Sherrie McGraw: Making Beauty Her Own
A mid-career artist’s first museum retrospective offers unprecedented opportunities to look back over past chievements, and also to anticipate the good work still ahead. This is especially true in the case of the artist, teacher, and author Sherrie McGraw (b. 1954). Whose much-admired paintings and drawings have generally gone traight into private collections after being exhibited at commercial galleries or charitable fundraising shows such as Prix de West or American Masters.
Fortunately, 20 private owners have agreed to lend their treasures to the Butler Institute of American Art in oungstown, Ohio, for Sherrie McGraw. Then & Now, on view there September 28-November 30. Among its nearly 80 images are still lifes, portraits, and figure compositions spanning more than three decades of work.
Though it might seem charmed to some, the journey to this point has been neither easy nor obvious for McGraw. She grew up in a large, supportive family in Ponca City, 100 miles north of Oklahoma City, the state capital, where
she spent three years in the mid-1970s studying art with Richard and Edith Goetz. They sustained the mpressionistic legacy of high-key color handed down by such masters as William Merritt Chase. Charles Hawthorne, and Henry Hensche. Alas, this approach did not instinctively appeal to McGraw. Who grew intrigued when the Goetzes pointed her toward the more strongly lit and shaded work of Hovsep Pushman. David A. Leffel, and Walter Murch.
They also had the magnanimity to suggest she could develop her skills faster at the Art Students League of New York (ASLNY), and so McGraw headed east. During that long drive, she visited many museums, and now recalls admiring the Butler Institute’s superb collection of American masterworks. Especially the moodily lit still lifes of Emil Carlsen and landscapes of George Inness.
While studying at ASLNY, Sherrie McGraw supported herself as a night guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, surely the most inspiring classroom imaginable for a budding artist. At the League, she acquired the rigorous drawing techniques handed down from its legendary instructors George B. Bridgman (1865-1943) and Robert Brackman (1898-1980), and she learned about painting from other teachers, including the man who would become her present companion, David A. Leffel (b. 1931). McGraw studied anatomy at ASLNY with Robert Beverly Hale and at the New York Academy of Art with Jon Zahourek, and she later explored drawing and painting the horse with Ned Jacob.
By 1984, at the ripe old age of 30, McGraw was teaching her own classes at ASLNY, and indeed she remains on its faculty today, though she and Leffel are based in Taos, New Mexico. Both offer their own popular workshops and
demonstrations nationwide, and McGraw is particularly active at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University.
THE BIG PICTURE
In her classes, workshops, books, and videotaped demonstrations, McGraw conveys much more than useful technical information. Most broadly, she explains that her work “is not separate from me, but a natural outgrowth of my own insights and my relationships with the world.” She says, “Originally when I found those artists whose work most moved me, it was not their technique alone, nor their consummate skill that spoke to me; it was their special vision of the world that drew me in.”
Today, in this era of art students seeking attention with the next big gimmick, McGraw’s observation is both simple and bracing: though there are definitely mitigating factors like fashionability and wartime destruction, the historical artists we remember longest are those equipped with both virtuosic technique and a worldview that is only theirs. The art reflects his or her distinctive voice, just as a musical score stands in for its composer down the centuries.
Depth of understanding cannot come without this desire to delve beyond casual impressions to the underlying essence of reality. The success of the attempt directly reflects how well the artist understands her subject, and in this intimate relationship, the ordinary world can be lifted into a magical place where paint and line not only represent life but appear to be life itself.”
This is heady stuff, yet it’s essential for students to grasp it before they proceed to grapple with the physical difficulties of drawing and painting properly. Equally valuable is McGraw’s philosophy of Abstract Realism, which emerged from her ongoing admiration of such forerunners as Rembrandt. Velázquez, Whistler, Inness, Carlsen, and Turner. All of them, she argues, mastered an “abstract language of paint, edges, value, and color, which in combination create a visual concept that is independent of a realistic image. In a nutshell, “The subject matter is a vehicle — not the reason — for painting abstract beauty.”
That’s why, for example, the Met Museum’s famously expensive Velázquez portrait of Juan de Pareja (c. 1650) — a sitter most of us have no interest in — still captivates. The painting is mostly not about Juan de Pareja, but is instead a transmitter of the painter’s unique brand of beauty.
Through her bestselling book, The Language of Drawing: From an Artist’s Viewpoint (2005), McGraw has become a leading champion of the age-old, yet dismayingly overlooked, fact that sound draftsmanship is the bedrock of artistry. Drawing, she explains, is that crucial stage “where one learns to see,” where the intimate act of apturing the essence of a subject takes place. “A good draftsman,” she posits, “knows more and draws less.” In
the handsome 128-page catalogue that accompanies her show at the Butler, McGraw writes: Gestural drawing captures the feeling of life by creating lines that “come alive.” Technical prowess is not the incentive; rather it is the desire to make drawings that breathe and feel alive.
Children do this naturally. The simplicity of their unfettered translations shows us only what is important in that child’s mind. Everything else is eliminated, leaving us with the pure joy of their intentions. This innocence of observation is at the heart of the more mature drawings of some of the giants of this thinking — Rubens. Michelangelo, van Dyck, da Vinci, and Rembrandt. In great examples, instead of hard work and mindless detail. The artist has used understanding to skillfully select information that breathes life into a drawing.
The appealing aspect of this philosophy is that it opens up possibilities. A few lines can become a weighted leg, several dark accents can create a tense and muscular arm. And a few smudges can create the feeling of hair. If I succeed at all in doing this, it is when a drawing captures a fleeting moment. A sense of the fleshiness and humanness of my subjects. And, most especially, each one’s unique spirit.
Though McGraw creates drawings as part of her artistic process, many of them prove so successful in their own right that they are framed and sold separately. Happily, the Butler exhibition includes a generous sampling of them.
For these and other reasons, Butler director Louis Zona says the McGraw show. “Serves as a welcome oasis from a society bombarded with overstimulation. As quietude is the hallmark of her drawings and paintings. He observes, “She distills the world into its simplest elements while making mere line or paint come alive. This process will become clearer on October 11, when McGraw offers a free portraiture demonstration at the museum.
Even those unable to see the show will be inspired by her commentary in its catalogue, which traces how the project — and many of its individual works — came to exist. To see still more of McGraw’s work, visit the websites of the three galleries that represent her: InSight Gallery (Fredericksburg, Texas), Legacy Gallery (Scottsdale and Jackson Hole), and Morris & Whiteside Galleries (Hilton Head Island, SC).