Glenn Gordon never achieved fame or fortune, despite being exceptionally talented in multiple fields. But friends say he seemed OK with that.
“He never had a TV, he never had a microwave oven, he never even had a couch until he was 75 years old,” said his sister, Adrienne Bailin, of Sarasota, Fla. “He never had much in the way of material things, but was generous with what he did have.”
Gordon, who handcrafted wood furniture and also was a writer, sculptor and photographer, died on April 19 of cancer at his home in St. Paul. He was 76.
When associates describe Gordon’s talents and tastes, they reach for superlatives: brilliant, perceptive, eloquent, meticulous, and a consummate craftsman.
“He was really kind of a Renaissance man,” said David Swanson of Bridgewater, N.J., who for years shared a woodworking studio with Gordon in St. Paul. “If he pursued it, he didn’t pursue it halfway. He would learn about it, he would perfect it, he would craft it, and then he would work on it for the rest of his life.”
Gordon knew successful artists, but if he minded not being rich or famous he showed little sign of it.
“I don’t think Glenn was ever bitter about his lot in life,” said John Lavine of Berkeley, Calif., a friend who edited Gordon’s articles for two arts and crafts magazines. “I felt aggrieved on his behalf, because I really truly felt like he deserved more widespread recognition than he ever got.”
What Gordon did care about was the quality of his work. Though Lavine was able to pay him only a pittance for his articles, Gordon strove so hard for perfection that he would call to tweak a sentence even as the magazine was going to print.
“For him, it wasn’t about the money,” Lavine said. “He wasn’t going to let anything go out with his name attached to it that wasn’t the very best it could possibly be.”
Gordon was born in New York and as a child moved to California with his family. He attended the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s, when it was the epicenter of the counterculture, but dropped out after a year.
He moved to Chicago, where he became friends with Martin Puryear, a celebrated sculptor. “He was a dear, respected friend whose friendship I kept for as long as he lived,” said Puryear, who now lives in upstate New York.
When the two men met, both were “struggling at about the same level,” Puryear said. Now Puryear’s work can be found in famous museums, including the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. He has won many major awards, including a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the coveted “genius grant” for which Gordon was once nominated but did not win.
They last saw each other about a decade ago, when Puryear had a major exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Their different levels of success can be partly explained by their fields, Puryear said. Producing handcrafted furniture is slow work and unlike sculpture, he said, is not considered “high art.”
Gordon lived in St. Paul for about 20 years, where he continued to make wood stools, tables and other furniture and wrote for local magazines and for national art journals.
He was intensely interested in art and literature. He also baked his own bread and taught himself calligraphy. His friends said he had a gift for captivating conversation.
“He was omnivorously curious,” said Phil Freshman of St. Louis Park. “He was always interested in new things. He didn’t settle into the sort of pattern that most of us do.”
Besides his sister, Gordon’s survivors include his daughter, Nada Gordon, of New York; stepdaughter, Morna Rose Brothers, of Chicago; and, along with Bailin, siblings Vanessa Gordon-Marcus of San Diego and Tracy Gordon, Grants Pass, Ore. Memorial to be announced on CaringBridge.