was born July 4, 1917, the elder of three sons to Sicilian immigrant parents, in the small industrial town of Lawrence, Massachusetts. The 1930's brought the family to Hartford, Connecticut where as a child growing up his first influences were felt, since his Father painted and sculpted. John would frequent the Wadsworth Antheneum Museum in Hartford where the collection of portraits would inspire him to become a portrait painter. In 1935 he enrolled in the Hartford School of Fine Arts where he learned portrait and landscape painting. He painted the poor and the working class and in 1939 he painted a large mural depicting a family of three sitting at a dining table with no food on their plates (based possibly on a lithograph by Daumier). During this period his major interests included the "Ashcan School", Luks, Robert Henri, Thomas Hart Benton and Reginald Marsh, together with the works of the old masters.
Over the course of Grillo's distinguished career he showed in 85 one-man and over 100 important group exhibitions. His paintings are displayed in major museums, including the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney Museum, as well as the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Los Angeles County Museum. In 1967 he was appointed as a Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he held a twenty-five year teaching tenure.
Cove Gallery co-director Liane Biron studied with Grillo when she attended the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and when she and her husband, Larry, took over the gallery in 1989, one of the first things they did was ask Grillo if he would join the gallery.
Liane Biron says of Grillo, "I find it fascinating that he has always pushed the limit and never seems to tire, he just never stops. He is so vital, and that vitality comes through in his work."
Grillo evidently exhibits his passion and zest for life through his ever-changing approach to his work, never sticking to one style, medium, theme, nor canvas size. Grillo embodies a truly creative free spirit, boldly experimenting with the possibilities of paint, and fueled by an incessant energy. As Biron explains, "John is still experimenting with his work, he doesn’t want to be categorized."