Graves helped make public art a priority in Wenatchee and his involvement with Art in Public Places helped lead to the installment of the fountain in the courtyard of the Numerica Performing Arts Center and the iconic Coyote Leading the Salmon sculpture at Walla Walla Point Park.
In preparation for his role, Don sat down with Robert Graves’ daughter Jody to get some details about this historic pillar of the North Central Washington art community.
Don: Did your father have a favorite visual artist(s) that he most admired?
Jody: Jackson Pollack, Van Gogh, de Kooning, Callahan.
Don: Did he have a favorite Art Period or Movement?
Jody: Over his life Dad had many “favorite” periods, but seemed most drawn to the works of Picasso and the like, and what followed in the evolving art of (Der Blaureiter) Kandinsky, and the abstract expressionism of the 50’s-70’s which embraced the depiction of emotional response through “non-traditional” imagery.
However, he didn’t like the “titles”… even in a late conversation I had with him in July before he passed away we were talking about objective vs. subjective art, and he adamantly claims that even his most abstract work was objective in how he saw nature, and how he emotionally responded to it through the canvas or the printmaking process.
Don: Which art piece of his own was he most proud?
Jody: Dad would say his pen and ink sketches….there are stacks of these sketch books! Always in his hand when we were growing up, at the beach, when we would go camping, etc.
I also know that he was most proud of whatever he was working on at the moment. He would hang the latest work at the end of the hallway, back up, and put his hand out to block certain sections to see if it was balanced or shaded in ways he saw. (I was always fascinated with that image of Dad … and the constant smell of turpentine!)
The pen and ink drawings he did when we lived in England, the Nordic Cruciform series (collographs) and his printmaking, especially around the time of his retirement. He purchased the Ray Trayle press to continue his passion for printmaking after retirement, and eventually moved the press to his Whidbey Island studio.
Don: Did he have a favorite book? Author? Did he have much time to read?
Jody: Dad was an avid reader, and LOVED mysteries, and certain kinds of science fiction. Loved the creative imagination of some of the science fiction writers….stacks of books everywhere. Loved J.A. Jance!
Don: Did he have a favorite food?
Jody: Cookies and potato chips! (He had an incredible sweet tooth!) And McDonald’s coffee. He loved home-made bbq chicken.
Don: Did he have a joke or two he liked to tell?
Jody:He wasn’t a joke-teller, but was very funny and had a turn of phrase that was very humorous to us! He found simple things funny, everyday situations, and had a bit of a “down-home” lingo such as “Warshington” and “Go get your britches fixed” as well as “Let’s get a load of donuts for the trip!”
Don: Did he have any noticeable habits or traits when he would speak to a group of people?
Jody: Dad did not really like to speak in public settings much, such as art openings, but he would do it. He was natural, and soft-spoken, but very insightful. But he was extremely comfortable with his college students, and in lecture classes and painting or drawing classes. Due to his heart trouble he was a little unsteady, so he liked to hold on to a podium, or sit on a table or stool when he talked in public.
Don: How would you describe your father’s voice?
Jody: I have attached a precious audio recording of me talking to Dad in July, 2013. That will give you his voice…it was a tiny bit weaker than when he retired of course, but the timbre was pretty much the same. No one else has heard this yet as it is still a little fresh if you know what I mean.
Don: What would you say was his most memorable moment(s) as a father?
Jody: I think dad was very surprised and touched that we (myself and my sisters) organized a surprise retirement party that included a book of letters from former students and colleagues. The letters were filled with gratitude for what Dad had done for them…his care for his students was legendary. I remember him offering a few dollars for a student to get some food, or ordering extra art supplies to provide students what they needed. Another time was when he flew to New York to hear my final doctoral recital at the Eastman conservatory. There was a huge storm, and his plane was re-routed to D.C. and then Buffalo. He gathered a few folks together and got a taxi to drive the distance to Rochester, NY, and he arrived 30 minutes before I walked on stage. I will never forget that.
There were very special times we spent as a family in England seeing the great art galleries together. Listening to dad describe what he saw in nature, the light through the trees, and the play of color and light looking down in a creek. The shapes and waving of beach grass, and the dramatic configuration of beach logs. Sitting around a campfire and singing… and coming to visit him at the college and see the students working at the easels and knowing dad was facilitating the emerging creativity.
Everyone felt good around Dad. He was so incredibly kind. He modeled what it meant to be compassionate and caring… and he followed his heart as an artist despite the resistance and the initial disdain from his birth family. He was the first to get a college education, let alone a masters degree. He was very proud of contributing something beautiful to the world, even when the world didn’t understand his expression artistically. He was passionate about keeping art as a centerpoint in our education system…and not as an “extra-curricular activity”. Did he make a difference? In my opnion, and the opinion of countless students and others who enjoy his art in their homes, hospitals, and other public places I would say a resounding yes! He was especially proud when Speaker of the House, Tom Foley, chose some of Dad’s pieces to hang in his office in Washington D.C.
His favorite song was “What A Wonderful World” – the lyrics sum up the way Dad looked at life.