Donna Graham is an artist who works in colored pencil. One of the artists whose drawings Donna particularly admires is Martha Alf, a few of whose works can be seen in PAM’s Online Collections. The simplicity of Alf’s subject matter is one trait that inspires Donna in her own drawings. Anything “right out of the refrigerator” is appropriate for transformation into a fine art piece. “I take ordinary, mundane things and try to make them look spectacular. I’ve done bubble wrap, plastic sandwich bags…things that are lying around that you don’t even notice are in front of you.” One Martha Alf quote that Donna paraphrases is, “The simpler the object, the greater the transformation to awesome power.” Donna continues, “You can create a mood with light and bring something to the work that is more than what a photograph would do.”
Donna lived with her husband Richard in a glass and steel high-rise in downtown Portland when I came to visit. They have recently moved to Seattle to be closer to their kids and grandkids. On first entering their small, minimally decorated apartment, the first thing that greeted my eye was a large abstract painting by Richard. It is a wonderful piece, incorporating striking colors, some drip elements, and architectural lines. We talked about Richard’s work for several minutes, before I reminded her that I was there to discuss her own work.
Donna has been an artist for most of her life. Starting as a very young child, she doodled, and then began making birthday cards for her family members. With no formal art training, her later career as a clinical pathologist afforded her an opportunity to use her drawing skills to amend her reports to physicians on what she saw in her work. Diseased organs, tumors, microscopic cellular elements. With photography available, but before the ubiquitous aid of computers, her additions to pathology reports were appreciated by the surgeons, who realized that she, with “hyper-attention to detail”, might see features that even a camera could miss.
On retiring, Donna again found the time and continued interest to create birthday and Christmas cards for friends and family. Then she “started drawing on a more elaborate scale and one thing led to another. It’s been a fun ride.” She uses her iPhone to take pictures of items, either as found or arranged by herself. Out of the many photos she takes, very few are deemed worthy of being transformed into art. Her studio is a small bedroom that has been dedicated as an art studio. On entering, I exclaim, “This is entirely too neat!” To which she responds, “Believe it or not, it always looks like this.”
Donna joined the Portland District Chapter of the Colored Pencil Society of America (CPSA) in 2014, and has been the Vice President of the Chapter for 2 years. “And that has been a tremendous help because you get to interact with other people [who] have a lot more experience with colored pencil. That gives you the opportunity to learn about new techniques and materials. You can actually watch people with much more experience [at work]. So that’s been huge.” Donna says, “It’s been a great experience because I’ve been able to put some workshops together and work with other people from outside our district. And it’s just been fun and a great working experience.” The CPSA has two major exhibitions each year, one online, and the other in a different location every year. Bethesda, Maryland and Tacoma, Washington have been recent venues, and Chicago will likely be this year’s locale. Members of the CPSA and non-members alike can submit work to a juried competition with cash and product prizes. There are also workshops on techniques, methods, and mediums. Locally, a show is held yearly in Kaiser, Oregon where work is hung for 2 months and provides an opportunity for the public to see and purchase art. This allows the artists to educate the public on colored pencil as a fine art medium.
“I’ve tried a few other [mediums]. I’ve dabbled with water colors and I’m terrible at that,” she says self-deprecatingly. “I guess it’s my obsessive compulsive side that wants to be able to control the medium….I’ve tried oils, and a little bit with acrylic, but pencils are more my thing because of the control, I think.”
I asked Donna about the difference between her type of art and that of abstract artists. She is working much more closely with her subjects than the larger movements of, say, expressionist painters. “You know,” she answered, “it’s interesting that you mention that. People sometimes think, ‘Oh, you’ve got a lot of talent, if you can copy a photo and make it look exactly like that.’ But interestingly enough, last year…the president of our group…gave us the challenge of drawing an abstract [piece] with colored pencil. It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. People who follow abstract art or expressionism appreciate that type of art and understand it. [But] a lot of times people walk into a museum or a gallery and they appreciate things where they can identify the objects in it. And they don’t appreciate abstract art. Abstract art is every bit as difficult and challenging as any other type of art. The way to really realize that is to try to draw your own abstract drawing or painting. Try to do it and you aren’t going to come out with the same thing Mondrian came out with…You really have to know what you’re doing. It takes a tremendous amount of talent.” Pointing out that, not to belittle her admiration for abstract art, it takes a lot of technical skill to replicate an item or a photograph and then to enhance it, to bring out the drama, the emotion, or whatever it is your are trying to elicit from your work. “Oh, that’s very true,” Donna says.
The transformation of a photograph to a work of art is a complex one. In deciding how much background, if any, to include, Donna paraphrased a (possibly apocryphal) quote by Michelangelo regarding how he arrived at a finished sculpture. “It’s easy,” he supposedly said. “You just chip away at anything that doesn’t look like a [horse].” There are also the decisions about where to add or subtract highlights and shadows; whether to draw an entire object, or just a portion of it; how close and detailed you want the drawing to be.
Still having fun and making cards and posters for friends’ activities, Donna is concentrating on her fine art pieces. She’s hoping to put colored pencil drawing into the same category as oils, acrylics, sculpture and all other forms of art, into the “fine” category. “A lot of times in an art museum you’ll see sketches that someone like Edward Hopper would do as preliminary preparation for his paintings. The sketches weren’t considered the ‘real’ art. They were just practice pieces. But that’s changing. People are gaining an appreciation for the drawings themselves.” She refers to Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, whose drawings are now shown next to their paintings in museums.
Though now living in Seattle, Donna plans to continue showing in the RSG. “The Rental Sales Gallery has just been tremendous,” Donna exclaims. “Just a great bunch of people to work with and fantastic exposure. The gallery does so much to promote artists on the blog. And the people make it fun!”
To see more work by Donna Graham, please click here