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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.