Gris Grimly: alumnus’ work earns Oscar for best animated picture
During the university’s annual homecoming and alumni reunion weekend, the Concordia Alumni Association honors alumni and friends for their outstanding service and accomplishments. Gris Grimly received the 2023 Alumnus of the Year award. The Concordia University, Nebraska Alumnus of the Year award is given to an alumnus who has demonstrated outstanding performance in his or her vocation.
Some Concordia alumni may remember him as Steven Soenksen ’98, but the art world and movie industry know him as Gris Grimly. A talented and experienced illustrator and author, Grimly’s art features a uniquely dark yet whimsical style.
Originally from West Point, Nebraska, Grimly graduated from West Point High in 1994 and went on to earn his bachelor of fine arts in studio art from Concordia Nebraska. He moved to California after graduation to begin his career in illustrating. He has illustrated for Disney, Universal and a variety of well-known authors.
Grimly was asked to illustrate the classic novel “Pinocchio” early in his professional career. That book was published and released in 2003.
“Shortly after that I started developing an idea for a Pinocchio animated movie,” he explained. “On the top of my list of directors to approach with this project was Guillermo Del Toro. I received a call from a gallery that was currently exhibiting the artwork from my Pinocchio book. They informed me that Guillermo came in and bought a piece of art from my Pinocchio. I asked them if they could get me a meeting with him.”
Before he knew it, Grimly was having lunch with Guillermo. He brought a folder of sketches and presented Del Toro with his ideas.
“He loved it and said he would produce it, but he wanted me to direct it. I worked as director on the project, developing the look and story for the film. In 2010, we pitched the movie to all the big studios in Hollywood.”
But despite much effort and hard work, no one bought it. Del Toro took over as director and determinedly continued to work on the project for years. It finally found a home on Netflix.
“Upon the release, the endearing film was very well received,” said Grimly. “It continued to acquire awards including an Oscar for best animated picture. It’s been a long bumpy roller coaster ride with a happy ending.”
Grimly grew up in Nebraska. He said chose to attend Concordia Nebraska because he wanted to further his education close to home, he liked the campus, and he was intrigued by the art program offerings. He has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the university.
“The professors at Concordia were great, amazing artists and loving educators,” he said. “But unfortunately, I had an ego and was very rebellious. While I look back and recognize that a wiser me could have taken advantage of the art education there, I also see how this discourse pushed me into discovering myself and my unique style.”
Following graduation, Grimly attended a number of comic conventions in California where he shared his portfolio.
“At Comic Con in San Diego I met Dawn Rivera who at the time worked at Universal Studios. She responded positively to my work and reassured me if I moved to Los Angeles she would find me work,” he said. “A few months later I packed up my car and moved west. I was renting a room in East Los Angeles and needed a job to pay bills. I found myself working as a barista in a Pasadena coffee house. I connected with Dawn, and she also found me some jobs at Universal. But she believed I had more potential then she could ever give me there. She was very instrumental in my confidence and trajectory. She introduced me to my first book agent who landed me my first job illustrating children’s books. That is how it all began.”
Simply put, Grimly illustrates books and develops content for film and television. While the book illustration is self-explanatory, working in entertainment is less understood, he said.
“There are basically two ways in which you navigate in the film industry. The first is work-for-hire. I have had paid jobs with the task of developing artwork to support a film in development or production,” he said. “The second is as a content creator. This path is more entrepreneurship. In this way, I develop ideas from the ground up involving story and artwork and pitch the idea to investors and studios. This way is harder for most people to maintain because of the absence of security. I basically work for free or ‘on spec’ in hopes to sell the project in the end.”
The early days of his career in Los Angeles featured 60 to 80 hour work weeks and a lot of hard work. But he said he loved every moment of it. These days, Grimly works much less, fitting in a lot of this work in the early morning hours before his family wakes up. He said his family homeschools and enjoys the outdoors together.
“Once the kids are up, I join them for breakfast and outdoor excursions. I’m a very present homeschooler. After some time outside, we come in and work on curriculum. Sometimes, my wife takes over and I go back to work. Sometimes we spend the whole day together as a family,” he explained. “We are unconventional homeschoolers. We can be better described as un-schoolers or wild schoolers. We believe that children learn best when they are developmentally ready on their own terms in tactile environments. We are very connected to nature and find this connectivity vital for spirituality…We moved back to Nebraska almost four years ago to get out of the city. But we go back and forth and will spend weeks at a time in California.”
Grimly said his time at Concordia Nebraska had a great impact on his life. “The friends and relationships I made and the experiences I had [really stand out]. Those were very formative years for me, as they are for all youth who are leaving the security of their family for the first time,” he said. “Those were years of experimentation, self-realization and hard knocks. Even though I haven’t kept in contact with everyone from that era of my life, there is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t think of someone and how they affected who I am today.”
Although his work days look different in Nebraska than they did in Los Angeles, and there’s no typical “day at the office,” Grimly said he never tires of brainstorming and creating, and he still thrills at the fulfillment it brings.
“I think it’s the expelling of creative energy. I think it’s important for everyone’s well-being to have this release whether you are a pro or a hobbyist,” he said. “All children have this release and it is imperative for their development. Why should it not be equally necessary for human development throughout all years of age?”
When he’s not creating, working or spending time with his family, he enjoys gardening and reading and said he has aspirations of becoming a hobby farmer.
Are you interested in discovering art program offerings available at Concordia Nebraska? Learn more here.