In Memoriam: Greg Cherry

Amy Futa remembers friend and colleague Gregory A. Cherry.

Gregory A. Cherry (1940–2007)

by Amy E. Futa
(from African Arts Winter 2007)

Greg Cherry was five months into what was expected to be a long and contented retirement when his heart decided otherwise. The news of his death was stunning: I’d simply forgotten about his chronic heart condition. Greg, you see, was always so active, so sturdy. He would come to work triumphant despite aching muscles, having spent the weekend doing battle with the monster vinca that dwelled at the bottom of his hill. He regularly lifted backbreaking garden pots and sacks. He hauled receptacles of trash and green waste up and down his treacherous 120-foot driveway where, some years back, he had fallen and shattered his ankle while chasing a coyote away from his cat. That driveway had to be taken slowly: Leaning into your trudge up to the house, you felt as though your nose would touch blacktop.

In 1988 Alice McGaughey was about to retire as the art director of African Arts. Alice and I (as executive editor) had interviewed a parade of would-be successors with growing dismay, until Greg walked in with his portfolio and his deliciously dark sense of humor. His credentials were perfect. A graduate of Occidental College in Los Angeles, Greg was briefly in the art history program at Columbia University, where he intended to focus on Egyptian art. Soon, however, he decided to return to Los Angeles, where he studied at the prestigious Art Center. With his degree in design, he began his career in design, working for several publications before coming to African Arts.

In those days, a publication designer’s hands would wield an X-acto knife, pantograph, ruler, and brush laden with rubber cement to prepare and position type and images. Each perfect page board would then be photographed for printing. That kind of meticulous dexterity is no longer called for, of course, and Greg and I used to grouse about how computers had neutralized the once distinguishing requirements of our crafts—those hand skills in his case, a knack for spelling in mine.

The journal’s transition to computer production was traumatic. Don’t snicker, you pitiless youth, you who grew up with fingers flashing over a keyboard, who think nothing of downloading and uploading and who can’t wait to install the latest operating system! You have no idea what it was like to be dropped, white-haired, into the high-tech wilderness, with publication deadlines howling at your back. Greg howled too, until patient ad-hoc consultants (among them, African-art historian Elisabeth Cameron, then a PhD student with a surprising background in computers) came to the rescue and set his feet on the electronic path.

You couldn’t blame the guy for turning the air blue with frustration. The journal didn’t have the financial means to keep up with the maddening twists and turns in that path-turned-road-turned-superhighway. We plugged along with our aging computers and software until they were no longer compatible with anyone else’s. At some point authors began to send us CDs, which (#$*!) didn’t fit into our little slots for 3½" floppy disks. Greg’s underpowered Mac couldn’t open highresolution image files, or it might take an hour to download a single picture. When we couldn’t afford the large monitor that would allow him to lay out double-page spreads onscreen in color, he worked miracles on his old black-and-white. In those days an author might provide JPEGs without corresponding color prints for reference, and Greg would be reduced to asking, “So tell me, is this textile green or is it red?” It was a stressful situation for any designer, and especially for a perfectionist like Greg.

Yet his eye and, yes, his hands (now comfortably on keyboard and mouse) turned African Arts into a visual feast. The most frequent reaction to the journal was “It’s beautiful!” Especially in the last few years of his career, Greg seemed to enjoy exploring the virtual tools of publications software, his own design matching the richness of the arts presented in each issue. When he retired in September 2006, he didn’t hesitate for a second: He bought his first personal computer.

Greg had other interests too. He loved music of all kinds, except for rap and opera. He liked to work the New York Times crossword puzzle. He was a good cook. He favored all four-footed creatures, but cats most of all—retirement meant he could be a stay-at home dad to his beloved Willie, on whom he lavished the most tender of affections. As for human babies and small children, the sounds of babbling and high-pitched voices in the hallway would invariably provoke the comment “Quick, get the bug spray!” Yet he was attentive and kind to my son, who always regarded him with fondness.

One could argue that Greg’s greatest achievement was his garden. Because his house was on a steep slope, he worked mostly in pots. These were arranged by the tens and hundreds on his large front deck and all around to the back patio, a mind-blowing collection of euphorbias and other exotic succulents, many of them rare. It was gloriously mad to garden this way. Each pot had to be watered individually (every day during the summer months), each pot had to be weeded, and each overgrown specimen had to be divided and repotted—and its offspring found homes with responsible foster parents. In the autumn and following Southern California’s Santa Ana winds, picking oak leaves out of containers of pachypodiums and the many other spiny species Greg loved was a painstaking, painful exercise. His cousin Connie remembers when the collection was invaded by oxalis, a particularly pesky weed whose roots end in tiny bulbs that cannot be pulled out. Greg got rid of them by dipping a Q-tip in herbicide and administering a light but fatal touch to the crown of every single weed in every single pot.

After Greg died, it was clear that no one else could properly tend the garden, and his family decided it would be a shame to break up what had been so carefully and lovingly amassed over several decades. Connie phoned the Desert Garden curator at the renowned Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in nearby San Marino and asked if he would consider a donation of plants. Visiting the house, the curator was amazed by the range and depth of what Greg had assembled.

As it happened, a record frost a few weeks earlier had severely damaged the Huntington’s own wondrous cactus and succulent garden, so he was thrilled by the prospect of replacement and expansion. Greg’s plants have now been installed in the Desert Garden.

The production staff of any publication is largely anonymous to its readers, or known only as names on a masthead. I worked seven feet away from Greg for more than fifteen years, spending more waking hours with him than with my husband. He was difficult, sweet, funny, opinionated, shy, bawdy, and refined. Over the years we joked and complained together—and sometimes about each other, though there was always a mutual understanding of our kindred sensibility. I have also lately realized, with an acute sense of loss, that Greg was the only person in the world who truly knew what I did at African Arts, year to year, day to day, paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence. Those of you who appreciated Greg’s contribution to the journal may wish to pause to give him his due as a talented professional. I pause now, to acknowledge his place in my own personal history as a colleague and friend.

Amy E. Futa retired as executive editor of African Arts in 2004.


Published: Tuesday, August 07, 2007