31 August 2019 03:52PM
Judy’s death at midnight last night was so shocking. It seemed to have occurred suddenly, although she had been ill for months. For most of those months she told no one but her dear friend and assistant, Alice Witherell, and her Bennington College roommate, our mutual dear friend Toby Rafelson, who said nothing about Judy’s illness to me until a week or so ago.
I think it would have felt sudden and shocking even with time to prepare. Despite the fact that she was well into her ninth decade, Judy never got old. She just got sick. And until then, she had the energy of a three-year-old girl and a seventeen-year-old boy, combined.
Judy’s energy was visible, palpable, remarkable; it exuded from her being and would have been extraordinary for someone of any age. She never seemed to stop moving, or talking, often at the same time. My partner, John Isaacs, and I would marvel at it whenever we saw her and were convinced she would literally never stop. She never retired and we were sure she never would.
Judith Backer Grunberg was the oldest of the newcomers. Judy and her husband Paul emigrated to Columbia County as expatriate New Yorkers in the 60s, long before it was fashionable. Judy was an artist and a mother. Judy and Paul’s three sons went to Chatham public schools, and though I came in in the late middle of this movie, as the children grew up and away and Paul died (nearly two decades ago), Judy produced a formidable body of work that included textile design, woodcuts, photographs, graphics, painting, much of it shown in retrospective at TSL in June of 2015, where I shot the above photo.
But she also became an unstoppableforce in Chatham. A may-the-force-be-with-you force. The force behind a restaurant, a natural food store, a used-clothing store, and best of all a miraculous theater in an apple orchard.
Judy was Chatham’s most generous, creative, energetic, productive citizen. She bought The Blue Plate and gave it another life. She was co-founder of Chatham Real Food Co-op. She helped save the beloved Crandell Theater and continued to support it and its festival, FilmColumbia. She opened a second-hand clothing store called Re-wraps to support her most wonderful gift, not only to Chatham, but to all of Columbia County—PS21 (Performance Spaces for the 21st Century, in case you didn’t know), now a stunningly beautiful, functional, and convertible theater. It goes inside when it gets cold outside. (In fact, Judy supported and participated in causes and initiatives all over the county. She was a board member of Friends of Hudson in the thick of the six-year fight against the threat of a massive coal-fired cement plant looming over Hudson, and a board member of TSL, WAMC, and who knows how many other acronyms.)
The last time I saw Judy was in that exalted and exhilarating space was also the last time I saw Judy, only four weeks ago. She gave a variation on her usual before-the-curtain speech, in a less physically and emotionally animated state than usual. I thought maybe she had decided that the new theater called for a different demeanor. I also thought she looked rather beautiful. I now know that it was because she was thinner and it made her face look elegant. We chatted about Toby’s upcoming visit, the extensive search for Executive Director Elena Siyanko. Not a mention of her illness.
It was only in the last year or two that Judy returned to Manhattan, where she grew up, but as a weekender in reverse. She loved her little Greenwich Village flat and even made art there, which became half of a TSL show of photographs of passsersby her half-underground window. The other half were images of other kinds of passersby, birds flying past her windows here at home. Two expressions of the same singular vision.
Everything Judy made and did was an expression of her sometimes quirky, often expansive, always deeply generous vision. She didn’t shout about what she accomplished; she just did it. Because she cared. Because she could. She was one of a very special kind, and I don’t think they’re making any more like her.
May the force go with you, Judy.