It's not every day a guy throws away a career in international banking to become a visual artist.
"Gaugin," the painter Ludolf Grollé retorts instantly when you make that observation. "He was a stockbroker. But he went to Tahiti, and I came to Winnipeg."
As he prepares for the opening of his self-mounted commercial exhibition next week, to which he has invited 250 business types, Grollé comes across as one of the most exotic, and colourful, flowers to take root in our hard-scrabble Prairie soil.
"His spirituality is represented in his paintings," says Lorelei Morrison, a Concordia Hospital nurse who has just bought two large-scale Grollé works.
"He's a very deep man."
A former controller with the financial firm JP Morgan in Amsterdam and Paris, Grollé is a sweet-talking, quick-witted, silver-haired fox, the kind of handsome devil who wears a German designer sport jacket, a Swiss Longines watch and American Lucchese leather boots.
He was born 56 years ago on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where his father, a Huguenot descended from French nobility (the family name is Grollé de Rochefort), ran a rubber plantation.
Raised in French and English (his mother was the daughter of a Welsh military officer), he spent his childhood in various countries before being shipped, at age 9, to public school in England, where he was, in his half-brother's words, a member of the "impoverished upper classes."
After obtaining his undergraduate degree, in French, English and philosophy, he considered the life of the starving artist, but his first wife set him straight.
He took a job as a bank clerk and worked his way up the ladder. At his peak, he was earning almost $250,000 a year and driving a Mercedes.
His career took him to London, Amsterdam, Milan, Madrid and several American cities. He dabbled in art all the time.
"I wish I'd been an artist at 20," says Grollé, who'd rather talk philosophy than arbitrage. "It took me to 50."
In 2001, having accumulated three ex-wives and two children, he met Winnipegger Diane Frances, an MTS human resources manager with two teenagers of her own.
The lightning of love struck again. By this time, Grollé had a portable consulting practice, so he followed Diane here. It was March 2002 and a trifle chilly for a mid-Atlantic sophisticate.
"I remember walking down Leila Avenue to the Garden City Shopping Centre," he says. "I didn't think I'd make it back alive."
He figures it took him five years to learn to love Winnipeg's discount-city charms. In the meantime, he started to paint more seriously. He set up a studio in the basement of his and Diane's East Kildonan home.
Grollé's metier is abstract expressionism in acrylics. He rarely use a brush; he prefers a roller and scraper to obtain a textured effect.
He does not make prints. Every work is an original. "I think everyone should have the opportunity to own original art," he says. "I want art to be accessible and affordable."
All his paintings mix just the three primary colours: blue, yellow and red.
"There is something about his art that speaks to people," says gallery owner Terry Lacosse, who has represented him in Winnipeg since 2006.
"He is influenced by the early 20th-century abstract expressionists, like Kandinsky and even Pollock."
Grollé is also very influenced by his business background, in that he understands pricing, marketing and self-promotion.
He already has dealers in London and New York. He sold a number of works through the Medea Gallery in Osborne Village in September 2007.
That year he placed several of his paintings in the Winnipeg Art Gallery rental and sales shop. One of them caught the eye of Diane Sparrow, co-owner of the Norwood Hotel and Inn at the Forks (and, along with her husband, Bob, a longtime Winnipeg arts patron).
"His forte is marketing," says Sparrow, who has bought several Grollés for the Norwood lobby. "He's quite inspiring. He sees the possibilities and opportunities for his work."
The Sparrows earned headlines in 2003 when they bought more than 100 original streetscapes by Winnipeg watercolourist Sharon Cory for the rooms at their newly opened Inn at the Forks.
Now they have partnered with Grollé and Lacosse for an innovative art exhibition. The opening, in the hotel ballroom Aug. 27, promises to be a swanky affair attended by many elite business people.
Using his Rolodex, Grollé has obtained business sponsors to underwrite the cost of the event, which he estimates at $20,000.
The exhibition will display 25 large-scale pieces, priced from $1,500 to $4,500, and 75 smaller works on paper, all for a flat $1,000.
Opening-night buyers all get a 25 per cent discount (hey, he's figured us out!), and he promises to donate 25 per cent of his earnings to charity.
Until Sept. 27, the pieces will hang in the hotel's restaurant, The Current. Management has even designed a menu to complement the visual art experience.
"This show is for all the suppressed artists of Winnipeg," Grollé says. "They have to make their own success. They can't just sit around and wait for it to happen."