from The Humboldt Beacon

He’s a compulsive sketcher. Yet, every sweep of his pencil or pen unearths images that have already begun to file off the pages and out of his possession. 

“The minute I finish these paintings, it’s like somebody else did them,” said mixed media collage artist Monjett Graham. 

That’s because once the image has appeared, he considers it the property of whoever might buy it. 

“Certain paintings don’t work,” he said. “Ultimately you’re putting the idea on the surface to be sold.” 

Graham sat in his Arcata studio- he probably would remain there all night- finishing a painting series for an August show at Gallery Dog in Eureka. 

“Man, Woman & Mythology” is mixed media collage matching cultural icons with Western mythology. Graham has chosen myths and mythological beings whose narratives are coincidentally- even eerily- similar to celebrities’ stories, or the societal niches they fill. 

Graham strives to keep his work accessible, relating stories or scenes without  either hitting the viewer over the head or standing back so far that any meaning is lost to abstraction. 

“When people look at art and they can’t identify anything, I think it’s not a good situation,” Graham said. 

So, he envisions a potential buyer in his work, and some paintings don’t make it to completion. 

A lot of his sales- and his work are in collections and galleries around California- are photographic reproductions of the three-dimensional collages. “A lot of people find them easier to live with because they’re not 3-d,” Graham said. 

It is almost as if a visual artist comes to believe he has to live in an isolated world of embarrassment, instead of going out in public and marketing his product. Authors go on book tours, Graham said. 

When an artist creates a work of are, it is usually with the hope that it will speak to someone. Is it mercenary of that artist to want to be compensated for their work? 

“A lot of visual artists fall into the Van Gogh syndrome,” hoping someone will come along and discover them. It’s like the artist communicates with himself, hoping someone will overhear, he said. 

Graham has a large sketchpad, one page of which is filed with a list of  Greek and Roman notables.
Some of the names are scratched out. Preliminary pictures are begun.  

“He’s Icarus,” Graham said, pointing to a completed collage, photocopied images and layers of paint, showing an NBC logo sun to the right of which a creature is upside down, plummeting into a large cityscape. The photocopied face on the creature’s body belongs to Bill Cosby.

This first painting of the mythology series, he said, was inspired by a report he heard that Bill Cosby had attempted to purchase a major network and was refused. 

“I saw him flying too high and too close to the sun- in this case NBC,” Graham said. 

Graham likes mythology, he said, because it “tells stories that are bigger than everyday life, but can still be applied to life, almost like a large mirror.” 

He uses collage, he said, because it “makes your eye work.” 

“Your eye has to remain on the image a little longer – a better chance of the message sinking into the gray matter,” he said. 

Graham’s paintings, often in series form, cover African- American history, religion, social commentary and popular music. 

His “Black Holocaust” series depicts the history of the West African slave trade from the 16th century through the mid-19th Century Underground Railroad. 

One painting, “Golden Triangle,” illustrates how the trade often worked. It was spread among three continents: England, Africa and America. English traders would take manufactured goods to West Africa, trade them for slaves, then the slaves would be taken to America and traded for money. Graham said. 

The painting began as historical information in his head, he said. “I threw it out emotionally on a sketch pad.”
He uses objects in the painting that may be ordinary in the literal world, but compelling in the metaphorical one. A red plastic belt symbolizes blood. Rusty rings look like chains; Graham drew a mask in the center that could be an African ceremonial piece or a picture of a slave ship viewed from the top. There is a suggestion of a triangle half hidden in the dark paint, which is the ocean. 

Graham, who grew up in a  predominantly white Omaha, Neb. In the 1950’s, did quite a bit of historical research for the series, which premiered at Jahn Arts International in Minneapolis, Minn. He included historical summaries with each of nine paintings, and he said he learned much that he had never been taught. 

He returned to Omaha recently, to work on a mural project with inner-city teens. The project was called “Heart of Care, Inc.” and was funded by the Nebraska Arts Council. 

He spent one month painting and teaching with 12-to-16-year olds, and noted that views about art and artist haven’t charged much since he was a child, he said. All ages seem to understand what it means to be a doctor, but an artist is an animal that defies defining. 

It goes further than that, though. “To be a creative being is not something that is encouraged,” Graham, said. “If you’re growing up, particularly if you want to be an artist, you won’t get much encouragement. You don’t receive smiles until people see that you are turning it into a bank account.” 

Even so, artists continue to be born. 

“It is extremely spiritually gratifying,” Graham said. “Part of that gratification is that you are somehow enlightening people, spreading something people can pick up and share.”

Picture of Monjett quote:
Monjett Graham likes mythological stories, because they are bigger than everyday life, but their themes art still applicable today. His latest show, “Man, Woman & Mythology,” is on display at Gallery Dog, 321 Third St., Eureka through August.

“Work the Crowd”: “Work the Crowd,” a mixed media collage completed in 1994, is part of Graham’s “Music America” series. He began the series in 1989 and said that the paintings have been selling as fast as he can complete them. The series is Graham’s attempt to create a general overview of popular music in our contemporary culture. 

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