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Malleable History: an interview with artist Daniel Graham

interview and photography by Michael Winters

Daniel Graham is a Kentucky-based artist primarily working in sculpture and printmaking.  In 2012, he produced Sojourn Midtown’s communion table, baptismal, and foyer coffee stations using pews that were removed from St. Vincent’s.  He also participated in three exhibits at the 930 Art Center including Resonant Vision: Christians Making Art Now.  Currently Daniel is an Associate Professor of Art at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky where he teaches a variety of courses including Sculpture, Printmaking, 3D Design, Ceramics and Package Design. He lives in Georgetown with his wife Holly, his daughter Olive, his son Thatcher, and their dog Clover. You can see his work online at jdgraham.net.  

Daniel Graham seen in his studio at Georgetown College

MW: There are themes that I see in your art, but I’m curious how you’d describe them. If you had to pull them down into single words, what themes do you return to again and again?

DG:  Malleable History, Experiencing Story, Crafting.

Dang that was a hard one. You know I am a storyteller, not short on words, and have A.D.D. Its not nice to ask me to focus and distill things down.

“The stars were meant to shine for you” by Daniel Graham. Ink and stain on carved panel.

MW: In your artist statement you say, “A large amount of my work starts as a means of breaking down, fixing or figuring out a personal matter.” I appreciate that. It seems like you’ve always got an interesting back-story to your artwork. Does that apply to “The Stars Were Meant To Shine For You?” Or maybe there’s another artwork you’d like to share the back-story on?

DG:  I think everything has a back story, even origin stories have a back story. Art, much like people, live to share. Sometimes we tell stories to share with others and sometimes we need to tell them to ourselves. Peter Rollins once said that “love letters always find their destination. A love letter isn’t so much written to another person, but to ourselves. When someone else receives a love letter from us, they are actually watching a conversation/a working out that is happening within ourselves. There are love letters that we never give to anyone, because they are not the primary audience.” I just love that. For me at least that is how art making functions. They are made for others to view and participate in but really they are made for me. In the end the conversation is put on display to be seen and repeated. As for an example “The Stars..” was made as part of a larger body of work called “Mountains, Valleys, and Table Legs” that investigated the ideas of my faith and where they collided with stories and experiences that change. I find that almost all of my work is best unpacked by questions. That one specifically was based out of a personal narrative of how we so often try and tame or control nature. If we are honest it is laughable how most of those situations play out. One of my favorites from that series and a good example of this forced comparison is a work called “My Enemies are Men Like Me.” It is an image of a Native American in western style clothing next to an image of a deer in the brush. These images alone do not have the same conversation as they do when they are placed against each other. I love looking at that image and seeing the deer giving me the same look as the Native American both are in camouflage and both seem to say, if I don’t move maybe they won’t see me.

Daniel Graham holding a couple pieces from his ‘Carousels and Shadow Puppets’ exhibit at the Museum of the Written Word in Georgetown, KY.

MW: I find so many of your titles really poetic even by themselves, but especially paired with the objects; titles like “I’m Leading You (A)way to Get Back In” and “Ashes Ashes We are all made new”, and “I’ll tie your love around my neck.” How do you go about giving titles?

DG:  I had a friend in school named Stephanie Dotson who always had the most interesting titles and I would look at her work and try and relate the image to the text. It often took me to really crazy places trying to make those connections. One day I spoke to her about her titles and her response made me laugh and then made me mad. She said “Oh whenever I finish a work I go and check my email and whatever the title of the newest email is that is what I title the work”. I don’t do that. No one should. I see titles as conceptual entry points as well as conceptual summaries if there is such a thing. For your example, “I’m Leading You (A)way to Get Back In” comes from the book “Hinds Feet in High Places” where the main character is taken away from her destination to get there (amazing read if you have not read it, I highly recommend). So the sentence functions both as “leading you away” and “leading you a way”. Originally I had a (v) next to the d in leading so it could be leaving but I thought it just got too confusing for a viewer. This work dealt a lot with things in my life that had not gone as “planned” but ended up the way they were supposed to. As in all of my work the story that it comes from is usually quite specific but it is not necessary for the viewer to know it in order to form a connection with the work. I think often times it can get in the way of the work. For instance if you knew that the work stemmed from my wife I having multiple miscarriages in starting our family you would skew the work to fit, or try and find connections, but that is how I connected to the images; not you. The final product is never the physical work, it is only a bridge. The art exists in the space between the viewer and the physical work and in that sense it can be made for me and for you. I like to force my viewers to wrestle with connections and ask themselves questions, whether about the the images or titles. Far too often art is understood or not, but I think the best pieces are the ones that leave you limping, and in that way never leave you.

Daniel has used a number of unusual printmaking processes, including selectively rusted metal panels. This one was back in the studio after being part of the New Albany Public Art series.

MW: You seem to work harder than most people. How do you produce so much good work, especially given that you’re also a committed family man and professor?

DG:  I try to produce a lot. Thats a lie. I can’t help produce a lot. Whether or not it is good is a different matter. Thank you for thinking it is good. I really just get excited about making work and playing. As far back as I can remember I have had multiple projects going on. I think too often professionals forget how to be students. They finish their formal education, where they are in all sorts of classes with all sorts of different projects going on at the same time, and then all the sudden make only one thing in one vein. I know its not the best gallery practice to change so much but for me it is the most fulfilling. I think the worst thing that can happen to an artist or creative person is to do the same thing for too long. We are creatures of habit, I have just made my habit plate juggling. If I don’t have a lot going on I don’t feel comfortable, I start to get really anxious. But it also has to do with the fact I have the attention span of a squirrel and have always had multiple focal points whether in the classroom, studio, or at home with the family. I remember when my daughter was two and we were acting crazy while playing and my wife said “I’m trying to figure out if she has a lot of you in her, or you have a lot of toddler in you” I liked that.

Just for fun: Daniel in his Halloween costume.

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

Got something to say? Feel free, we want to hear from you! Leave a Comment

  1. James M. Graham, CAPT, USN(Ret) says:

    Mr. Winters, thank you for a quality interview and article with/about my son, Daniel Graham. I am a very proud father of my son and his accomplishments! Daniel has a God given talent and I am pleased he had the courage to pursue art late in high school. I thank you for sharing an opportunity through thoughtful questions, a glimpse of Daniel to your readers and the world. Article and pictures were great…like a proud father, I will share this link with others.

    Thank you again! Way to Go, Daniel! Keep ever charing forward! Dad

  2. Michael Winters says: (Author)

    Hi Mr. Graham. You’re very welcome. Glad you enjoyed it. Daniel has been a great blessing to our church and to me personally. I like what he wrote somewhere too – something about growing up with a father who taught him that everything could be fixed. I thought that was a great compliment to you. Have a good day.

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