Evolving artistry: Artist uses her talents to add whimsy and interest to home
Thousands of people see Mariam Graff's street murals every day. The whimsical style of her public tableaux, with ironic insight and layers of meaning, echoes in her private environment as well, with one notable shift in accent.
At home, the loudest articulation is a passionate, soulful respect that honors individual creativity, acknowledges vulnerability and welcomes visitors to a unique world … sometimes painful, sometimes playful, always accepting.
At 30, Graff is still in her professional ascent. Her work is seen by more than 6,000 people a day driving on State Street en route to the post office. She and artist Lonnie Stewart painted the 27-foot by 50-foot Mardi Gras mural seven years ago on the wall at Le Vieux Carre at the intersection of Water and State streets. Her mural at Born Paint Co. on Jefferson Street is seen by more than 10,000 passers-by a day.
Noted for her dog portraits, one of which was commissioned by actor Kirk Douglas, Graff's oil paintings can be both brooding and fanciful. Her work probes deep into a glance, a smile, a characteristic trait. Whether it's a human or canine portrait, Graff seeks movement beneath the surface.
Her home reflects that search for meaning. Honesty, not pretense, is the imperative.
"Mariam is struggling with the struggle. She has the courage to maintain that," said her friend, the artist Maryruth Ginn. "So much about art is really about courage. If anyone will make it, Mariam will."
Graff is unflinchingly supportive of other artists, Ginn said. Her home is evidence of that, filled with the work of painters, sculptors, crafters and creators.
"This house isn't about taste at all. It's about comfort No. 1 and about irony," Graff said. "It's an oddball house with a sense of humor. People who are very uptight can let loose in this house."
The artist and her husband, Denny, live in a 100-year old, 1 1/2-story wood frame home in a working-class neighborhood of Pekin. The house had been repossessed by the bank when the Graffs found it. They worked on it for a year before moving in.
They live with their dogs Kubrick, a standard poodle; Maestro, a miniature poodle; and Beebah, a Welsh Pembroke corgi who is currently on loan to Graff's father, who is ill.
"This house in this neighborhood shows that everything is salvageable … homes as well as lives," said Denny Graff, 53, a self-employed plasterer.
Mariam Graff said, "This house is vintage gray shingles on the outside. I like the incognito-ness of it. This house doesn't look like anything subversive or creative is going on inside.
"This is a neighborhood of starter homes. Young people move in and fix up a house, sell it and move on to get bigger and deeper in debt."
Homeowners were not likely to sink huge amounts of money into houses in this neighborhood, so all the original woodwork remains unaltered, she said.
The inside foyer greets visitors with an immediate, welcoming proclamation: You are about to begin an artful, quirky trip.
The foyer is painted in a muted Chinese red with a Middle Eastern rug, Louis XV chair and pop art chest of drawers decorated with plastic jewels and baubles. This is all reflective of the whimsical side of Graff.
The other side is also present in a dark oil painting she bought from a young art student who was studying with Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum. The scene shows a streetscape where a few murders and assaults took place within view of the student's Baltimore apartment.
Black velveteen drapes hang in the doorway of the foyer. Inside, the dining room doubles as a studio. A dozen of Graff's large-scale oils are propped around the room, ready for a show that will hang through Feb. 29 at the Quad City Botanical Center in Rock Island. Ginn also has work in that show.
Once these large-scale oils are out of the studio, Graff will shift focus to her father. She and her mother recently paired off as caregivers while her father underwent six weeks of 35 sessions of radiation for oral cancer. Graff fingered a white mesh mask that was used during her father's treatment to precisely direct radiation. Looking into the mask in certain light, Graff said she can see her grandmother.
Graff's father is a classical musician and band teacher. He took his family to Saudi Arabia when Graff was 3 years old. She and her brother, a jazz musician in Chicago, attended Dhahran Academy International School.
Her parents taught for nine months each year, and the family traveled the remaining three months each year in Europe, Asia and Africa. They lived in Saudi Arabia for nine years before returning to central Illinois.
Solidly grasping her father's radiation mask, Graff said, "I like powerful objects. No matter what your petty issues or how much your life sucks, this radiation mask puts things in perspective."
The rooms in Graff's home have high ceilings and large windows. The kitchen walls are painted soft orange. Kitchen cabinets are decoupaged with figures in historic Mardi Gras costumes. There are a number of pieces in the kitchen referent of Mexican artist Friea Kahlo.
"I used to identify with her a lot. Not so much now, " Graff said.
An arching bronze female figure by Peoria sculptor Pat Keck is on the kitchen table next to Denny Graff's Thermos.
"Symbolic," Mariam Graff said, explaining that her husband works in "McMansions" by day and comes home to this small, art-filled house by night.
She painted a large portrait of her husband picturing him after a long day, coming home wet, tired and dirty. He'd shed his work clothing and sat at the kitchen table in his underwear stroking their standard poodle, Kubrick. Late afternoon light gives the piece a mellow, glowing aura.
"Rockwellian," she said of the oil.
The portrait hung in the San Diego Art Institute and is now on the wall in their bedroom, adjacent to the kitchen.
Another painting by Graff hanging on a bedroom wall is a piece depicting Christ playing the cello. It's the first painting she ever sold. Denny Graff bought the oil when the two were friends.
"We were acquaintances at the time and would have laughed our heads off if you'd said we would ever be married," Mariam Graff said.
The living room is often referred to by guests as "the red room," even though it's not painted red. A vibrant Iraqi rug accounts for the room's nurturing red ambience.
There are two bauble-encrusted lamps in the living room.
"I love them. They were in a junk store in a little town my parents live in. They'd been in the store 15 years and would have stayed another 30," she said.
Graff does not think in terms of color but in terms of effect and processes.
"Everything here is touched, created by someone. Another human being put some of their soul into these things," she said. "This house is not the classic American dream thing. It's oddball."
A number of pieces in the home are by Rock Island artist Warren Ostrom, who works with natural objects including branches, moss, gourds and fish.
"Pessimism or optimism … it's always a balance, even in this house," Graff said. "I always try to see both sides. I can't do purely positive images because there are always undercurrents. Desirable or undesirable. Like my lamps. I adore my tacky lamps. Exalted junk. As long as it's unique, with individuality. I don't want what I'm told I'm supposed to want."
She expects to begin working on images of her father's recent struggle with oral cancer. His molars were extracted, a feeding tube was inserted into his abdomen, he lost his ability to speak and was fitted with a mask and bolted down for his radiation sessions. It will be February before he knows if the treatment was successful.
"All this will be moved out," Graff said, standing in her dining room/studio and waving toward the work going to the Quad City Botanical Center. "Then I will think about dad and what he went through."
Holding up a small plastic hospital basin, her voice hardened.
"I'd ask for the spit bowl. The nurses would say the 'emesis basin,'" Graff said. "You are blood ... muscle, bacteria ... and not much else."
Her mood lifted, and she said, "This house will never be done. Artists are never totally happy with something. Our lives are about processes, and visually we're always seeking improvement. We love a blank canvas."
To see Graff's Web page, go to www.mariamgraff.com.
Clare Howard can be reached at email@example.com.
Miriam Graff's art exhibit
What: An exhibition of Mariam Graff's oil paintings and work by Maryruth Ginn is on display through Feb. 29.
Where: Quad City Botanical Center, 2525 4th Ave., Rock Island, Ill.