May 9—CLAYTON — The last art piece that multidisciplinary artist Gregory J. Lago worked on is an unfinished wood block engraving, which he had high hopes for. It features a group of angels playing a variety of musical instruments. But in the lower right corner, the figure of a man looks over his shoulder at the angel flock, apparently running away as if not quite ready to join the heavenly ensemble.
"I can just hear Greg, 'Love the music but I gotta go ... catch you later,'" his wife, Karen Nadder Lago, said on Sunday, two days after the angels arrived and unexpectedly took her husband.
Mr. Lago, a north country artist who carved, painted, pounded, sculpted, cut and engraved his tales into a dizzying array of mediums, died at the age of 74 after celebrating his birthday Thursday evening at The Clipper Inn. People Mr. Lago hadn't seen in a while, many back from the winter away, greeted him. People bought him drinks. Others took photos and videos, while Mr. Lago entertained all with his acclaimed story-telling talents.
"It was a Greg Lago celebration, and he had a wonderful time," Mrs. Lago said.
Mr. Lago went to bed that evening and didn't wake up. The likely cause of death is a failed heart.
On Tuesday, friends and family will return to The Clipper Inn for a reception following Mr. Lago's funeral at Christ Episcopal Church, 235 John St., Clayton.
Mr. Lago's artwork can be seen across Northern New York — in homes, galleries and museums, and in items from shop signs, public art, furniture, to framed pieces on walls. While primarily a wood engraver, he was an accomplished sculptor, painter and graphic illustrator. His work has illustrated numerous books and was exhibited in major galleries in the United States and Great Britain. His multidisciplinary life in art reflected his diverse life.
The son of Sue and Roswell Lago, Mr. Lago grew up in Middleport, Niagara County, a village along the Erie Canal. He became captain of the football and track teams at Royalton-Hartland High School and was active in high school theater productions. He volunteered for the Army in 1968 to see the world and seek adventure, and was sent to Vietnam.
"When I was a kid, I wasn't political or anything, but I knew I didn't have enough stories and I needed to have some adventures," Mr. Lago told the Times in 2021. "I needed to get out of Middleport. I had no idea what was going on politically in the world at all."
In the Army, he became an expert marksman and served as a forward observer assigned to the 26th Infantry Regiment (The Blue Spaders) of the 1st Infantry Division, calling in target locations for artillery strikes from the field. He rose to sergeant during his service and was awarded a Bronze Star with Valor and two Purple Hearts.
After his Army service, Mr. Lago attended Buffalo State University, courtesy of the G.I. Bill. There, he fell under the influence of Frank Eckmair,1930-2012, a master of the woodcut who created works evoking rural life in upstate New York.
Mr. Lago spent years taking cross country trips to Arizona and down the state's Ruby Road with friends before moving to the north country. Mr. Lago's father was a native of Carthage, but Greg became acquainted with the Thousand Islands region when introduced to it by a high school girlfriend whose family had a summer home in this area. He opened his first gallery in Clayton, North Country Graphics, in 1971. He met wife Karen at O'Brien's Restaurant and Bar, Webb Street, Clayton. They married in 1977 and built their home together on House Road.
Mr. Lago worked as a civilian illustrator at Fort Drum for over a decade. In 1997, he left to take over the small business he built with his wife, Winged Bull Studio on James Street in Clayton.
Mr. Lago served on the board of the Thousand Islands Arts Center, where he also taught classes and showed his work. He was a member of the Society of American Graphic Artists and the New York Center for the Book Arts and was a founding member of Fibonacci Art Gallery, an artists collective at 100 Court St., Watertown.
Art and community
"Greg had a passion for art. It was his life," said Fibonacci artist Kathleen Morris of Alexandria Bay. "He was also passionate about his sense of community. For him, Fibonacci was a way to bring all of those pieces together."
Ms. Morris said Mr. Lago was especially interested in promoting downtown Watertown and its revitalization.
"He worked very hard to develop relationships with other vendors, restaurants and little storefronts on the Square," Ms. Morris said. "He would walk around and visit with people and talk about things we could do to bring people to the Square and to help people enjoy art, life and Watertown."
In 2021 the TIAC hosted the months-long exhibition, "Bird on the Wire: The Art of Greg Lago." Its title was taken from one of the signature songs by the late Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen.
"It was probably one of the best shows we've had in 10 years," said TIAC executive director Leslie W. Rowland. "Greg had supporters from all over the country who came to see the retrospective of his life's work. And virtually everything that he put in the show sold, which is unheard of. That's never happened here."
Ms. Rowland said that artist also made himself available Saturdays during the exhibit, to talk to visitors and explain his works.
"He also did a gallery talk as part of the exhibition, where he had a lot of his tools set up and he'd explain what the different pieces did," Ms. Rowland said. "There was always a story behind each art piece, which was fascinating. It was the fabric of this community. Every piece of artwork told a story."
Mr. Lago often brought stories with him in his visits to TIAC. "He loved the art center," Ms. Rowland said. "He would come in regularly and bring in a dozen doughnuts or some kind of other treat, and we'd shoot the breeze. The staff would drop everything, chat and laugh."
"The outpouring of people's positive feelings for Greg has been amazing and somewhat overwhelming," Mrs. Lago said in an email. "Every artist who met Greg has talked about how generous he was with his time and support and how he mentored them with encouragement and shared his deep knowledge or art. Those who aren't artists went on about his compassion, wit and willingness to take on whatever task needed to be done."
At the TIAC, one of those tasks — Mr. Lago's sculpture carved from a locust tree of Emily K. Post, founder of the Thousand Islands Craft School, has been greeting visitors from the front yard since 2004.
"By the time you get to be 60, you'll probably be a pretty good artist if you stay with it that long," Mr. Lago told the Times in 2021. "Really good art is about time. And actually, it takes a long time to be declared art. What becomes art is that what survives." — - — Online condolences to Mr. Lago's family may be posted at www.cummingsfuneral.com.