The Great Power of Art Works

1987 - 17

In the months following his death, our house was filled with my father’s paintings, many having been brought out from their usual hiding place in the narrow roof cavity where they had been stored for many years. As a boy I would often tiptoe through the crowded space over broken glass, groping in the dark for a discarded toy. It was a scary place then, with the single light bulb partially obscured by a canvas; seaweed insulation spilling out from holes in the silver paper and in summer, the smouldering temperatures befitting a roof cavity. My older sister Michaela and I sometimes smuggled a picnic hamper in when much younger, and devoured our secret feast by torch light. I didn’t really know what was in there, but when I asked one year if he would put some paintings on my walls my father produced a small collection rescued from their shadowy incarceration. He did it in a rather casual manner without consultation, but I did detect a slight satisfaction that at least I was showing some interest. There was a striking Horse and Rider watercolour ‘Ghost Story’ telling the tale of a man pursued by his own fear; an orange square from ‘The Children’s Corner Suite’ which fitted nicely on the clothes cupboard doorknob and vibrated with the colour that had been a childhood favourite; and two musicians from his English period. Later that year I asked him to paint a red fish on my wall. It was to be the vanguard of an entire underwater population. I looked at these works every night before sleeping and took particular delight in discovering faces in the abstracted fiddlers. In one painting the rather distorted face on downward incline was mirrored by a Turkish prince clad in a purple turban, the chin of the first becoming the cheek of my exotic noble. It was a process akin to finding strange characters in the peeling paint of my ceiling: a giraffe, a cat, a whole regiment of plastic chargers.

"Musician" 1950 oil on canvas 75 x 50 cm "Ghost Story" 1951 Water Colour 60 x 50 cm "Children's Corner Suite" (part) 60 x 60 cm oilo on canvas
“Musician” 1950 oil on canvas 75 x 50 cm
“Ghost Story” 1951 Water Colour 60 x 50 cm
“Children’s Corner Suite” (part) 60 x 60 cm oilo on canvas

This is what I’ve come to believe is the great power of art works. In a world so dominated by moving picture’s requiring half a dozen camera angles on swift rotation to hold our attention, the static image is placed in a unique category. It promotes the thinking eye, and quietly educates our perception. While the image remains the same, the way we see it changes over time, and in this way, a great work of art can grow within us, adding layers of meaning, and a deeper personal significance as experience shapes our understanding of the world. It is an essentially inner life in which paintings exist. I could see my father most clearly when studying a private moment on canvas: a vision on a rainy day. Happy to be home from school, I had never felt so close to another’s feelings than alone with these pictures. To quote my father: “Around the walls the pictures hang in still splendour, constantly open windows to other worlds and between them the curtain of time.”

Peter Graham painting in the study at Canterbury 9/7/1983
My father painting in the study at Canterbury 9/7/1983

Watching an artwork take shape is another experience again. It drags you into the interior workings of the artists mind as the furrowed brow is followed by the deliberate act. When my father was painting, he had a far away expression on his face as if seeing past the immediate surroundings to the great potential beyond. It was not recreation, and it was not relaxing, it was something far more intense, something private, behind the eyes. Echoed in body language, a demonstrative hand cocked at the chin, legs folded in defiance of the linen press. His concentration would permeate the room and hover around the body like a mist of snatches of thought. I received only a few formal lessons, how to depict trees hugging a hillside at distance, and the rules of perspective in relation to a hasty sketch of the rotunda on school camp to Walhalla. The odd face or space ship would appear in earlier sketch books for me to copy from, caught between my own texter soldiers strewn across the page in evidence of a great campaign in the child’s mind. In my case his lessons were taught by osmosis and casual observation. It was the atmosphere of painting and the smell of turpentine, gum Arabic and Linseed oil that imbued me with a sense of reverence and curiosity.

Author: crowcries

Euan Benjamin Graham I decided to become an artist when I was 14 years old in 1987. I have pursued my vocation with dedication and a complete single mindedness. Pictures are like people, they have their own life. I have embraced the streets recently as a venue because pictures need a lover, and artists become intolerably frustrated without an audience.

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