Steven Graber | Mysteries and Possibilities

Cape Isabella, charcoal and watercolor, 11 x 16 1/2. painting, southwest art.
Cape Isabella, charcoal and watercolor, 11 x 16 1/2.

By Gussie Fauntleroy

If his life were a play, Steven Graber says, critics would give it a thumbs-down on character development. Missing would be any foreshadowing, any suggestion of personality traits in a young boy’s early life that would allow the clever theatergoer to understand the events that would later unfold.

Graber had a standard, mostly midwestern boyhood as the son of a German-Swiss Mennonite preacher. He earned a history degree from the University of Redlands, CA. He spent four years in the Navy and then settled into a sales job in Alabama although he did escape from the ordinary as a private pilot, flying his own small plane for about 10 years for pleasure and adventure.

Then one day in 1983, when he was 32, Graber sat down with a pencil. He drew a picture of an old biplane. Next thing he knew—and this part he calls “really weird”—he was creating architectural renderings and producing advertising drawings for steamship companies in Mobile, AL. In the first outdoor art show he did, everything sold.

Tuesday Morning 1889, charcoal and watercolor, 20 x 14. painting, southwest art.
Tuesday Morning 1889, charcoal and watercolor, 20 x 14.

There’s a certain sublime appropriateness in the fact that even the artist himself had not guessed what was coming in his life. Mystery, ambiguity, and open-ended possibilities are all integral to the exquisite images that now have a hard time staying on the walls of several top galleries around the country. And Graber’s personal philosophy turns on a willingness to stretch the boundaries of casually accepted reality.

Imagine this, for example: In all the uncountable eons since clouds and sunlight have fashioned combinations of shapes and shadows over the earth, imagine that at one other moment there existed a cloud formation precisely identical to the one you see out the window right now. In some unknowable way, Graber conjectures, there would be a connection between this instant and the other one that flared and disappeared (or will, in the future), somewhere in the vast reaches of time.

That’s one sort of musing in which a viewer could indulge while contemplating Graber’s evocatively detailed charcoal drawings of sky, clouds, water, and unidentifiable expanses of distant shore. Or one could simply dream, conjuring vague creatures in the clouds, as a boy on his back will do on a summer lawn.

St. Ephram s Day, charcoal and watercolor, 20 x 14. painting, southwest art.
St. Ephram’s Day, charcoal and watercolor, 20 x 14.

A sense of mystery really fascinates me,” Graber says. “The French poet Mal-larme said that to name something is to repress three-quarters of the enjoyment, and that the suggestion is the dream.” The art of intimation, of evoking atmosphere but eluding any clearly defined time, place, or narrative, is the essence of all three types of imagery Graber creates: serene landscapes, still lifes, and figurative pieces that feature dreamlike interiors and women who are almost always portrayed from the back. Occasionally Graber depicts women’s faces from the front, yet there is still a haunting, timeless quality to these images, as if the figure could have emerged from any time in history. “There’s a danger of getting trite by implying a narrative, for example by identifying a time and place. I love the thought of someone being able to transcend time,” the artist says. As Graber speaks he is sitting in the library of his studio, which is located on 100 acres of wooded land in the rolling hills of northeast Kansas. The building is a two-story timber-frame granary built in 1868 that he and his wife Roxann converted to a studio after they moved from Alabama and bought the property in 1992. At the granary’s upper level is a cupola, where the artist does his own cloud watching.

“There was a time in my life when there was nothing I’d rather have than a time machine,” he says. “The more I get to thinking about time, the more I think there is a kind of timelessness. We look at time as linear—you start here and then go there and then to there—but instead, what if we think of standing on a hill, and you can look to the right or to the left or up or down, and the past, present, and future is all around you?”

Die Schale, charcoal and watercolor, 25 x 18.  painting, southwest art.
Die Schale, charcoal and watercolor, 25 x 18.

With no figures and no sign of human activity, Graber’s black-and-white cloud and water scenes or misty woods and meandering creeks could be from thousands of years ago, or perhaps millennia into the future. But the materials in these works are distinctly contemporary, even high tech. Graber applies charcoal—in sticks and powder—and black watercolor onto a smooth, almost completely textureless, very white (and very archival) material called Mylar. Yet as slick as the surface is, it has a remarkable amount of “tooth,” or ability to grab the charcoal in an immediate, unbroken application of pure black. As a result, with the finest touch of the brush the artist can apply a trace of charcoal dust for a faint gray.

Graber attended a couple of art history courses in college, but he has no formal art training. Virtually everything he’s learned has been through experimentation, persistence, and the development of a clearly inherent talent. In the early days of his venture into drawing he was fortunate to progress rapidly and receive strong support and encouragement, he says, which made his decision to jump with both feet into art much easier than it could have been. One major arm of support has been his wife, who functions as his career partner by handling the business end of things.

Cape Flalubert, charcoal and watercolor, 25 x 18. painting, southwest art.
Cape Flalubert, charcoal and watercolor, 25 x 18.

While the absence of color in Graber’s charcoal landscapes enhances the sense of timelessness and quiet, the artist chooses to use both watercolor and charcoal on Mylar for most of his still-life and figurative works. In many cases he also applies areas of bright color to the back of the Mylar, a technique which adds to the luminosity of the image. Recently Graber has begun working on board, rather than Mylar, for some of his color pieces as he experiments with the effects of greater surface texture. His figurative images also are becoming even more allusive and otherworldly. “I’m happier with them all the time, with the look they have. They’re evolving, but I don’t know where they’re going,” he says. “As much as anything, there’s a beauty and precious quality to a woman’s world that really fascinates me, something that’s magical.”

There is an intuitive, almost magical element in the way Graber works as well. In earlier years he used photographs for reference, especially when creating landscapes with water. Now, however, he uses no photos. Viewers often tell him a certain image reminds them of a particular bay or marshland, somewhere they’ve been. But every scene emerges from the artist’s imagination, or from a dream, and the geographic names in titles are equally invented. “When you’ve done it long enough, you just go with it and stuff starts happening. I just let myself go,” he explains. “We had a drumming session out here last year. When we first started I was on a floor tom-tom with sticks, and after a while the energy started flowing and moving, and I realized I wasn’t thinking about ‘left hand down, right hand.…’ It was like someone had taken over my body—someone who knew how to drum. It’s sort of the same with this.”

For the viewer as well, Graber’s work invites the possibility of shifting to another reality, one of imagination, dreams, contemplation, and fluid, permeable boundaries across time. “It can be like a doorway for viewers,” the artist says. “It’s a door that opens a world within themselves.”

Graber is represented by Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Bryant Galleries, New Orleans, LA; Blue Heron Gallery, Well-fleet, MA; and MB Modern Gallery, New York, NY

Featured in March 2001