With so many international artists now sampling desert themes, it’s refreshing to meet a painter who is not a tourist but is genetically rooted in this place. Via his grandparents, Warner Graves III is connected to many epochal events in the region, including the formation of the Salton Sea and the building of the All-American Canal and the Old Plank Road.
When Warner was a boy, he would lay on his grandmother’s sofa and study her desert landscape paintings on the wall while Lula Mae told him stories of the prospectors and desert rats she’d known in the 1920s. Lula and her friend Susie Keef Smith were documentary photographers who captured the lands east of the Salton Sea. (For news of a forthcoming book about the pair, see below.) Lula’s husband was a prospector and engineer who helped to repair the breach that formed the Salton Sea. The couple had a gold mine and a cabin at Aztec Wells, where young Warner hunted for geodes as a child.
Warner’s adult life veered in a decidedly urban direction when he moved to San Francisco and became a decorative artist, painting ornate murals on the ceilings of mansions and immersing himself in European classicism, gothic fantasy and the punk scene.
Today Warner is traveling back into the desert, painting landscapes and camping in the remote canyons his grandmother photographed 90 years ago. He recently spent a solitary New Year’s at Corn Springs (a historic oasis 80 miles east of Palm Springs) camped in a freezing wind, studying his grandmother’s old letters and working on his own desert paintings.
In anticipation of his solo show at the Maturango Museum (July, 2018), here’s an introduction to the head-spinning worlds of Warner Graves, where neoclassical ceiling painting meets desert painting; John Hilton meets the magical gnomes of Arthur Rackham; and fantasy, imagination and desert roots meet to form an unprecedented vision.
Q: Please tell us a little about your childhood.
A: I was born in Long Beach, California and lived there till my early adolescence when we moved to Hemet to be close to my grandparents.
I had a traditional suburban upbringing and was an extremely shy and introverted child, often spending most of my time contentedly by myself. I had a rich inner and personal home life reading anything I could get my hands on, politics, detective novels, but really developed a taste for fantasy, natural history, the biological sciences, field books, paleontology, books on ancient history and comics of course. Like so many kids with similar dispositions I found the library was my sanctuary. Encouraged by my parents to cultivate my artistic skills from day one, at school I was often chastised for doodling during class and couldn’t wait to get home to work on whatever project I had going on. At a very young age I would do mail order craft projects with my mom and sister. My dad dabbled in oils and my grandparents had a wonderful collection of desert themed paintings on their walls in San Jacinto. As is often the case with a child artist I was praised for my drawings that were photo-realistic but I soon grew out of that and began experimenting with work I’d seen in art history books.
What was your first exposure to the desert?
I loved to go to my grandparents’ place as a kid. Their farm bordered the San Jacinto river basin, with the mountains towering above. It felt very remote. I was free to explore the area: groves of cottonwoods, abandoned barns, jackrabbits lizards and coyotes. Vast blue sky. Plus my grandparents’ psyche was firmly moored in their love of the desert.
In San Jacinto, they had a cactus garden, with tortoise shells and bighorn sheep horns strewn about, chipped McCoy pottery full of rocks and gems. There was warm sun and dappled shade of walnut trees, and everywhere was something to explore, touch and see. In some ways it almost felt like an old time curios and curiosities garden. The interior of their small home had several desert landscape paintings by my grandmother and other painters, Navajo blankets, old Susie Keef Smith photos, musty bound Desert Magazines, post cards and prints of John Hilton’s work, cowboy books, and my grandparents’ adventurous tales. As a kid who loved nature and history, it was heaven. When I was about seven my grandparents gave me a box of rocks and minerals that they had collected out in the desert, each one with a descriptive label. It made a tremendous impression on me.
My sister Glenda and I would often go out there for days at a time. So different from our Long Beach home. I know we both have fond memories of those stays there.
When were you first exposed to art?
We visited Disneyland and nearby Knotts Berry Farm when I was young. My earliest influences were classic Disney films: Snow White, Cinderella, Bambi. I’ve always been drawn less to the characters in those movies and more to the scenic landscape paintings in the background. In retrospect I was an open book absorbing any artistic visual images I saw, and developed some taste preferences at an early age. I also spent a lot of time at places like the La Brea tar pits, various nature centers, natural history museums and any quiet natural environment I could get to even if it was a dirt field. I was a young cauldron where sabertooth cats, grandmother’s old photos, Bambi, art history, archaeology, illustrated plant and animal field guides all mixed seamlessly to inspire my creative spirit. I think because of this background I find it easy to combine artistic traditions and enjoy working in a variety of mediums.
Tell us about your schooling.
I received a BFA in ceramics from CSU Long Beach. Here I grew to appreciate modern and contemporary art including site specific works. My art reflected this. Ceramic sculpture at the time explored the ideas of Buddhism, utilizing the cyclical aspect of the natural world. Most of my sculptures included these elements of traditional painting.
After graduating I moved to San Francisco as a classic starving artist. I approached some of the nicer antique dealers in the design district for work. A couple of them recognized my usefulness and put me to work painting reproductions of Venetian and neoclassical furniture.
I grew to appreciate these styles as they included heavy elements of whimsy and fantasy, with rich explorations in color and paint techniques, history and of course a source of income. My artistic pendulum swung back from contemporary art to traditional European. The Bay Area at the time was and still is a design mecca and I found myself in high end homes working for assorted designers. I enjoyed the challenges of creating whatever the client requested: a nautical-themed living room done only in shades of ochre, a nighttime sky done in purples and yellows, cabinetry painted to look like a Maxfield Parrish painting, a dining room painted in a Pompeian style, an elevator painted with monkeys in reds and blacks, innumerable sky ceilings, an interior dome painted with the zodiac, and–frequently–large scale floor to ceiling landscape murals. Most artists would bristle at having to bend their artistic talents to someone else’s guidelines but I soon developed a name for myself as an artist to go to, implementing someone’s vision no matter how crazy it seemed or wild the color scheme. I put my passion into the work and always manage to create something that exceeds expectations and is beautiful and livable.
I suppose here is a good point to talk about the distinction between decorative arts and fine art. Decorative wall and ceiling murals work to be a part of the greater whole of an interior design and in a way recede into the background to bolster the feel of the room. It’s OK to hang a mirror, a painting or place a cabinet in front of the mural because the wall painting serves to magnify the feel and look of the room. In some ways it feels like site-specific installations in that the work is curated to go with what the environment calls for as opposed to being stand alone pieces. One’s artistic ego is subservient. Traditionally fine art is meant to be appreciated regardless of the environment it is placed in. Fine art is often about the individual, the ego. A lot of fine artists frown on the decorative arts as being less than art–it’s not art for art’s sake, it’s indulgent, derivative, etc…. I get all that but I think people are more open as the distinctions between artistic traditions have broken down and hopefully one can appreciate a good painting whether it’s framed or on a ceiling.
The European arts tradition seems pretty far removed from desert plein air painting. How did you come to your current interest in desert painting?
My attraction to desert landscapes comes from a similar place as my decorative mural work. Landscape painting, like decorative arts in general, ranks low in the contemporary art world scheme of things. There are always people like Anselm Kiefer who push the boundaries of landscapes using unconventional materials, but I think most landscape artists are drawn to the creative act and exploring themes within the natural environment by playing with colors, shapes and working within traditional paint techniques such as oil, watercolors etc.–as opposed to engaging in some of the themes found in contemporary art, such as confessional art, political art, statement art, art as a social commentary, installations or whatever the art world holds in esteem. Not that a landscape painting can’t be any of those things; it just feels like landscape art is more about the artist enjoying themselves and the creative process and of course the love of nature. But that’s just me and I don’t pretend to speak of the motivations or views of other desert landscape artists.
I find myself with large gaps of time between professional jobs and I’m always looking to branch out and explore new artistic styles. I’d never worked with oils before. Plus I love the desert and spending time out there backpacking and hiking so it seemed like a natural marriage. I’ve long admired landscape art, the work of Agnes Pelton, Eyvind Earle, Tyrus Wong, Arthur and Lucia Mathews, Carl Rungius, W. R. Leigh, and artists from the golden age of illustration like Dulac, Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen, I could go on and on. I thought it would be a good foray in my spare time, a chance to create new synapses in the brain. I suppose like lots of artists my taste and interests vary so it feels like there’s no conflict in being drawn to John Hilton, Ray Harryhausen, Anselm Kiefer and J.M.W. Turner— all very different. I find inspiration in each and hope my work reflects this.
Growing up in Hemet put me in close proximity to the desert as did spending time at my grandparents’ place in rural San Jacinto and occasional field trips with them out to Corn Springs. But it wasn’t till I moved to the Bay Area that I developed a passion for the outdoors. Day hikes on nearby Mt. Tamalpais turned into camping trips in Yosemite which soon became multi-day backpacks throughout the west. I found myself increasingly drawn back to the desert, Death Valley, the Mojave, and beyond. I felt at home in the large expanses, with the quiet, delighting in the shapes and colors and a connection with my dad and grandparents. So I was very excited to turn the talents I’d developed painting interior landscape murals into smaller oils on canvas. I also wanted to create a body of work that I could exhibit. Up until this point most everything I’ve ever created is in private homes. It now feels good to have a body of consistent work on a particular theme. Admittedly one of the biggest overlaps between my decorative work and my current landscapes is the fact that they’re created outside a natural setting. I have great admiration for plein air artists and I do quite a bit of sketching and watercolors when I’m outside but the majority of my finished work is done in my studio. I really enjoy exploring with color, light, shadows, repetition of shapes, abstraction, all things which I find more suited for work at home. When I work on site I tend to gravitate towards realism which is something I’m striving to move away from. Sometimes my work includes composites of various locations, reimaginings and loose homages to a particular place. At least for now I’m more likely to explore my creative impulses in my studio as opposed to working on site.
Tell us about the role of fantasy and imagination in your desert paintings. Most of us might assume desert painting is mostly realistic and practical.
I marvel at the variety of color I see when I spend time in the desert. What might at first look beige is often full of pinks, purples and so on. I love bringing these colors out in a painting, walking the line between realism and imagination. The landscape paintings I most admire by other artists often involve the creative use of color and a playful delight with form. I think an appreciation of work unmoored in realism, like the fantasy paintings of any number of artists whether it’s Agnes Pelton’s abstract work or a Frank Frazetta’s Tarzan has allowed me to step out into the natural word and see things in a different and more exciting way. I like it when an artist can present an idea in a new and innovative manner. I see fantasy and imagination as an extension of this. I love how Agnes Pelton had a spiritual aspect to her work. I strive for my paintings to evoke a sense of otherwordliness, the mystery, awe, and magic of the desert and I think explorations with color and playing with abstraction is one way to do this.
Tell us more about your parents and grandparents and their own connections to the desert and to art.
As soon as I started exploring the desert in my mid 20’s I immediately felt a connection with my grandparents that I hadn’t since I was a kid. Almost as if some sort of collective memory or genetic imprint had been passed down and activated.
They had a range of desert themed paintings in their home, some my grandmother had painted, others by friends including the bighorn sheep by Gus Lederer, a legendary miner at Corn Springs. I suspect my grandfather had artistic talents as well but he channeled them into his engineering illustrations and work. The same goes for my dad, though he dabbled in landscape painting at one point in his life. All three had tales of Corn Springs. My grandparents met there, my grandmother as an explorer and my grandfather as an itinerant miner. My dad spent much of his childhood and young adult years there as well. I have 8mm films from the 1940’s of them on vacation out there. Later my mom and dad spent part of their honeymoon in the Chuckawallas [ed: mountains near Corn Springs].
My grandparents and parents were very encouraging of me as a young artist. My grandparents in particular had an appreciation of the arts and saw it as a noble and worthy endeavor in the tradition of western artists. I think in retrospect they saw it as a continuation of a family tradition.
You said landscape painting was harder than you thought it would be. Please explain.
First, oil paints were new to me. In my earliest attempts I was pushing the paint around like it was acrylic. But I thought it would be much easier to translate my large-scale commercial murals into oil on canvas. Hardly. In some ways I still can’t quite figure out why it was so difficult. I’m used to working on a very large scale with wide brushes, painting in a quick manner, bold gestural strokes, tight deadlines, limited color palettes and quick drying paint mediums. For some reason I excel on this front. Initially I bought giant size canvas and went to town painting large landscapes with varied results. I suppose in retrospect I needed to develop an appreciation for the workings of oil paints before I accomplished anything worthwhile. Live and learn. I’ve since moved to smaller more manageable size canvas and I am much more happy with the results. I’m able to access what it is I like about the mural work, namely playing with color and form, and apply it to smaller pieces.
I hate to admit it but I also suspect that since I’ve spent so many years working for designers and private clients painting in whatever style they wish that now when it came time to approach a blank canvas for my own work I was a bit lost. I’m getting there.
Tell us about your travels in the desert and your favorite haunts.
I have all kinds of favorite locations, some I’ve visited only once and others I go to repeatedly. I love the quiet and solitude, cross country exploring, the vistas, the geographic features, shapes, and the way the light and color changes so dramatically throughout the course of the day and evening. The sense that the internal workings of the earth is laid bare to see. It’s easy to see the landscape as an abstract or surreal painting, all the layers stripped away exposing shape and color.
One of my favorite areas in the eastern Mojave is an overnight hike to a remote oasis. You walk for a few miles up a canyon and finally by late afternoon come to an enormous towering rock monolith with springs and a palm oasis at its base, animal bones and fronds strewn everywhere. I swear you expect King Kong to appear at any moment, it’s so unexpected, dramatic and otherworldly. It sums up what I like about the desert: what at first appears beige and monotonous can change so dramatically.
I try and go to Death Valley and the surrounding wilderness areas at least twice a year. I recently fell in love with the Ibex Dunes in the southern part of the park. I find it’s enjoyable to drive out to the middle of nowhere, park my truck, pick an interesting geographic or landscape feature in the distance and head out. There’s so much to explore. I love trail hiking the Sierras and coast range but there’s something really appealing about desert hiking–going off trail and making one’s own itinerary and adventure.
Tell us more about your desert painting efforts–your pastel series, your more fantastical Salton Sea paintings (Drowned Resort). And what you are aiming for in the future.
For the moment I’m focusing on continually producing a series of oil on canvas landscapes, exploring an appreciation of oil paints and developing a distinctive style. In undergraduate art school there was a tremendous pressure for students to distinguish themselves by creating a personal style while at the same time mastering new mediums. In retrospect it made for some interesting if not confused pieces. I don’t want to fall into that trap. My attitude is to get a grasp of the materials and medium, continue to produce work, enjoy the exploration and through this process hopefully come up with work that has a distinctive look. I appreciate and marvel at other desert landscape artists who have developed an original style and while that’s my goal ultimately I want to enjoy the process. I also enjoy exploring other artists’ work and I’ll confess I’m very susceptible to these influences. In one painting I’ll try and imitate something I like about an Agnes Pelton; in another I’ll take inspiration from a piece I’ve seen in a gallery. On some levels it makes for a range of stylistic work but I have no issue with that. I mentioned earlier that I’m trying to develop new synapses in my brain. I’m a big fan of neuroplasticity [ed: the ability of the brain to form new neural connections throughout life]. Some people learn new languages or other skill sets, I’m working with oils after decades of water based mediums.
The Drowned Resort painting is more reflective of my past work; it’s a watercolor. I love work from the Golden Age of Illustration (roughly the 1900’s to the 1940’s) and I continually find myself reaching back to this era. Before I embarked on the oil on canvas work I did a series inspired by art from this era. It’s still a passion but there’s only so much time in the day. On that note I’ll mention I’m also currently working on multiple projects besides the landscape paintings. I have a side project customizing leather and denim jackets, painting the interior of an airstream in Wyoming, and the Susie and Lula project [ed: See below for a description]. And then there’s my commissioned work. I like having multiple projects going. I find when I get frustrated with a piece I can switch to another ongoing or new project and as I get excited that enthusiasm spills into other work.
I’m enjoying the group shows and building my resume but I’m thrilled to have a solo show this summer at the Maturango Museum. I’ll admit I’m more into the creative aspects of being an artist and less into the marketing. That’s a full time job in and of itself. Ultimately I want to thrive and grow as an artist and I’d love it if my desert landscapes find themselves in galleries and people’s homes. I continue to explore themes around light and shadow, a playful use of color and a dance with the contrast between abstraction and realism. I’m a big fan of persistence and I hope that my continued dedication to desert landscapes leads to a body of work I can be proud of. It’s a humbling process, making it up as I go and fumbling along the way, learning from mistakes, exploring and figuring out what works. But that sums up what being an artist is about to me. Spending time exploring and creating work about the desert is as perfect as it gets.
For more of Warner Graves’ work see: https://www.warnergraves.net/
Warner’s solo show opens at the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest July 13-Sept. 4, 2018
Warner Graves and Ann Japenga are working with the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association to produce Postcards From Mecca, a book about Warner’s grandmother and her cousin Susie Keef Smith, who was Mecca postmaster in the 1920s. The book will draw from more than 1,500 photographs and postcards made by Susie and Lula. Together the photographers created an unparalleled portrait of the unexplored desert east of Mecca. Watch for the book’s release in 2019.