercy Health St. Vincent Medical Center.

    The Blade/Andy Morrison
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    A painting by Greg Justus

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    Gavin Justus, 10, shows off one of the books his father illustrated on the topic of cancer.

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    Justus’ painting ‘Windy Day.'

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    Greg Justus works on his latest painting from his home in Maumee.

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Greg Justus doesn’t have time for diminutive details or the contemplation of grandiose concepts when he paints.

Sometimes color is applied to canvas before the Maumee artist even knows what he’s painting. Paint is frequently squirted straight from the tube in bright reds, greens, and blues.

Those colors that pop in the moment are what he’s always searching for when he paints. No worries; the vision will come.

“I call them nuggets of color candy,” Justus said. “The subject a lot of times, to me, is secondary.”

The 46-year-old broke with tradition a little more than three years ago, quitting his full-time marketing job and going for a dream he has had since childhood: Working solely as a painter. Through his fine arts studio, Justus is carving a living by selling commissioned works, offering home painting parties, and participating in art shows and exhibits.

Recently his work took him in yet another direction when he teamed up with Cancer Connection of Northwest Ohio to create a mobile art program for pediatric cancer patients. He is currently teaching art one-on-one to patients at Mercy Health Children’s Hospital and is in discussions with ProMedica Toledo Children’s Hospital about starting the program there.

Justus pitched it to Cancer Connection’s founder, Jean Schoen, after she told him during a recent discussion that the nonprofit was offering services to an increasing number of pediatric patients who sometimes have to stay in the hospital for weeks or months to receive treatment.

Justus remembers poignantly something his brother, David Justus, said to him while dealing with his stepson’s diagnosis with a rare terminal cancer at age 7.

“He said one of the hardest things from the kid’s perspective is, that they want to feel normal for a time,” Justus said, “as if they don’t already have the weight of the world on their shoulders. If I can use my talents for an hour to make someone feel better, I would like to do that.”

Justus has had other brushes with cancer; that same brother fought testicular cancer when he was a young man, and an older sister recently fought a rare form of skin cancer but is currently in remission.

It is these kinds of experiences that sway the artist to donate his time and talent to the community. The mobile art program is the second major project Justus has taken on with Schoen. A few years ago they teamed up to figure out a creative way to explain cancer to a child who has a loved one stricken with the disease.

I Know Someone Who Has Cancer for beginning readers; Do You Know Someone Who Has Cancer?, recommended for children in third through fifth grade; and When Someone You Know Has Cancer, for children in sixth grade or older, are written by Schoen and illustrated by Justus.

Schoen said Justus’ illustrations — the way he depicts cells when they are both healthy and sick — get the children’s attention.

“His illustrations were so valuable in bringing these books to life and illustrating what each book is saying in an age-appropriate manner,” Schoen said. “The way he illustrates these books, it’s not scary.”

Perhaps Justus’ rapport with children comes from his current big-kid attitude. Or maybe from his own childhood. He doesn’t remember a time when he was not enthralled with art and frequently tells a story of going door-to-door as a child selling his artwork to anyone who would buy it.

“For as long as I can remember, that’s all I could think about,” he said. “I would sit in class and draw pictures of the teachers instead of listening to them.”

Teachers pushed him to go toward graphic design. When he enrolled at Kent State University, he worked toward that goal, but his favorite classes remained freehand painting.

He met his first wife on campus. They married and had two sons, Gabe and Jakob. Life got in the way, and Justus dropped out of school. But he went back soon after Jakob was born — this time to do what he was called to do. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1997, he moved to Florida with his first wife. When they divorced, he needed a fresh start, and when his father moved to Toledo to take a job, Justus followed suit.

The first 15 years in Northwest Ohio consisted of jobs in either sales or marketing at various firms. He left his last, at Heartland Home Health & Hospice, in October, 2013. He was 43.

“So many people are living for retirement and not for today. You have to live for today, because you don’t know whether there will be a tomorrow,” he said.

The transition from the corporate world to being self-employed wasn’t as seamless as Justus’ attitude, however.

His wife, Nicole, works as a nurse at ProMedica, while he handles things at home between jobs. The domestic part of the deal was easy: Justus grew up the fifth of seven kids in North Olmsted, so doing the laundry and cooking and cleaning while his wife works wasn’t anything new.

The financial side of things proved a little trickier. Although he has a background in marketing and sales, Justus struggled trying to figure out how to make money as a full-time artist. There was trial and error. He tried different websites, not always with success.

“You just have to find out what works for you,” he said.

For Justus, one of those things that worked was painting parties, which he started three years ago. He paints with senior citizens at area nursing homes. He heavily markets his work on his website and social media. He found his niche.

“It took me a year not to panic that I needed to get something done,” he said.

Justus completes about 60 to 80 paintings a year. The walls of the family’s modest Maumee home are covered in Justus originals.

Always one to include humor in his daily routine, he responds to the name “Starving Artist Greg,” and oftentimes tells people he “will paint for food,” which he says brings on interesting conversations with the public.

Barefoot and with a brush in his hand, Justus is definitely at home in the paint-splattered studio, a small room in the house covered inch by inch in finished and unfinished colorful inspiration. His 10-year-old son, Gavin, or one of his cats can often be found helping.

Give him a commission, and it transforms into something whose subject is intact but with a flavor that only Justus can add. His signature technique, modern impressionism, is a take on the latter with a contemporary flair.

Like the impressionists of the 19th century, Justus paints in the moment, working to achieve an experience rather than geometric accuracy. Electric blue waves tower over bright orange beaches, with equally vibrant surfboards stuck in the sand. Curvy wine bottles stagger across the canvas. Red, purple, and blue birch tree branches scratch and bend their way off the panes of an old window and onto the chipped wood frame. A neon green tree releases its leaves in the pit of autumn, its blue, red and orange leaves appearing as if they will leap off the canvas and fall at your feet.

The paint is acrylic, sometimes applied straight to the canvas from the tube, its squiggly lines inviting you to just enjoy the moment and not the insignificant details. Justus worked with oils for awhile but ultimately chose acrylics for their flexibility and rapid drying capabilities.

“I don’t want to screw around with [waiting for the paint to dry]. I just want to paint,” he said.

Once a commissioned piece is in the customer’s hands, it becomes an art adoption and receives the proper fanfare on the artist’s page. He was commissioned to do a painting of the Hancock County Courthouse by Findlay attorney Christie Ranzau, who has collected more than a dozen of his paintings since she first saw his work at an art fair in 2011. Not an art collector by nature, she said she was immediately drawn to her first Justus purchase, a landscape scene with trees and a fence in the distance that “had so many layers of paint on it, it was almost three-dimensional.”

To date, Ranzau has placed five Justus pieces in her home and seven in her Findlay law office, Rooney and Ranzau Ltd.

“What attracted me first and foremost, are the colors. He’s not afraid to use them. And he doesn’t seem to have any rules,” she said. “What I like about his artwork is, you look at it and you are just happy. It evokes happiness. And people talk about it.”

Kalie Fisher of Bowling Green, who at age 14 is fighting stage 4 colon cancer, is one of the patients Justus currently works with at St. V’s.

On a recent visit, he broke out the colored markers, and the quiet girl with the short cropped hair and pink reindeer pajamas plucked a blue one from the pile. She handed Justus a gray one.

“I’ll try to draw as good as you do,” he told Kalie as each attempted a rendition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Kalie’s mom, Linda Fisher, said her daughter started to get sick in 2015 and was diagnosed shortly after. For now, she’s stable. Every two weeks, she spends a few days in the hospital for in-patient treatments. That’s usually when Justus visits, and the pair make art.

“She seems a lot happier — it boosts her spirits,” her mom said of the visits.

On this particular holiday visit, the two moved on from the famous reindeer to a picture of a Christmas cupcake, and then, a silly bird.

Kalie intently watched Justus’ technique before imitating it. Justus drew back from the table and inspected their work.

“Yours still looks better than mine,” he noted. “Thanks for helping me.”

Contact Roberta Gedert at:, 419-724-6075, or on Twitter @RoGedert.

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