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 Ellwood Graham  (1911 - 2007)

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Lived/Active: California/Oregon/Missouri      Known for: abstract imagery, pictographs, mural

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Ellwood Graham
from Auction House Records.
Ignore the Broad Pacific
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following biographical information is from periodical articles about the artist:

ALTA VISTA MAGAZINE
, Sunday, February 23, 1992

"ELLWOOD GRAHAM: NEVER SAY DIE"

by Susan Lea Hubbard

A life of great joy and great sorrow is evident in Ellwood Graham's 80-year-old twinkling eyes and yet his paintings evoke childlike optimism.  The brilliant colors, free designs and light airiness belie happiness and freedom, even though strong themes and archetypal symbolism are integrated to provoke deeper scrutiny.

His unique style of abstract modernism has been on the cutting edge of the art world for years. He considers himself a "profound painter," comparing himself to a composer on a "musical canvas."

Graham lives in a modest but tastefully modern home in Pebble Beach. His studio at the back of the house features works in progress upon the easel. Paintings are stacked in hallways and along walls. Interior decorations include beautiful antique furnishings, a wooden nude sculpture and various objects d'art, all aesthetically displayed.

Graham was fortunate to have success early in life, although the road was not easy. He was forced, by circumstances related to the Great Depression, to leave the St. Louis School of Fine Art with only enough money to fuel his Ford to California. He left for a warmer climate - "It was better if you had to sleep outside," he laughs. Traveling famed Route 66, he tried to help fellow immigrants over the grade into Los Angeles.

Those first years were tough. He lived in the desert with a sleeping bag and ate the rattlesnakes that came to curl up at night. A jaunt to Hollywood, with four small pictures, made him $16. The first thing he bought was a day-old pumpkin pie. "I ate it all at once, right there on the corner," he remembers. He had enough left over for tires, gas and vegetables and a jacket. A newspaper ad brought him to a caretaker's cabin in the San Fernando Valley - "the last house on the way through Canoga Park."

Graham immediately enrolled in a mural contest and won second place. The first place winner, Gordon Kenneth Grant, hired Graham as his assistant. Later Graham's own assistant, Barbara Stevenson, became his first wife. They had four children.

As a muralist, Graham is well known for his 1,400-foot egg tempera mural on the Ventura Post Office.

Graham first came to Carmel at the bequest of John Steinbeck, a friend from days in Santa Barbara. He bought lots on Lobos Street in Monterey. A pre-Depression residential development, the Withers Project, was failing and the lots sold for $50 to $75 each. This area became known as Huckleberry Hill, an artist's colony and Graham's dream.

He says he always wanted to help out artists, architects, sculptors, aesthetes. "I could tell Bruce Ariss was a dedicated artist," he muses. "He wanted to paint as much as I did." So Graham gave two lots to Ariss, whose wife Jean was expecting their first child.

Many others came to Huckleberry Hill and as graham prospered, he bought more lots. A student of Frank Lloyd Wright, Rowan Maiden, borrowed Graham's studio to design Nepenthe Restaurant in Big Sur.

Steinbeck also created in Graham's studio.  He wrote Sea of Cortez while Graham rendered his portrait.  Of course he sold the painting to Steinbeck, but "I kept some studies and sketches." 'Where is that portrait now? "People have been calling me for years... I don't know." he says, "I haven't seen it in over 50 years."

Then he adds, "That portrait was very good... I hear it was bought by Burgess Meredith but I also heard it belonged to John Huston." It was Steinbeck (one of his greatest benefactors), who commissioned Graham to go to Mexico for the sake of his art. Mexican and Indian cultures have had a strong influence on Graham's compositions.

When Graham's style developed into his "pictograph" phase, Steinbeck cried, "why are you doing those crazy things?" But as word got around about his "compartmentalized art," calls came from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Chicago Art Institute, vying for his first large work. San Francisco won out and has "My Story" in its permanent collection.

Later, Graham built a large home for his family and a studio for him and his wife. "I did it all with these small, pinkish hands, he laughed. I even built the fireplaces."   A beautiful wooden nude statue graces the living room - "This was in homage to a tree that had to be cut down on my property," he says quietly. The figure's grace is apropos but the sensitive face of Graham shows a devout reverence for nature.

"I love birds," he says in awe. Many of his paintings include birds and bird symbolism. Sports, especially tennis, are important to him. He played tennis until a leg operation stopped him around age 70. He also likes women, animals and music, and integrates these themes into his compositions.

His second wife Nell and he had a beautifully long and loving marriage until she died of cancer. An incredible painting, Gift of Love, is a pictographic amalgam of their lives together, produced at the time of her death.

The longest living member of the Carmel Art Association, Graham lives to be "productive". He is adamant: "I don't paint for success or fame but for personally satisfying product. I plan to paint until I die.
------------

From: COAST WEEKLY February 23- March 1, 1995

Feature: "PAINTING OUT LOUD"---A contemporary of John Steinbeck, the award winning Ellwood Graham is still painting, by Ted M. Taylor

He still "paints out loud" - following advice he received from his friend and mentor John Steinbeck nearly 60 years ago.

At 83, Ellwood Graham, a non-conformist painter long before he met Steinbeck, toils daily in the studio of his Pebble Beach home. Honored with 68 awards, Graham has received national and international acclaim as an abstract painter and colorist.

He also received the first one man show given by the Monterey Peninsula Museum of Art.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Graham showed artistic talent early.  He entered paintings done on cigar box lids in contests sponsored by the St. Louis Post Dispatch and others, winning as much as $25, a respectable sum at the time. He also sold hand painted cards, sometimes with his own verses, often working all night and subsequently falling asleep in school.

Graham received a tuition-free scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis. "But I paid for everything else," he said.

"It was during the Depression, and the jobs I had paid no more than 25 cents an hour."

"I was the star of the art department," Graham said, "as long as I painted realistically. The library had no books about Picasso or any other modernist." Graham was twice expelled, once for "creative" painting and again for protesting a fraudulent scholarship.  In each case, he was reinstated.

Rejected by his parents who wanted him to be an accountant, frustrated and broke at the end of his junior year, Graham drove to Hollywood, where his sister and brother-in-law lived.  He had money only for gas for his Model A Ford.  For food he had a bag of oranges, one fruit eaten per hundred miles.

Unable to find work, Graham camped in the Mojave Desert, where he met the  brother of author Charles Nordhoff, Frank Nordhoff who showed him eatable plants and loaned him a rifle to hunt rabbits and rattlesnakes, some of the latter having crawled into Graham's bedroll for warmth at night.

Finally Graham sold four paintings to Hollywood Boulevard shop owners for $16 - enough to buy new tires for his car and other essentials. He next worked, in return for rent, as a caretaker and survived by doing odd jobs and on windfalls from the adjoining orchard owned by actor Francis Lederer.

Then, as runner-up in the Ventura Post Office mural competition, Graham served as assistant to the winner, Gordon Kenneth Grant. Graham, however, finished the mural, hiring Barbara Stevenson, his future wife whom he had met at colleg3e, as a helper.

In Santa Barbara, where the mural was completed, Graham met John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist who, says Graham and others, greatly influenced the author's work.  Soon, Graham was spending weekends in Monterey, which he had visited as a student briefly during the summer of 1930.

With his earnings, Graham bought property on Huckleberry Hill. "I got the cheapest damn lots around," he said. "I never paid more than $75 each.  There were no utilities or streets. We first lived in a trailer I towed from Santa Barbara, which to keep from rolling back down Prescott Avenue, I left backed into a telephone pole until I could get help.  Like Thoreau, I desperately wanted to be creative and independent.  From library books, I learned how to build houses and install septic tanks. And Toby Street, John's lawyer friend who inspired John's novel To a God Unknown, helped homestead the property so I wouldn't lose it by default.

"I also wanted talented and friendly neighbors. Grateful for my increasing success - what my friend psychologist Eric Byrne called my 'Jesus Christ complex' - I gave two lots to the late Bruce Ariss and his wife Jean."

Graham also befriended architect Rowan Maiden, who designed Nepenthe, and donated most of the materials for a cottage - built in a day - to a family who had lost their home. "Later," he said, "the outhouse door on which I had painted a pictograph, an art form which I originated, was stolen. I heard it's now displayed in a Washington State museum."

Of Steinbeck and Ricketts, Graham recalled: "Each was sensitive, in fact, rather fragile. Both were shy in large groups - but brilliant talkers among intimates. I know John when he was a voraciously hungry writer, a far better one than when he went to New York to stay.

"Ed and John kiddingly called me 'The Painter Laureate of Cannery Row." In his novel Cannery Row, Steinbeck included a picture by Graham among the reproductions from famous artists pinned to Rickett's bookcases.

Earlier Steinbeck had chosen Graham to do his portrait. "John didn't want a conventional study," Graham said. "'Paint out loud!' he often said - so I had him come to my studio. For at least a month, he sat at a table on a model stand, where he peculiarly gripped his pen between his index and forefinger and wrote, from 'Ricketts' notes, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, an account of their biological expedition to Mexico.  John, who was divorcing his wife Carol, was in turmoil. But he was often moody, and I would have probably painted him that way regardless." The portrait, which appeared on a Coast Weekly cover (8/4/94) was last reported as part of director John Huston's estate.

Graham also did a portrait of Steinbeck's second wife Gwyndolyn and of Connelly, Steinbeck's one eyed pet pig, which roamed the author's retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

And Steinbeck had commissioned Graham to spend four months in Mexico on what the artist called his 'Paint Out Loud' trip. ("If only purple could be limited to painting!" Steinbeck had said regarding Graham's own literary efforts.)

During World War II, Steinbeck, as a prominent Democrat, may have influenced Graham's appointment as a war correspondent/artist. Graham, however, already had the distinction of being the very first man the Navy drafted.  Hospitalized by an old injury and unwilling to paint officers' portraits, Graham was transferred to New York City, where he contacted Steinbeck, who dined with him and introduced him to influential people.

"But the comaraderie of Ed's lab wasn't there," said Graham, " though we were still friends and continued to correspond."

Concerning abstract art, Graham said, "People often become angry and defeated. But they should give it a chance and not over analyze it." In 1952, Graham, the late Sam Colburn, and three other artists Graham wanted to help, each painted on the wall of a destroyed building, opposite Carmel fire station.  Graham was the most prominent and unlike the others, totally abstract. "The uproar over my painting was such," Graham said, "that Life magazine depicted it with the caption: 'What's the matter with Carmel?'"

In his studio, Graham, often wearing paint-splattered sweat pants, a T-shirt, and ankle-high slippers, plans his works deliberately, doing a series of sketches, water colors, and small oils, before completing his final study on an easel that belonged to artist Francis McComas - always on quality Masonite, which lasts longer than canvas.

Graham won't do serigraphs, which he considers "a fraud." He said, " I found my space very early, and I chose to listen to myself."

Often sensual and appealing to the young, Graham's works are held by the Whitney Museum in New York City, the Art Institute of Chicago, the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Art Museum, the Oakland Museum, and the Brazilian Embassy in Washington.

Locally, Graham's works can be seen at Beeches' Gallery in Carmel and at the Carmel Art Association.

Recently, at a supermarket, Graham, nattily dressed, explained to a clerk why, at his age, he is still working. "Tell her what I do," he told a friend.

"He's a painter."

"Not that! She'll think I paint houses."

"He's an artist."

"And I have thousands of children out there," said Graham, his eyes twinkling. "And all are by my immaculate conception."

Ellwood Graham is approaching his 93rd birthday. He still paints everyday and his works continue to be the highlight of many private collections; as colorful and full of energy as ever!

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following information is from ART (unknown volume, unknown date.  However, by reference to artist's age it is somewhere around 1991-2)

"Art Notes"
Rick Deregon

Memories of a 'modernist'

Pebble Beach artist Ellwood Graham has entered his eighth decade of painting, and recently paused to reflect on the good and bad times, the trials and triumphs of a career that has taken him throughout the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Besides the sudden discoveries made while painting in new and enchanting lands, over the years, Graham has befriended numerous distinguished figures who have filled these moments of reflection with rich memories. "I'm in my period of anecdotage," he says with a gleam in his eye.

"I had an early success because I was considered -- I shouldn't have been but I was -- the first modernists painter on the West Coast," recalls Graham.

"I arrived to stay on the Monterey Peninsula in 1937. I was lured by John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, who came to visit me in L.A. and told me about Monterey. They liked my painting, and they became good friends and benefactors.

"There weren't any galleries here except for the Carmel Art Association which was at the time nothing more than a room with a pot-bellied stove. I established an area on the hill above Monterey called Huckleberry Hill. I bought five lots; I got Bruce Ariss his lot, I helped others there with their lots. There were mostly artists, the studios were big, it was very baronial for me," remembers Graham with a smile.

However, before Graham settled on the Peninsula, there were dues to pay. He came to California after leaving Washington University in St. Louis, watching the gas gauge of his Ford roadster closely as he traversed Route 66, and eating just the bag of oranges his sympathetic mother had given him at his departure. Graham along with the people later immortalized as "Oakies" by Steinbeck, arrived in 1933, only to discover there were no jobs.

"I retreated to the desert, near Victorville, and slept in a sleeping bag next to my car, ate rattlesnakes and vegetables for food, I painted away, then went up and down Sunset Boulevard and sold four paintings fore $4 each. I was rich!"

Before long, Graham entered a competition for a Ventura Post Office mural. Although he came in second to Gordon Kenneth Grant, he was quickly hired by Grant to help and the two completed, from 1935-1936, the 1400-foot egg tempera project.

"I received $100 a month for the mural; and I went immediately to the bank to deposit $25 of it and lived off the remainder," remembers Graham.

He soon parlayed these earnings and savings into his successful Monterey real estate venture, mixing opportunity with generosity.

"A psychologist friend at the time said I had a Jesus Christ complex, as far as helping people out, but John (Steinbeck) referred to my helping people as my "magnificent obsession."

Graham's "modernist" painting is an elegant blend of linear elements and color that suggests space and atmosphere while retaining the tactile presence of pigment. Much of his painting rests on the blurry line between non-representation and figuration. In their evocation of specific forms and the plethora of rhythms and painterly energy, Graham's paintings caught the eye of collectors, art show judges and curators throughout the country.

Major museums count Graham paintings among their collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Chicago Art Institute, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the DeYoung Museum of San Francisco, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Oakland Museum.

"I am a creative painter, the grist for the mill can come from anything at all - a love affair, a book, a poem, a conversation, anything. I like profound painting, although I'm not always capable of doing it, I want a painting to breathe; I like to orchestrate color, playing with the various tones to create an amalgam of color," reflects the artist.

One ongoing series, "pictographs," was inspired by diverse sources, such as Mayan wall carvings, Navajo symbology and the Rosetta Stone. These works, that at times recall Klee, are filled with personal symbols and painterly verve. Each image/symbol in the dense grids of these paintings has a fresh, vital linear quality, full of the immediacy of discovery and the storyteller's compulsion.



This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following is submitted August 2004 by Lois Kimp, whose source for the first entry is a brochure about Graham that she found.  Her other sources are indicated.

Biographical data:
Born August 8. 1911 in St. Louis, Missouri. Advanced education. Five Years at Washington University of St. Louis. Received scholarship.
1934 --- Executed paintings for California State Buildings.
1935-36 --- Designed and executed with Gordon Kenneth Grant 1400 foot egg tempera mural for Ventura Post Office.
1937 --- Built studio home in Monterey and painted landscapes of west coast in watercolor for use in Senatorial offices in Washington D.C.
1939 --- Commissioned by group of 16 prominent citizens to travel throughout U.S.A. typifying various sections in oil.
1940 --- Commissioned by author John Steinbeck to paint his portrait while writing "Sea of Cortez" in studio
1941 --- Commissioned by John Steinbeck to create personal record in oil of the Republic of Mexico.
1945 --- Upon honorable discharge from Navy painted and had one-man show in New York City.
1946-51 --- Divided time between New Mexico and Monterey, California.
1952-53 --- Painted throughout the Caribbean.
1954-55 --- Painted in old Mexico.
1956-90 --- Lived and painted in California.
[1990 to present --- lives and paints in Oregon while maintaining ties to Carmel, California.}

Other information in this brochure:

During his career to date Graham has given 39 solo exhibitions throughout the United States and Mexico, and participated in innumerable group shows. As a result he has received over sixty awards. nine of them national in scope, sixteen of them covering various sections of the country, and the rest regional or theme in nature. As a further result the following public institutions acquired these paintings for their permanent collections:

Whitney Museum of American Arts, New York City.
"Kinship," oil
"Hyperbole," watercolor

Chicago Art Institute, Chicago
"Emblazonment," oil

Los Angeles Museum of Art
"Guide," oil

Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California
"Digitalis," oil

DeYoung Museum of San Francisco
"Cameo Caravan," oil

Museum of University of New Mexico at Albuquerque
"Crucifixion of the Artist," oil

San Francisco Museum of Art
"My Story," oil
"Spanish Lace," oil
"Potpourri," watercolor
"Gavotte," oil

San Francisco Art Institute Collection
"Coxcomb," oil

Adelphi University Collection, Garden City, Long Island
"Double Ellipse," oil

Monterey Peninsula Museum of Art, Monterey, California
"Valley Bridge," oil

Brazilian Embassy of Washington, D.C.
"Alameda Way," oil

Oakland Museum of Art, Oakland, California
"Mexican Village," oil


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following is from Susan Canavarro, whose artist father was Al Need, 1911-1986 and who has special memories of Ellwood Graham.  Known for his seascapes, Need exhibited his paintings at the Pebble Beach Village Gallery during the 1950s and then had a gallery in Mendocino:

I grew up as a friend to the family of Bruce and Jean Ariss, and knew, briefly, Ellwood and Barbara Graham, both painters.  Below is an excerpt from a memoir I have been writing about growing up on the Monterey Peninsula:

"Huckleberry Hill" consisted of a small enclave of artists-writers, painters, musicians, some lawyers, doctors, teachers, secretaries, and other folk.  The writer/artist Bruce Ariss lived there with his wife, Jean, a writer, and their five kids; as did the painters Ellwood and Barbara Graham; Howard Bradford, painter; and the writers Ward and Raylin Moore. Of course many people wrote about the area, the most famous being John Steinbeck who put Huckleberry Hill and Raspberry Flats on the map in the minds of millions of readers.

The Grahams built a marvelous home/studio with redwood board and batten walls, flagstone floors and patio, with a large open living room, kitchen, and den, and double French doors opening out onto a patio shared with a small cottage on the same property. As a kid visiting their place, I remember it being outlandishly dirty and messy, the kitchen sink always crusty with old food particles and dirty dishes, spent clothes lying everywhere on furniture and floors, books and magazines strewn around on every surface, stone floors gritty with dirt. The house was truly lived in.

I can't remember ever living on Huckleberry Hill when I was a child, although it was always my fantasy to live in the cute little abstract house whose roofs looked somewhat like butterfly wings, designed by Howard Bradford, also a painter. It was basically two buildings with roofs sharply slanted in two directions connected by a short covered walkway-I think one building for the adults and one for the children! Or more likely, one was a painting studio. Sometimes this fantasy seems so real, perhaps we actually did live there for a short while.


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Ellwood Graham was a painter and muralist who graduated from the School of Fine Arts at Washington University and settled in Monterey, California in 1934.  He was active with the Federal Art Project during the Depression and painted numerous murals in state buildings.

He served in the Navy during World War II and in the 1950s lived between Monterey, New Mexico, the Caribbean and Mexico.  In 1956, he became a resident of Pebble Beach and exhibited widely including the San Francisco Art Association and the Carmel Art Association.

Source:
Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940

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