WILMINGTON — As Jim McGrath was working on his latest painting — the dark trunk of a tree had been added to the center of a white canvas, and some other trees in winter colors were depicted in the background as a line of woods — two couples entered his gallery and studio, at 22 West Main St.
There had been plenty of sunlight on this recent Saturday afternoon, but the temperatures were still like those of winter. A woman in her 30s, snuggly zipped into a black puffer jacket, had lifted sunglasses onto her head and was looking at the paintings with a man whose coat dangled open under a black scarf.
The shop has a rectangular shape that is perpendicular to the street. McGrath’s studio is in the back. The gallery is the front, where the works displayed for sale can take advantage of the natural light that enters through multiple windows.
McGrath nodded at the entrants as he chatted with a visitor in his studio.
The other browsers were older – perhaps by three or four decades. Both wore knitted caps.
Murmured conversations from the gallery drifted down the hallway and into the studio where McGrath was discussing commercial conditions.
Both groups left the shop without making a purchase, but the softspoken artist was unconcerned. His business is not like that of a corner store, where a high volume of tiny transactions is necessary for keeping the lights on. His enterprise resembles a furniture store – where transaction counts are low, but the average sale is high.
“Business is great,” McGrath said. “And it gets better as my name gets out there. This is an incredibly good spot, and may be one of the best spots in town.”
McGrath, 70, knows the area and has a good understanding of business. He has been here since 1976. Until 2006, he worked as a carpenter.
When he was in high school, in Worcester, Mass., he started painting landscapes. He had a natural talent, his teachers said, and they would recommend his acceptance into the art department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. McGrath’s parents thought steadier paychecks would come to an engineer over an artist.
“And so I went to Wentworth Institute instead for mechanical engineering,” McGrath said, “which I didn’t finish and I went off a wandering at that age.”
He eventually wandered into Windham County and established himself as a carpenter. At his house in West Dover, after hours, he would paint for pleasure.
By 2005, McGrath said, carpentry had caused pains to his knees, back and other parts of his body. It became harder for him to perform his duties, and some friends urged him to try selling his paintings.
He began sharing space with the artist Karen Baker in a gallery and studio on the second floor of 4 North Main St. in Wilmington.
Patrons began to buy McGrath’s works, and by 2006 he had retired from professional carpentry. He continued to use the shared Wilmington studio until the 2011 floods, after which he worked from his home studio for a short time before signing a lease for 22 B West Main St.
McGrath’s landscapes are rendered in oil paints. In the gallery recently were some large original paintings priced for $4,800, $1,700 and $1,600.
“Pricing is so hard,” McGrath said. “I thought I came up with a formula once – around $5 a square inch of canvas space. It’s really rough but it’s how I price it. It makes it fair for people.”
The artist said some of his favorite projects are the small paintings – 5 inches by 7 inches – that he makes so customers can have a McGrath original for $150 unframed, or $210 with a frame. He also sells some prints made from his originals, including on greeting cards which are priced at $3.50 each.
Six years ago, McGrath spent a winter painting 36 area barns, sheds and sugarhouses. For some, he worked from photographs he had taken of the structures. He used plein air painting for the others, and painted while he stood outside and observed the subject.
McGrath engaged the services of a firm to make prints of the three-dozen structures, and set up a tent in front of his store on Memorial Day weekend 2017.
“I sold that tent out,” he recalled, “and I’m not bragging. I sold the heck out of those.”
When he opened his gallery, McGrath created his own works but also accepted commissions. He painted many renderings of the barns, houses and pets that his customers had submitted to him via photographs.
Two years ago, he stopped accepting work for hire.
“I prefer just to do my landscapes,” McGrath said. “With commissions, it’s just a different frame of mind.”
McGrath does not wonder what might have been had he studied art in Amherst instead of an aborted try at learning mechanical engineering in Boston. He earned a good living as a carpenter, he said, but he also lived with his eyes open and tried to enjoy as many life events as they were happening. He considers this library of experiences key to his ability to begin a new painting.
“I wouldn’t change a word of anything – the way it’s been in my life,” McGrath said. “I’m really fortunate to land where I’ve landed. At my age – 70 years old – how great is that, really, to be doing what I love to do?”