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Exchanging Pleasantrees

Seeing the forest in a new way

(page 2 of 3)

But it was Rauschenberg who fired her imagination. Rauschenberg (who in 1998 would be the subject of the Guggenheim Museum’s largest single-artist retrospective) had a home and studio on Captiva Island, near Fort Myers. “I’d get to sneak into his studio as a kid,” reminisces Graves. “My friends were studio assistants. We’d go to these amazing abstract exhibits he’d put on locally.” Rauschenberg was famous for his “combines,” bizarre groupings of disparate elements such as a tire, a tennis ball, and a taxidermied goat, that compelled viewers to consider the items in a new way.

Graves admits she “never considered art a sincere way to make a living.” But when she discovered that painting was the most difficult thing she had ever attempted, she became determined to pursue it. At Auburn, working in the school’s open studio in front of other students, terrified her at first.

Between her sophomore and junior years, she traveled to Paris through a program with the Parsons School of Design. She absorbed the history of art and then, returning stateside, she hung out at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), the nation’s largest contemporary visual and performing arts museum, and the Contemporary Artists Center (CAC), both in North Adams, Massachusetts, near where her father had retired. Witnessing people her own age, in addition to older artists, who’d already accomplished so much, encouraged her to pursue her own art. In 1993, she applied and was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Fine Arts program.

That summer, she met Christopher Brown, a native of upstate New York eight years her senior who’d come to Captiva Island for the windsurfing. He was also an artist—a printmaker as quiet and self-contained as she was gregarious. He drove her to Pennsylvania that fall and returned to Florida with a long-distance relationship. 

Nine o’clock on a Monday in June finds Graves in her studio unscrewing about 30 tubs of paint. Her studio is easy to spot among the shops of woodworkers, furniture finishers, and insulation contractors in Hailey’s light industrial district: it’s the one with the picket fence that encloses a sandbox, a plastic swimming pool, and a wooden contraption, all ladders, steps, and slides, that Christopher built for the kids. She’s pushed the oversized garage door up and light floods the high, inviting space. Folksy carved and painted furniture welcomes friends and visitors (Graves’ studio has since moved to 311 Main Street in Hailey). Roughhewn cabinets boldly painted with floral or nature motifs exemplify her work of just a few years ago. Christopher, a self-taught woodworker, built and carved the furniture, while his wife added the color.

Graves’ work has progressed through many stages in the past decade and a half. Her graduate thesis consisted of a series of large canvases exploring color theory and the idealism of the circle. A binder of preliminary drawings hides captivating oil crayon images, each 6-by-8-inch gems, subtly layered and etched with graphite compass-drawn circles. “I enjoy a circle because it’s a mathematically perfect shape,” she explains. “It’s a form of idealism. It’s the egg, the sun, the moon, the pothole. I could go on and on.” Her mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer during this time, which inspired the thinking behind much of her graduate work. Graves graduated in 1995 with an Achievement in Color award. She returned to Florida, moved in with Christopher, a landscape designer who created a personal art studio everywhere he settled. Graves took a job waiting tables.

She had taught art during college and discovered that $2 an hour plus tips was more lucrative. Graves, who speaks of her mother often, admits that, in a strange way, her mother’s death removed some pressure. “I didn’t have her saying, ‘Oh honey, I can’t believe you’re waiting tables.’”

In 1998, she and Christopher, both nature lovers and athletes, drove to Idaho and settled in Hailey. She took a job at the Ketchum Grill and he built up a clientele for landscape design. They both continued drawing and painting, marketing their work by word-of-mouth, exposure in local restaurants, and at the Ketchum Arts and Crafts Festival each summer.

Paint-splattered tables hold works in progress; a wide partition hides Christopher’s woodworking equipment in the back. Christopher’s graphite drawings of trees and Melissa’s colorful canvases make a brilliant patchwork of the high white cinderblock walls. Paintings by Olivia and Rylee hang alongside their parents’ work, and a miniature easel stands beside Graves’ long work table. A sofa rests against the partition, and this morning, Rylee rests on the sofa, wearing a Snow White costume and watching Pocahontas.

Another day—a hot one—Olivia helps load a cabinet with newly arrived tubs of paint, wearing nothing but red sticker earrings and sparkly pink underpants. “We’re very European around here,” laughs her mother. Olivia sets a raw canvas on a low table beside an open jar of gesso and a coffee tin of water.

White-blond hair frames the little girl’s face as she spreads the preparatory layer with a wide brush. Like her mom, she talks as she works. The dentist wasn’t so bad, and she likes doggies.

Graves leans over a 4-by-5-foot canvas, putting the finishing touches on an enormous triptych that will hang in St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center. She regards the panel critically and shakes her head. “It’s just not alive.” She loads a long brush with orange paint and moves around the canvas’s perimeter flinging speckles into the trees. She selects a longer brush with stiffer bristles and scrubs the foreground with sienna. The surface begins to glow. She chases the sienna with pale yellow.

“Now I’m cleaning up all my dots and pushing back my horizon,” she explains, brush in constant motion. The horizontals become more dynamic. She smudges the sienna with her finger, then brushes bright yellow between the tree trunks. “I love the nuances and subtleties,” she muses. “You can get right up to them and see so much more.” She splatters again, pushes the paint roughly. “I push ’em, I pull ’em,” she says about the colors. “I push ’em back.” She steps away. Acrylics dry fast, which allows her to add layer upon translucent layer of rich pigment. “I love the yummy textures,” she adds. A lot of the words she uses to describe paint are food words. There is a “scrumptious” yellow and a “delicious” purple. She seems to sense color with more than her eyes.

“Now I really like this middle purple area.” She indicates a wonderful area of rich, varying indigo, and stands with brush cocked like a conductor’s wand, remembering a professor’s warning: if you’re reluctant to rework something because it seems perfect, be wary, because it may not be right in the context of the whole. “This is the part where you destroy it and then bring it back again,” she says. She lowers her brush and goes in. “When it takes on a life of its own, you know a piece is getting done.”

The studio walls hold both paintings and drawings of trees, although Graves claims she can’t draw. The drawings are Christopher’s. “He’s drawn trees all his life,” says Graves, who names her husband’s work, along with the landscape of Idaho, as a strong influence on her current series, “PleasanTrees.” Graves paints mostly from her mind’s eye. “Color is my subject,” she states, “only pushed into the shape of a landscape.” Anyone who has strolled to the bank of the Big Wood has walked through this countryside. Yet hers is more haunting than reality in the steady, even rhythm of vertical elements—the aspen trunks—and the heightened drama of horizontals, ground simplified to underscore each tree. The scenes invite a viewer forward but offer no visible goal. They are lively and patient, these woods. “(At CAC), artist Eric Rudd barraged me with all these concepts,” recalls Graves. “I told him that, you know, I’m not really cutting edge. My paintings are really quite nice. And that’s okay.” >>>