LINCOLN PARK — After the recent death of a 97-year-old Chicago artist, his family is working to preserve his photographs through a GoFundMe campaign.
"It's telling a little piece of the history of Chicago," said Victor Grigas, whose father, Vytautas "Victor" Grigas, died earlier this month.
"We're dealing with the fact that we'll never see him again. But 97 — what more can you ask for?" Grigas said.
For one, they'd like to start by preserving his work — boxes and boxes filled with thousands of photos, slides, negatives and film amassed over decades spent working as a professional photographer in the postwar era in Chicago.
Grigas would like to have the entire collection digitized and posted on Wikimedia Commons for anyone to use, as long as his father is credited.
"That was key," he said. "We want to have his name on it."
So Grigas created a GoFundMe page immediately after his father's death, setting a $10,000 goal as a "rough estimate" of what it will take to digitize and preserve the images.
"It's going to take time, and it's the time we're paying for," Grigas said.
A little more than two weeks later, the campaign is almost a third of the way to its goal.
"We're just floored," Grigas said. "In a week we got $3,000. It's incredible."
Grigas' father's life was, in some ways, the city in microcosm during the 20th century.
According to Grigas, he was born in 1919 in Bridgeport and brought up in a "beer flat" — an apartment that sold home brew where the police couldn't bust in without a warrant, a common sideline in the Prohibition era.
"Everybody and their mom was brewing at home, because you were importing Europeans by the boatload," Grigas said, and they were not going to be denied their native beer. Merchants sold huge packages of yeast at Maxwell Street, and everyone well knew what they were used for.
"It was a rough upbringing," Grigas said.
His father qualified for multiple deferments during World War II, but volunteered anyway, inspired by the repulsion he felt after reading Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf."
In the Army, he found a pair of vocations that would guide him the rest of his life. Having had an uncle who was a photographer, he took it up in the Army and came home with a Leica. He became a professional wedding and portrait photographer in the decades after the war, opening Victor Studio in Bridgeport.
But having worked with Army engineers, he also took to building houses upon his return: one in suburban Willow Springs, then three apartment buildings he bought and renovated in Old Town and Lincoln Park.
One, at 1920 N. Clark St., has since been razed, but two others are still standing and still owned by the Grigas family: one at 1516 N. Sedgwick St., the other at 655 W. Wrightwood Ave. Both are marked by artistic walls in the front fitted with found materials like radiators and railroad ties.
"All of them have this funky style," Grigas said. "It's an expression of himself. It serves a purpose with a sense of privacy, security."
Inside, the apartments were likewise fitted out with whatever Grigas' father could find or scavenge, helped by a surge of construction on LaSalle Street that leveled many old buildings. He came away with materials and even stained-glass windows he incorporated into the buildings in a style reminiscent of the earlier Depression-era work of Edgar Miller and Sol Kogen and their artist colony on Burton Place.
"He didn't do this in a bubble," Grigas said. "He was influenced by all the Old Town [buildings], the center of hippie-ness.
"He was always this bohemian type who was always into these kinds of things, and into style," Grigas said. "He'd go Dumpster diving, fish out things — anything that might work and might not work."
Included in the smattering of photos Grigas posted on the GoFundMe page are shots of Old Town hippies in the neighborhood's '60s heyday, as well as images from the demonstrations surrounding the Democratic Convention in 1968, when he was living in the building at 1920 N. Clark St.
"He had a front-row seat," Grigas said.
Multiplied by the thousands, the collection of images figures to embellish the city's history. "His bread-and-butter stuff was weddings and portraits, but like any creative person he was trying all kinds of things," Grigas said. "He was curious about everything."
So the Grigas family — he is survived by a wife and Grigas' brother, as well as two grandchildren — is simply trying to preserve the work in a way that opens it up to anyone who wants to make use of it, even as they try to preserve the surviving Old Town and Lincoln Park apartment buildings as well.
"We're dealing with all the estate stuff now, but our intention is to keep them," Grigas said. "They're our dad's work."