The thermometer says 95, but it feels like 111, and the only ammunition against the heat for artist Greg Reid as he paints a portrait in the backyard of his blue home on Mill River Road in Oyster Bay are a few chilled Budweisers and an oscillating desk fan perched on a lawn chair.
His father, William Reid, 97, sits outside and watches the cars go by in the shade of the porch’s overhang.
Reid, 57, is familiar with gritting it out in tough conditions. He’s worked in manual labor his whole life. He’s painted houses, shoveled snowed-in driveways, tinkered with toilets and hucked garbage bags.
Through it all, Reid says he has always been compelled to paint. While he hasn’t made a lot of money from his artwork -- he has brought in an average of $2,000 for each of his 16 sales -- the jobs he’s had have allowed him to continue painting. And that has value, he says.
After graduating from Oyster Bay High School in 1970, Reid spent most of his time “bumming around” and studying martial arts until, in 1980, he started working as a garbage man for Glen Cove-based A1 Carting. He quit in 1983, because, he said, “Slinging garbage, riding around on the back of a truck in the rain, and getting harassed all day wasn’t for me.”
That same year, he got a job as a maintenance man at Friends Academy, a boarding school in Locust Valley, where he wound up working until he retired in 2010. Reid didn’t have much experience, but he gave a confident “yes” when asked in the job interview if he did.
“I was kind of lying,” Reid said. “But that’s what you have to do.”
Reid showed his artwork to others at Friends, and his skills impressed his boss, Brian Tilton, so much that Tilton successfully lobbied for school to allow Reid to use a vacant attic as his atelier.
Reid took art classes at The New School in Manhattan from 1986-1988 while also working at Friends, but left because he felt the environment was too creatively restrictive.
Meanwhile, Reid became ingrained in the Friends culture and moved full-time into an old dorm on campus. He gradually became the school’s de facto artist in residence. Friends would occasionally hold art shows featuring his work, with one stipulation: Reid had to tutor students in art classes.
Margaret Lindner, a former art teacher at Friends, said Reid had a “magical bond” with students.
“Greg would tell them not to worry about the drawings,” Lindner said. “It’s not a mistake, it’s just a voice you haven’t heard yet. He would encourage them to come back to that line some day, and tell them that they would hear it.”
Lindner said Reid’s art is special because of his use of color and iconography. “He enjoys the shamanistic feel, he gets into mythology in his work.”
In one of Reid’s pieces, what appears to be a Zulu warrior is dancing as birds fly nearby. In another, a Promethean giant is walking and carrying a lit candle as a man praises him and birds explode from the ground.
Reid said he was “really into Freud and Adler in the late 80’s, and in the early 90’s I read the books of Joseph Campbell. His work really got to me, helped me to see the dark side of consciousness, and how unleashing that side is an important part of any artist’s work.”
He is also influenced by modernist Marc Chagall, the raw, emotive bent of Jean Michel Basquiat and, more than anyone, his childhood hero Pablo Picasso. There is a cubist vein in his work, and the frenetic use of stark, interlocking colors is a theme that runs through most of his paintings.
A piece he is working on now is a reflection on the opposing personas of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The piece features harsh, thick lines and distinct blocs of paint.
“They’re surrealistic, they’re metaphysical, they’re spiritual,” says Sheila Bergman, of Mill Neck, who owns 10 Reid pieces and features them prominently in her house.
Bergman said she "fell in love" with Reid's work when she first encountered it at the Chase Edwards art gallery in Oyster Bay, but couldn't purchase any at the time. She bought pieces when the gallery closed.
“I saw them, I got a great deal, I had to have them. I love the colors,” Bergman said. “He’s a very talented man, and it’s a shame. He should be bigger.”
But Reid is not concerned with making it big. Aside from a base income from his Friends Academy pension, Reid said he’s happy making ends meet with house painting, spackling and landscaping jobs. And every now and then, a painting sale.
“I know a lot of people who’ve quit art,” Reid says. “There’s a lot of hardship, and they don’t have that callous. You have to love what you do, and if you stop doing what you love, you’re losing the best part of you.”
CORRECTION: This story has been changed to reflect the correct spelling of Sheila Bergman's name and her place of residence. Additionally, Bergman has 10 pieces of Reid's art in her home, and she said she was impressed with his work when she first came upon it.