Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Grimmsical Tale of Curiosities | An interview with Mab Graves

© Larry Endicott

What was growing up for you like?

My childhood was pretty idyllic actually. My earliest memories are of running round peach trees with my sisters, rescuing ravens and baby squirrels, and staging Grimm's fairy tales plays in our make-shift bedroom/theater. All of these memories are interwoven with stories. My parents read aloud to me and my sisters at night (we didn’t have TV or video games) and we all adored stories. Fairy tales, fantasy, classics – it didn’t even have to be a particularly good book. We all just loved reading. I think those formative years definitely shaped the person I grew up to be. No matter how dark life got for me later, I still had those memories and knew the feeling of being loved and safe.


Were you always interested in art an early age or was it something that grew into?

Oh I’ve always been a creative. When I was little, my mother told me I would come home from preschool and sit at our little table and draw for hours. She says she never had to worry about where I was – I’d been obsessed with drawing since I could grip a crayon. I only discovered painting 5 years ago- but we’ve been passionately in love ever since.

Did you undertake any official art training?

Aside from art class for a few years in grade school, no. The secret to being able to draw is really almost math – you’ve just got to teach your mind the formula to draw what it sees. Once you learn that, teaching your mind to draw what it dreams is easy! I am not sure how a school could train you to do that…I’m also not sure it’s necessary. It was a very intimate learning process that took place in my mind. I’m sure I would have arrived at point B much faster if I’d had someone to guide me, but I would never wish to cheat myself that path of discovery. It was thrilling! 

Where do you draw most of your inspiration from?

I draw my inspiration from all over the place. Mostly stories and fairy tales, but also from dreams. I have never, in my entire life, been bored. I have always had a cacophony of images swirling about in my head kinetically waiting to be made into life. I think I must have pretty poor eye sight because when I look up at things, or just glance in passing at unfamiliar objects, my mind identifies them as some utterly fantastical thing.... then of course, I look again and they have sneakily morphed into a hat stand or a lump of cement..
 But my mind never stops creating. It’s an addiction that needs constant feeding. 

Where do you come up with a lot of the faces and mannerisms of the subjects in your pieces? Are they semi-based on people you know or simply people grown in your imagination?

A lot of my earlier piece were paintings of my sisters (I have three and they are all, stunningly beautiful. I adore them!). More recently though, I don’t even think about who a piece is going to be or what she will look like – I just sit down and start painting. She knows exactly who she wants to be and who she will become. I have very little to do with the process.

How would you describe your art?

I tell people I am a Dreamchild Neverist. It’s a totally made up term for my painting style though. In reality I am a Pop Surrealist.

I feel a kind of quirky fanciful pop-surrealism when I look at your work but there also seems to be some darker aspects to some of your work. How do you find a happy medium when working on a piece and deciding I where you want it to go versus where it could take you?

I have a very strict “honor code” when it comes to my paintings. There is a great trend in pop-surrealists to be vulgar and shocking. I absolutely want to stay away from that.  It requires so much more skill to be subtle than it does to be obscene. Darkness, sadness and filth are all around us, and I think it’s our jobs as artists to put a spin on things.

I try never to underestimate the intelligence of my audience. You don’t have to spell everything out in black and blood to get people to understand your message. It is very important for me to try to maintain a dignity and a subtlety to my work. A tinted innocence. More than once, I’ve had someone come up to me in a gallery and say “There is something creepy about your work…I just can’t put my finger on it”. Whenever I hear that – I know I’ve done my job.

I particularly love your 'cabinet of curiosities' pieces. Where did you come up with this idea and was it something that kind of evolved out of your own love for the quirky and curious?

I have always loved the insect specimen shadow boxes in curio collections, but the little girl in me felt terrible that they were murdered bugs! I decided I wanted to make totally death-free (and guilt free!) specimens that still upheld that vaguely creepy feeling. Each of my specimens is a hand painted 3D stamping. I spend hours and hours researching insect species and painting them. Each specimen has a teeny tiny hand-painted Victorian "lover's eye" mourning cameo set into it's back – The tiny disembodies eyes peering out of frames set into the shells gives my specimens a fabulously creepy feeling without and actual creepiness involved.


Who are some of your own favourite artists and why?

Strangely, most of my favorite artists are Russian or Bulgarian. I really want to travel to Russia some day and just tour museums and schools to see if I can divine what makes their work so particularly magical. Here are a few I adore: Gennady Spirin, Iassen Ghiuselev, Leon Bakst, Olga Dugina & Andrej Dugin. I also adore Claude Verlinde, Yoshitaka Amano, Kinuko Y. Craft and James Jean. Why? Because they my blow my mind.

Is there a particular person or artist you would love to work with?

Oh YES. I would die to do a book cover for Neil Gaiman or Gregory Maguire. *swoons!*

Would you say you are at that stage in your art career now where you can live almost solely off your art's earnings or is that something that's still a little ways off?

I’m lucky enough to have been supporting myself full time with my work for several years now. This past year I actually expanded to having an assistant and an intern as well.

What are your favourite colours, formats and materials to work with?

I definitely have a “Mab” color scheme… I’m not really sure the best way to describe it though! I use a lot of Ash tones and aged colors. I very sparely use greens (unless I am painting a forest) preferring ash blues and dusty pinks. I love saffron yellow and bright rusty reds – but used breathlessly sparingly for maximum effect. I never use primary or colors.

There are a lot of soft and at the same time bright colour schemes and almost fairy tale like aesthetics in your work that evoke a lot of playfulness and whimsy. When your working on a piece are there central themes you tend to re-visit or concepts you like to base your projects on?

Oh certainly. I think it’s important for an artist to have reoccurring characters and themes. Things that become recognizably “theirs”. I’m not sure that it’s really a conscious decision, but I definitely always have a certain quirky sense of humor that comes through. Some people get it, and some don’t of course! I call it “Grimmsical”. 

Is there any direction you would like to go with your art that you haven't conceptualised yet?

Yes! I have a little “dream list*. I would like to design an album cover, a wine label, do more book covers. I’d like to do some vinyl toys – maybe even a plush! I’d love to do a graphic novel too. 

What can we expect from Mab Graves in the future?

Well, I have a book coming out in the Fall, and I am on the design team of a new short stop-motion film this year. I am also working on two new shows and lots of exhibits. I like to take things one day at a time and let the chips fall where they may. I’m very excited about the projects I have coming up in the future but I am simply a conduit. My work is the most important part of who I am.