"They named me Hap. I have a tattoo that says 'Hap' right here," Maurice Grossman said, pointing to his left shoulder. "I was the happy guy."
The artist and LGBT activist, who died on Thursday, Jan. 21, at 82, got that tattoo when he served in the U.S. Navy, and the nickname came from the sailors he worked with.
Grossman told his life story last year as part of a series on local LGBT seniors that was organized by Penelope Starr when she worked at Wingspan. Lucky for us, his story was preserved on film by another former Wingspan staffer, Luanne Withee.
At the Feb. 22, 2009, event, Grossman talked about growing up as a skinny poor kid in Detroit during the Depression. While his home life was stressful, Grossman said he found a lot of love from the neighborhood women who fed him and admired his artwork.
"The neighbor women gave me all the things I call love now, because it was so difficult to find," Grossman said.
It was at school where Grossman found his purpose, he said—especially in the art room with the art teacher, whom he kept in touch with throughout his life until she died in California.
"Whenever I won anything ... I let her know," he said.
Grossman said home life got worse as he got older, so at the age of 15, he took a bus from Detroit to Los Angeles. He had about $200 on him. However, he found a place to live and got a job washing dishes. After a couple of years, he returned home, and his father made him join the Navy.
During his story, Grossman talked about his wife, with whom he had three children, and he discussed how he balanced being in the closet and being married with a family. It wasn't until his wife died in 1979 that he came out of the closet.
"That part of me was lying there, sort of waiting. But I had three marvelous kids and a wonderful wife ... and a wonderful life. My daughter once said to me, 'I'm glad you went sideways, Dad, because otherwise, I wouldn't be here,'" Grossman said.
"When I did come out, all my friends said, 'We've known for years.'"
He also noted: "Here I am going on 82 ... still enjoying the journey."
Last year, Wingspan honored him with the Godat Award for community leadership. He was also involved with Democratic Party politics. He was a founding member of the Southern Arizona Stonewall Democrats, and was known for registering voters—while donning a rainbow flag around his waist—at many a political event.
"I remember always seeing Maurice collecting signatures. He could also make any (political) sign into a hat," says Wingspan board president Cynthia Garcia. "Then he'd stand out there and get people to register to vote or campaign against (anti-gay-marriage initiatives) Prop 102 and 107. He was amazing."
Paul Durham, the Stonewall Democrats co-chair, says he wonders how everyone in the political world will survive without him.
"The rest of us are going to have to work a little harder because he's not there ... It's going to take a lot of effort from a bunch of people to fill the gap he left behind," Durham says. "I know that he believed that certainly as a gay man, you really need to be aware, involved, active, vote and engaged, and speak out for yourself, or otherwise, you get trampled on."
Friend Vincent Wicks says he first met Grossman when he became part of a group of friends who ate dinner together every Thursday. They called themselves the Thursday Night Crew.
"He'd want us to celebrate life as much as he did. I don't think I ever saw him not celebrate life," Wicks says. "He made the best of every moment."
On Grossman's 75th birthday, Wicks says, friends got together to throw him a huge party, and Wicks' favorite moment of the evening was singing "Happy Birthday Mr. President" to Grossman.
Wicks says every Halloween and Day of the Dead, Grossman made his friends festive hats.
"He was a role model to me. I wish he were my father. I looked at him and would wish I was 10 percent of him," Wicks says. "He really taught me how to love people."
Late last week, news of Maurice Grossman's unexpected death spread rapidly through Tucson's arts community. Stunned artists simply could not believe that the effervescent elder with the megawatt smile could be dead.
"I've seen him three times in the past month," said John McNulty, a fellow ceramics artist who runs the Museum Shop at the Tucson Museum of Art. "He was in over the weekend getting some of his pieces to take photos of." He brought them back, and "they're looking at me right now," McNulty added. "My stomach hurts. I can't think about it."
Grossman, who founded the UA's ceramics program back in 1955, was still making art, still exhibiting and still turning up at every possible art opening, lecture and play to support his fellow artists. Five nights before his death, painter Nancy Tokar Miller saw him at the Lynn Redgrave play Rachel and Juliet; two nights before the play, she saw him at The Drawing Studio for a lecture given by Tucson painter Bailey Doogan.
"He was such a presence," said art collector Dan Leach. "I don't know if I ever went to an opening, and he wasn't there. He was such an ebullient spirit. He had a major impact on this community."
Besides loyally supporting his fellow artists, Grossman regularly donated his ceramics works to charitable auctions and showed his works in galleries large and small.
The artist had valve-replacement surgery on Jan. 19 and seemed to be recovering, said ceramics artist Marcy Wrenn, a longtime friend. His children, Stephen and Lauren, were with him at the hospital on Jan. 21 when he died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism, a complication of surgery.
"He had been through a lot in his life," Wrenn said.
His oldest child, Barbara, died of melanoma at the age of 23 in 1979, the same year his wife, Marilyn, died of a stroke in early middle age. "He always transcended it. He was always seeing the bright side. He spread his optimism around. He was a great artist, a great man and a great dad."
Grossman enrolled at Wayne State University, intending to become a painter. He was studying watercolor and commercial art, "but I fell in love with clay," he told the Tucson Weekly in 2007, when he had a retrospective at Dinnerware, timed to coincide with his 80th birthday. "Clay took over my life."
He went on to get his master's degree in ceramics at Ohio State and studied at New York's Alfred University in the summers. His earliest pieces were lovely but functional artworks, vases and pots made on the traditional potter's wheel. However, a Fulbright year in Japan in 1954 radically transformed his work and his life. He became a Buddhist and moved away from functional forms to pure sculptures that happened to be made of clay, and gave up the wheel for slab assembly. His new spirituality informed his works.
Even so, he didn't embrace a new orthodoxy. He often mixed his techniques, making creative hybrid pieces that veered from slab to mold to wheel. Painterly and architectural, they draw from the international traditions of the many countries he visited: India, Bali, Greece and Mexico. Dinnerware's David Aguirre, who curated the 2007 retrospective, said then that Grossman's innovations helped change the medium.
Grossman also changed the Tucson art scene. For some 35 years, he taught at the UA, initiating thousands of students into the clay arts and winning a Creative Teaching Award and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. In the 1960s, he helped found the Tucson Craft Guild with such eminent artists as Rose and Erni Cabat. Located in the Tucson Art Center, an organization that evolved into the Tucson Museum of Art, the guild was an early and influential advocate for the crafts as fine art.
Grossman and others were recently planning a retrospective of the guild members' early works. That show will likely be reorganized as an homage to Grossman, McNulty said. "He lived an amazing life."
Wicks says friends are currently working with his family on organizing a memorial, but no date has been set.
Part of the challenge, he says, could be finding a big enough space.