Layers of color and history form art of a lifetime
BLACKSBURG — Artist Robert Henry Graham has touched the lives of hundreds of students during his time as a professor at Virginia Tech’s School of Visual Arts. Now he hopes to inspire the general public with his own artwork.
Graham will showcase paintings from the past 30 years in his August exhibit at Tech titled “Robert Henry Graham: A 30-Year Retrospective.”
Graham spent more than eight hours looking through hundreds of paintings with Perspective Gallery curator Robin Boucher to decide which to show. They settled on paintings that represent three main series: a “psycho-sexual” series painted during the early 1980s; a series titled “Chicago Memories and Fantasies” that commemorates Graham’s childhood; and a series titled “WAR,” which focuses mainly on the brutality of Serbian wars in the early 1990s as well as the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles.
Graham first began painting on canvas. He was working in San Francisco as a community worker in the 1960s when he became involved with the BlackMan art gallery. An artist he met there, Robin Leigh, pushed him to try painting.
“I taught myself, then went back to school for my degrees,” he said.
Graham received his bachelor’s degree in studio art from California State University – Hayward in 1980, and a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1983. That year, he moved to Blacksburg and began teaching at Tech.
Graham, now a professor emeritus at Tech, has taught drawing classes in the School of Visual Arts at Tech, though his main medium is oil paint on paper.
“For me, drawing is the foundation for teaching painting or anything really,” he said.
Graham said he has enjoyed working with students and watching them grow and develop their techniques. At the same time, he has developed and changed his own technique.
Graham’s technique of layering paint in his images is distinct. It can sometimes take two or three years to finish a painting. He begins by lining the walls of his studio with almost 20 layers of markers and Cray-Pas to create initial shapes. He then applies as many as 120 layers of oil paints to the paper.
He said some kinds of paints take as long as six months to dry because of how thickly he applies them.
“I have to work on a lot of paintings at the same time,” he said.
Boucher said she enjoyed getting to know Graham and his techniques.
“To me, it was fascinating,” she said. “He starts with one big idea and has to go through the layers to find individual ideas.”
Graham said he lets the composition of the marker layer tell him what the ultimate painting will be.
“I love color and texture,” he said. “I love playing with the image, pushing the image and seeing how many rules I can break and still make it work.”
The first series of paintings on display in the Perspective Gallery aren’t quite as layered as his newer works. These works, which he characterized as “psycho-sexual,” are done on canvas, not paper, and have only 20 or so layers in them. They’re more abstract than his “Chicago” and “WAR” series.
The older paintings were created before he began teaching, during his time as an undergraduate and a grad student.
“A lot of my pre-teaching works are more from my imagination,” Graham said. “I became more realistic after I started teaching.”
“My painting generated teaching, and my teaching generated painting,” he said.
“Chicago Memories and Fantasies” shows the beginning of Graham’s penchant for using many layers of colorful paints in his work. His now-signature layering technique began somewhat by accident.
“I got tired of canvas, so I was experimenting with using layers on paper,” he said. “One time, I put down a layer, and I had to run to a meeting.”
He thought he’d run back and finish the painting right after the meeting, but it was a couple of days before he was able to get back to it. It had dried, and the new paint didn’t blend with the previous layer.
Graham decided to experiment with this new way of layering paint to create more texture. He’s been perfecting the technique since.
“Chicago Memories and Fantasies” reminisces on areas of the city where he grew up that are now not as nice as they used to be.
Graham features vistas of the city skyline as well as more realistic images of his childhood apartment, the apartment he lived in as a young man and a young mother pushing her baby stroller along the street.
While Boucher was helping him select pieces for the show, he told her many stories and memories related to the images. She decided to write some of them down and incorporate them into the show.
“He grew up black and in Catholic school in Chicago in the ’40s and ’50s,” Boucher said. “I felt that his stories were important.”
The final series featured, “WAR,” still isn’t done. Graham said he thinks he might have at least another 50 paintings to do from the series. It uses a combination of abstract images and silhouettes incorporated into colorful, textured backgrounds.
The more abstract paintings are meant to be more ambiguous, Graham said.
He used color and texture to evoke emotions, like showing a mainly earth-toned abstract background splashed with red, called “Blood in the Night on the Killing Floor.”
That one, he said, is “just about where people are trying to kill each other.”
In some of his other paintings, Graham used silhouettes from photographs as the paintings’ basis. He mainly drew from photographs taken during the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles and on the various wars happening in Serbia during the early ’90s.
Graham also incorporates an “x” symbol into several of his war paintings.
“I’ve always liked Malcolm X, so it’s kind of a tribute to him,” he said. “Then I was raised a Catholic, and the ‘x’ is used in Catholic iconography. The Romans used it to symbolize the cross in crucifixion.”
The show tries to summarize Graham’s changes in style and different social causes he’s invested his interest in over the past 30 years.
The pieces are also all available for purchase.
Boucher said it’s the most expensive show she’s hung since she became the gallery’s curator in 2007. Paintings are listed between $1,100 and $10,000.
“All I can do is put down what I feel and see, and if it communicates to people and if they get what I’m trying to say, that’s great,” he said. “It’s up to them to pull it out.”
Graham’s show will be hanging in the Perspective Gallery in Squires Student Center until Sept. 29.
The opening reception is Friday night from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. It is free and open to the public.
Graham also will be discussing his exhibit with several classes at Tech in September.
The Roanoke Times | 381-1662
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