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"River / Carnival"
Les Graff, "River / Carnival," 1983, oil on canvas, 52" x 62".
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"Bone Painting / Landscape"
Les Graff, "Bone Painting / Landscape," 1970, oil on canvas, 52" x 62".
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"Patio Plant / Red Rain"
Les Graff, "Patio Plant / Red Rain," 2002, oil on canvas, 50" x 64".
LES GRAFF - Homage
After quitting his day job to paint full time, this Alberta-based artist could finally go deep into the prairie landscape.
By Brian Brennan
Les Graff graduated from the Alberta College of Art in 1959 at age 23, and had his first solo exhibition, at the Edmonton Art Gallery, three years later. But it took a long time after that — 29 years to be exact — before he was able to fulfill his dream of painting full-time. In the meantime, the Camrose-born artist worked as an Alberta government cultural bureaucrat, building programs to support the province’s artists and arts organizations.
“I needed a job,” Graff told The Globe and Mail in 1994, three years after resigning from Alberta Culture to move his artmaking off the back burner. “I’d done farming, logging, construction, the oil rigs. Then came the realization that, when you have a family, working for Alberta Culture was better than parking cars or working on a farm.” Married with four children, “a couple of cats, a couple of dogs, and a house,” Graff needed the steady income.
From 1960 to 1967, Graff was able to work at his day job as director of arts and crafts for the province of Alberta, paint part-time, and have a solo show in Edmonton or Calgary every 18 months or so. The government job kept him busy organizing community art courses and exhibitions, and helping new galleries get established. In his spare time, he produced abstract paintings inspired by events that had happened on the farm near Bashaw, Alberta, where he lived with his mother and stepfather during the early 1950s. He recalled in a 1984 interview with curator George Moppett that watching wild grass blown by the wind was one of many events that gave him a strong sense of his intimate relationship with nature.
“It seemed people could come and go, but this grass would continue blowing and changing with the seasons. It was there before we came; it will be there after. One becomes very much aware of the fleeting aspect of one’s own existence.”
Then, in 1968, Graff changed direction as an artist. After a year spent helping Alberta artists and galleries celebrate Canada’s centennial, he realized “it had been a good year for them but not a very good year for me, because I hadn’t done any art for myself.” Before 1967, he had been working in oils, producing semi-abstract paintings from motifs found in nature. He destroyed all but 12 of these works — many of them experimental abstract expressionist paintings from his student years — and started doing charcoal drawings of animal bones. “I turned the 12 paintings face to the wall so they were not a reminder,” he says in a telephone interview from his country home on Buffalo Lake, 15 km east of Bashaw, not far from where he spent his early years. “It was time to rethink things, to retrench.” He went back to square one in terms of his evolution as an artist.
THE BONES TRIGGERED ASSOCIATIONS WITH THE ANIMAL CADAVERS GRAFF HAD FOUND WHILE HUNTING WITH HIS STEPFATHER AS A CHILD
After “thrashing the past,” as he describes it, Graff found that devising structures and an appropriately organic environment for his bone drawings led him naturally in the direction of landscape. “He built them into mysterious monuments, altars, and signs of foreboding,” wrote Stanford Perrott, Graff’s former teacher at the Alberta College of Art. “Bones were to Les as apples were to Cezanne.” The bones triggered associations with the animal cadavers Graff had found while hunting with his stepfather as a child, and with the carcasses in his stepfather’s butcher shop. “The dorsal vertebra of a buffalo became a mace,” he recalled. “It became a cross like a crucifixion.”
Still, the government job gave him great satisfaction for many years. In an interview for Dreamers and Doers, a 2005 television documentary about 100 years of arts and culture in Alberta, Graff said it was most gratifying to work for a government that viewed art as important. This was particularly true during what broadcaster Fil Fraser has dubbed the Camelot Years, between 1971 and 1985 when Peter Lougheed was premier. The walls of provincial government offices were lined with Alberta art. Lougheed gave gifts of art to government leaders around the world. The provincial government commissioned numerous portraits of lieutenant-governors, premiers, and speakers of the house. “Alberta House came into being in London, England, and it was decorated with art from top to bottom. Alberta House came into being in New York, and it was decorated with art. Tokyo was decorated with art. Those were the Camelot Years.”
Yet, while Graff was pleased to see the government leading the way in buying and commissioning work by Alberta artists, he became increasingly frustrated by the fact that his success as an arts bureaucrat got in the way of his own development as an artist. In 1982, he pulled out of the Alberta exhibition scene because — with Alberta Culture giving grants to artists and public galleries — he felt it had become a conflict of interest for him to show there. Two years later, he had an 18-year retrospective of paintings and drawings at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon. It was to be his last major show for nine years.
Curator George Moppett, writing in the catalogue for the Mendel exhibition, said that Graff’s work assumed a new urgency at around the time he pulled out of the Alberta scene. In his work of the 1960s and 1970s, Graff had found in nature motifs compatible with his rural background and artistic sensibilities — patterns and shapes that served to produce a gentle, sensuous world of atmosphere, rocks, plants, and landscape. In 1982, landscape developed a more architectonic structure in his work. “I was losing control,” Graff told Moppett. “The subjects, which I handled in a certain way, didn’t have the impact they had before. I needed to come through another door to get at my subject.”
“The paintings of 1983 and 1984 are aggressive, and show a marked increase in surface variation,” wrote Moppett. “Regardless of the fluctuations of external appearances, and no matter whether the subject is thistle, bone, river or garden, the content — that part of himself that Graff brings to his subjects — gets to the very quick, awakening our consciousness at an elemental level.”
Graff resigned as director of visual arts at Alberta Culture in 1991 to paint full time. After 31 years, it seemed like a good time to leave. The government had eliminated the provincial agency that funded the visual arts, as well as the agencies that funded the literary arts and the performing arts. It replaced them with one umbrella organization, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. The AFA was to be funded by lottery revenues, not by provincial tax dollars. That way the government could assure Albertans that it was not “wasting” their “hard-earned” tax dollars on “frills.” Graff was offered a new job as manager of artist development for the AFA. Instead, at age 55, he opted to take early retirement. “It was time to move on.”
Artmaking became the guiding focus of Graff’s life after that. His output more than doubled, and flowed without interruption because he no longer had to deal with the demands of the civil service. “My work is about what seems most real to me — the anxiety at night, heat, cold, fear,” he told John Bentley Mays of The Globe and Mail in 1994. Graff said he felt a direct link from his childhood to the way he currently expressed himself: “I am from the land. I see with those eyes.”
After viewing a show of Graff’s paintings and drawings at the Edmonton Art Gallery, Mays wrote that the exhibition was a “wildly exuberant cheer of freedom from the professional constraints that had separated the artist from his public.” The “exalted enthusiasm” of Graff’s work “made it a celebratory moment.”
Since that time, Graff has had solo shows in Edmonton, St. Albert, Banff and the Virginia Christopher Gallery in Calgary, which regularly represents his work. He has also been exhibiting in available commercial spaces in hotels and retail stores, which he describes as “a fun thing to do, because you get new audiences and see your work in a new light.”
His next major exhibition will be in the main gallery of Banff’s Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies fromOctober 26, 2007 to January 13, 2008. The front two-thirds of the gallery will feature a retrospective from all phases of Graff’s career. The back section of the gallery will feature 100 unframed mountain studies and sketches that Graff has donated to the gallery. Curator Sheila Perry says she was most excited to receive these, and to be able to put them on public display, because they “show the working mind of the artist.”
Les Graff is represented by Virginia Christopher Fine Art in Calgary.