"If any man has any poetry in him he should paint it, for it has all been said and written and they have hardly begun to paint it.” -Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Every day, old and new patrons alike find their way into Richland Library. They come in for our resources and programs: to use the computers, partake in Storytime, utilize our study rooms, or skim through the popular titles we hold on our shelves. Not surprisingly, we have many patrons that come in multiple times throughout the day to use these resources. One of these regular patrons, DeLoss McGraw, I was amazed to learn, is revered as “one of America’s most poignant visual artists” by his artist peers. Our library patrons are indeed one-of-a-kind, but this revelation proves how you can never know the life stories of those who come through our library doors.
McGraw has been a regular patron at the Blythewood branch for more than a year. "There are two things that I really enjoy about this library: I’m comfortable in the way the space is oriented, and the help is friendly. That’s a big deal— the help is friendly." McGraw is no stranger to libraries. Many afternoons of his childhood were spent browsing shelves in the University of Oklahoma Library as his mother studied for her Ph.D. in English. While she poured over her books, he filled his time by reading pieces by William De Witt Snodgrass (1926-2009), a poet he would collaborate with in his later years.
DeLoss McGraw was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, in 1945. His father, who lived in Los Angeles, California, was an architect by trade, and his mother was a Literature professor. His parents divorced when he was a year old. An interest and love for art were sparked very early on. “In first grade and onwards, I got the art award every year. There must have been some talent there that someone saw,” McGraw told me one afternoon. It wasn’t until his late teens that he decided there was nothing in life he wanted more than to become a painter. “I was in Los Angeles with my dad and stepmother when I went to see a large exhibition at the L.A. County Museum on the French artist Pierre Bonnard. I just fell in love with it. I fell in love with the colors. That was the first thing that made sense to me," said McGraw.
At eighteen years old, McGraw left Oklahoma to study at the Otis Art Institute of Los Angeles. Later, he received his B.A. at California State University and M.F.A. at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. “At Cranbrook, the teachers were professionals,” said McGraw. “They had taken that stand [in creating art outside the classroom].” Some of his teachers included well-known creators: print-maker Bob Everyman, and painter George Ortman. After a two-year stint as an Army Chaplain’s assistant in the Vietnam War, McGraw began teaching art at Northern Kentucky University (1972-1975) and University of San Diego (1978-1983) but then decided to devote himself full-time to the creative arts. “There was a lot of activity for me in the art gallery scene in Los Angeles so I stopped teaching,” said McGraw.
In the 1980s, McGraw became widely known for his child-like, abstract paintings that embrace the innocence of youth. When it comes to his individual pieces of artwork, McGraw doesn't like to compare his past work with new ones nor places too much weight on how “good” they are. "I never encourage people to make art like mine. I want them to be themselves," said McGraw. In lieu of watercolors or acrylic, McGraw paints primarily in gouache. With this method, he creates whimsical artwork of characters and objects with unrealistic proportions and qualities: figures are presented as bloated or as stick-like characters with multi-colored skin.
"The wonderful thing about his artwork is the sense of vivid colors and his ability not to illustrate literature but to interpret literary works he’s inspired by. He creates works of art that stand on their own," said Robert Pincus, PhD. "There is a quality of truthfulness to whatever subject he’s dealing with. I don't mean truthfulness like in a didactic or preaching manner, just his truthful view of the world." As well as being McGraw's friend and admirer of his work, Pincus was an art critic for The San Diego Union-Tribune for 25 years and is currently a teacher at California State University, Long Beach. He met the artist while reviewing one of his solo shows for the Los Angeles Times.
A decades-long friendship and partnership between McGraw and Pulitzer prize-winning poet William De Witt Snodgrass came to fruition when McGraw sent a letter to the revered poet, stating his desire to use his poems for two colored lithographs he was making. “I was going to be a guest artist at a school and I wanted to do it on a poem of his,” said McGraw.
Known for his book of poems, Heart’s Needle (1959), Snodgrass is credited with changing the direction of contemporary poetry to a more confessional nature. Snodgrass was unfamiliar with the young painter, but he accepted his request. The letter interlaced them in ways that would change their professional lives and create a life-long friendship. “My experience as an artist was based on “D” (McGraw affectionally calls him). He was a generation older than I so he was very fatherly and good to me. I owe a lot to him," said McGraw.
A dialogue between writer and poet proved successful with their first collaboration, The Death of Cock Robin. Based on the eighteenth-century English nursery rhyme Who Killed Cock Robin, the working partnership between writer and artists resulted in 33 poems and paintings. They also collaborated on W.D.’s Midnight Carnival (1988), a limited-edition book of ten poems and ten hand-painted etchings. “I think the W.D. stuff was my best. It might not look the prettiest to your eye, but the ideas were very inventive.” W.D.'s Midnight Carnival imparts the sense of playfulness exclusively exhibited at the circus— acrobats, towering figures, exuberant clowns, and other fantastical images.
While working together, they staved from dissecting each other's work and instead relished interacting with each other's imaginative pieces. McGraw’s literary inspirations didn’t stop with Snodgrass. "My artwork is usually inspired by a story. All of my exhibitions are based on literature and I think that my mother being a literature teacher was an influence on me," said McGraw. One of his favorite novels is One Hundred Years of Solitude by the Latin-American author Gabriel Marquez. This piece of literature had such a profound effect on the artist that he created 70 small encaustic paintings over 3 years based on the book.
Years later, another literary giant, Lewis Carroll, would inspire him to create a best-selling illustrated book of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It wasn’t until he was 38 years of age when the whimsical tale first captured his attention after he was “tempted with nostalgia for [his] childhood.” It all started when McGraw answered an ad in a magazine for artwork submissions. What began as a series of paintings on the moon transformed into a desire to create his illustrated version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (2001). It won the Illustrator's Society Book of the Year Award in 2002.
His work with the fantasy novel didn't end there. A few months ago, he was commissioned to create Alice In Wonderland artwork for a business' parking area. "I’m using Alice because she is automatically understood. Everyone knows the story to a degree," said McGraw. Instead of relying on canvas, he is using oil and acrylic on plywood and is mounting them onto a long concrete wall that encloses the lot.
McGraw always stays true to his artistic inclinations, even in the way he goes about creating; instead of the conventional method of painting on an aisle, McGraw prefers to work flat on the paper. Although his work lacks classical "sophistication,” it shouldn’t be mistaken for “effortless” or “elementary” in nature. McGraw believes the "innocent childlike view of things holds the essence of happiness" and that "painting in a child-like manner gives me the opportunity to deal with serious issues and not become maudlin or sentimental."
When it comes to his individual pieces of artwork, McGraw doesn't like to compare his past work with newer ones nor coerces others to emulate his style. "I never encourage people to make art like mine. I want them to be themselves," said McGraw. He considers his favorite artwork whichever he’s working on at the moment and doesn't put too much weight on how "good" they are. "There’s no doubt about it, having an income is part of success, but you don't think that the paintings are better because it's sold. You get past that," said McGraw.
It has taken McGraw many years of work and studying to become a master, a dedication that has granted him the distinction of having his art featured in galleries across the United States, Canada, and Europe. His collections have been exhibited in Harvard University, Oxford University, Library of Congress, Whitney Museum of American Art, Modern Museum of Art, and Cincinnati Art Museum.
At the moment, he is finishing a series of paintings on the late folk singer Woody Guthrie, and plans on attending artspace, Shreveport Louisiana's first arts center for exploring different art disciplines for multi-generational audiences, in mid September. Over the years, he has collected American folk sculptures and has employed elements of the art into his paintings.
Whether he draws inspiration from other visual artists or the literary heroes whose stories left an impression on him as a young boy, McGraw continues doing what he loves most: making art.