A BIGGER STAGE
WHEN MCKOY ARRIVED AT CLEMSON, he came as an architecture major. But two summers of working at an architecture firm convinced him that the actual business of architecture compared to the study of architecture really didn’t appeal to him. So he changed his major to zoology, not for the passion he had for living things, but because it didn’t require a foreign language. He spent two years in summer school, raising his GPA enough to graduate.
When McKoy finished Clemson, Gilbert Maggioni reached out and said, “Grainger, why don’t you move down to Beaufort and try carving for six months, try for a year. I have a garage here, and you can work with me.”
That was music to McKoy’s ears. In May of 1970, he and his wife, Floride, picked up and moved to Beaufort to see if he could make a career out of carving. McKoy was so excited, he couldn’t even wait for graduation. He gave Clemson $2 to mail his diploma. Maggioni “challenged me like no one before or since,” McKoy says.
In Beaufort, McKoy and Maggioni caught the eye of Lee Loomis, who lived on Bull Island and was on the board of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. That led to an exhibit of Maggioni’s and McKoy’s bird sculptures at the museum in the spring of 1974, only four years after McKoy began to seriously pursue his carving.
Nelson Bryant, in a review in The New York Times, said, “If wooden birds could fly, those carved by Gilbert Maggioni and Grainger McKoy would be among the first to take wing.” He called the work “startlingly realistic and incredibly detailed.”
While he was in New York, McKoy was approached by the director of the prestigious Hammer Galleries on 57th Street with the offer of a one-man show. It was a heady time.
McKoy went back home and carved. And carved. “It took me 2½ years to sculpt enough for that exhibition,” he says.
He went to New York for his one-man exhibit, and it was tremendously successful. “Everything sold,” he says. “As I was crossing 57th Street after the exhibit closed with a check in my pocket, it dawned on me that all I had to look forward to for the next couple years was to again work as hard as I had been just to get back to the same spot on 57th Street … and why did that thought leave me empty?”
He went back home to Wadmalaw Island, where he and his family had moved, and drove a tractor on his brother’s farm for a few months. He had a profound visit with an old friend dying of kidney disease who was greeting death with a serene faith and then an even more profound experience when home alone reading through the Nicene Creed in the Book of Common Prayer.
“When I finished reading,” he says, “I believed.”
He says at that point he realized he had been worshipping the creation, instead of the creator: “I discovered I was dancing on such a small part of the stage, and when I discovered the creator I could look through the creation and see this bigger stage to dance on.”