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Exchanging Pleasantrees

Seeing the forest in a new way

(page 3 of 3)

It is thought-provoking that they are the vision of the woman who, in a moment of frustration one morning, found she was yelling, “Don’t yell!” to her kids and coined the term “Mommybomb.” She’d lost patience, and her perspective along with it. That’s when her husband encouraged her to quit her restaurant job—in spite of the financial implications—and dedicate herself to her family and her art. “I’m sincerely living the dream,” she repeats as though she herself can hardly believe it. “Every morning I wake up thinking I need to get everything done by my four o’clock shift.”

Graves recently returned from a visit to the Contemporary Artists Center in Massachusetts, where she was able to thank Rudd, who influenced and encouraged her early on. The act is typical Graves: one of her strongest characteristics is gratitude. “How lucky am I,” is a favorite catchphrase. But she has worked hard and long for her luck. “You have to be driven and passionate about what you want. And never, never, never give up.”

Christopher has been an integral part of her struggle and success. Although it’s not always easy to watch his wife’s career surge while his grows steadily but slowly, he’s her biggest champion and strongest ally. “Clearly, I couldn’t do this on my own,” asserts Graves. “He has always been supportive and enabled us to have wonderful spaces to be creative in.” Several years ago Christopher started building his wife’s canvases—an exacting, respected craft, especially on the large scale that Graves’ work demands, and they’ve drawn interest from other painters.

On a 90-degree Thursday afternoon, the couple swigs water and fixes price tags to benches, mirrors, and paintings under their tent at the Hailey Farmer’s and Artist’s Market. Graves had admitted that the weekly market is not a productive venue for them. But they enjoy supporting the community by participating and offering their work to locals at wholesale prices. They’re cheerfully greeted by what seems like nine out of 10 passersby. Then a tall man in cowboy boots strolls up. “Stop it!” exclaims Graves, jumping up and giving Steve Champion a hug. He beams. He and his partner John Chapman have recently acquired a painting, and want to bring guests by the studio on Sunday. Will that work?

“How flattered am I!” exclaims Graves. “Sunday is family day. We’ll all be there. I’ll try to have the kids dressed.”

Chapman, former chairman of the Idaho Arts Commission, saw a Graves triptych in early 2007 on the wall of Fresshies restaurant in Hailey. He tracked down the artist and purchased a scene that reminded him of the site on his ranch where his parents are buried. “I am quite excited about her future,” says Chapman in a typically understated way. “I think she’s an up-and-coming artist. I can’t say enough.” Champion is less modest. “Melissa and Christopher?” he says, grinning. “I love ’em!”

Two weeks later, July 15th dawned clear and hot, and three hours of sleep didn’t keep her from pulling off Olivia’s fifth birthday party with a bang. Bags of ladybugs were let loose in the park and raspberry-filled cake was reduced to crumbs. In the ’50s, Rauschenberg showed a skeptical world that art could emphasize excitement and playfulness over ambition, and still retain meaning. Viewers might say that Graves has pulled a Rauschenberg with her own “combine” of work, wifedom, motherhood, and art.