Interview with Steamboat Valley Voice
By: Mical Hutson
If you live in Steamboat, you’ve experienced Sandy Graves’ art. Her sculptures play on the courthouse lawn, write outside Off the Beaten Path bookstore, encourage new mothers in the hallway of Yampa Valley Hospital and commemorate an educator at Lowell Whiteman School. Since Graves’ realism phase birthed these familiar Steamboat landmarks, her style has radically shifted into a contemporary expression she calls stylistic, which accidentally launched her career into the international arena, leaving this down-to-earth, mother of two active boys gasping for breath as she sprints to chase the career she never imagined herself having. Her new pieces, most famously horses with negative space never witnessed before in the bronze sculpture world, can be found in fine galleries across the nation, as well as on our hometown street at the Artists’ Gallery of Steamboat Springs. In Park City, Utah, she is one of four contemporary artists displayed next to the masters such as Picasso and Rembrandt. She is at a point in her career where people are seeking her out, collectors are clamoring for her work as far away as Dubai, and she can be selective in where her art goes. It’s an interesting phase of an artist’s life, and as a woman, I was curious how she does it all and what it feels like. As a student of the artists’ journey, I was curious what path had led her to this fairy-tale point.
When I caught up with her at her downtown home/studio, she was on the floor with a laptop and before we even exchanged hellos, she asked me if I knew how to upload a QR code from her phone onto her computer. Before I had a chance to think about it, Matt Graves, her husband, a wood artist, quickly answered, “E-mail it to yourself.”“Genius,” she smiles, hits a few buttons and munches into her sandwich and chips, admitting, “if it weren’t for Matt, I wouldn’t eat.”
When I ask her if that’s on the record, she shakes her head with a playful smirk. I then explain that I take it back, and everything is on the record. In compliance, she repeats herself, “if it weren’t for Matt, I probably wouldn’t eat.”
Since her career took off when her stylistic sculptures hit the scene, I started with the question of how the shift occurred. How did the evolution from realism to stylistic sculpture happen?
SG: I was in the right place at the right time and happened upon the perfect accident. It’s the thing I am most in awe of. People used to say that accidents are what lead you to inventions and ideas, and I didn’t really believe them and then it happened to me. It’s a fascinating process. It’s something I accidentally did in college. When the teachers saw it, they said that’s a crazy thing, let us teach you how to sculpt. So then I learned how to sculpt through a classic education which led to realism commissions and work for my own enjoyment. Then I started the Artists’ Gallery of Steamboat downtown with 26 other local artists. At around the same time, the Steamboat Art Museum was opening and they asked me for a display piece that wasn’t for sale. Everything I was doing was for sale, but then I remembered that crazy piece from college on my coffee table. It wasn’t for sale because I wasn’t doing that work commercially. Three buyers sought me out to purchase the piece, and I said no. Victor Morgenstern was one of those buyers. He is a serious art collector from Chicago. When I said no, he invited me to his home to see his art collection. I walked into the house and he had a Deborah Butterfield among many other pieces. Deborah Butterfield is the most famous contemporary horse sculptor in the US. He basically asked me why I was doing realism when I could be doing “this.” He said, “nobody is doing ‘that’ (my stylistic horse). Do ‘that.’” So I took his advice and my next show featured that style. He bought most of them. I also sold him the original. So that’s how I got started. It was a big nudge from him.
ME: Can you tell me more about the accident that brought you to this style back in your college days?
SG: I was told to make something hollow out of wax so we could learn the casting process. First I made a head. It was a solid wax head and my professor said you can’t cast this, it will weigh 20 pounds. You need to make something hollow. So then I was on a deadline and I had to make something hollow, so I went back to my experience with horses. I had grown up with horses and had drawn them over and over again as a little kid and I just created a thing with a lot of negative spaces.
Me: How much time is there between that college “accident” and Victor?
SG: 15 years maybe. My first horse was made in 1990.
Me: Did you like that piece?
SG: I loved it but I was told it can’t be cast that way. You see, to make it worth your while to sell bronze, you have to do editions. You can’t put all the expense into doing the first one without making a copy or a group. The basic steps to make a mold is to pour the wax, “chase” the wax, create a ceramic shell, de-wax and pour the metal, sandblast the cast metal, weld all the pieces together, chase the metal, apply patina and mount it to a base. The mold is hollow like a chocolate Easter bunny. Normally you’re welding the two halves together that have a seam. But in my stylistic sculpture, there are a lot of interior pieces and it doesn’t translate to regular mold making. That first year of stylistic sculpture, I did 15 pieces that were one of a kind, and that’s when I figured out I couldn’t make a living doing that. I couldn’t keep up. There wasn’t enough time.
I found a woman in Paonia, Mary Zimmerman at Land’s End Foundry, who has been mold-making for 50 years, and she and I worked together to figure out how we could make casts in multiples. So, once she got the process figured out and we experimented and played with it, we hit a pretty high level. Unfortunately, she’s now retiring at 81, and I just had to hand off the molding process to a new mold maker. It’s pretty scary. My whole business could fall through the floor. The first attempt was a failure, so we’re working on the second attempt now.
It’s scary to have a main person in my quiver of accomplices gone. I have seven craftsmen I rely on from start to finish, so losing one is difficult. Usually when a welder is welding an arm back onto a body, you can kind of tell where it needs to go, but in my pieces whose to know what I was thinking? Who knows where to put what? So I have to be there for every single piece from the welding through the final patina, and I do a lot of that myself, which is why I’m so tired! Driving back and forth between Paonia and Steamboat to get it all done.
Me: What does your typical day look like?
SG: Totally non-existent. There is no typical day. Mostly it’s because I’m still learning how to do this, and just when I figure something out, it changes. Today, I’m making an ad and I’m changing a base for a client, and yesterday I was driving to Paonia. I sculpted three days last week. I spent all Saturday boxing things up and talking to gallery owners about their inventory. I have an office assistant who helps me and has taken over a lot of the computer stuff. That’s huge in helping me get out of the hole. I can go weeks working from the second I wake up to the second I go to sleep. I never know what day of the week it is.
Me: And being a mom. How do you make that work?
SG: (she laughs) I’m glad that my kids are going to grow up self-sufficient. Wyatt is six, and he makes his own meals. He makes Ramen. I overlook so many things, and they have to be responsible. If they want to go somewhere, they have to remind me 17 times instead of the other way around. I’m hoping it’s going to be a good thing in their future. I do love being a mom. It’s the one thing I allow myself. If I go through the day without remembering to eat, exercise, brush my teeth, or get out of my pajamas, that’s okay. But when they show up, I’m happy to drop everything and play with them, because they’re more important and fun than anything else. Being a sculptor and business owner is really fun for me. That’s why I do it from daylight to dark. But when they are home from school, I’ll do a project with them or swing on the swings with them and spend that time. Life is very much about the living of it and not about what you end up with.
Me: Is this the career you hoped for when you went to school?
SG: I never dreamt I’d be a working artist in terms of a studio artist, because I thought I’d be stuck in a little studio working day in and day out. That’s not me. I’m a social person. I think a part of any success that I do have is that I have relationships with my clients and gallery owners. I think being an outgoing person helps so much. I had no idea that the business end would take up 80% of my tasks and sculpting and finishing work would be 20% of what I do.
Me: Did you ever go through that dark time as an artist when you didn’t think you’d have a vision that other people would see and appreciate.
SG: No, but I think that’s because I had the incredible gift of teaching for 16 years at Lowell Whiteman. I spent that time learning what art is. It’s more than just making an object. It’s all the formal elements. I got to explore that for 16 years and throw away everything I made. I could disassociate from it. I played with every medium and got well-versed in it. When I did start doing more of my own work, I wasn’t afraid. Sometimes you’re afraid to put that first line on the paper, because you’re going to fall in love with it. But you can’t fall in love with it, because the next line might be awful. So throwing away everything for 16 years and doing the work quickly and having the daily practice, the technical aspects as well as the aesthetic gave me the confidence of “this is what I do, and it’s good.” I don’t think I came out of college feeling that way, but I was confident that I would be a good teacher. Sometimes I’m stumped by the technical details of building a sculpture, but if someone else took over the rest of my life, I could just sit and sculpt and I don’t think I would ever run out of ideas. One thing always leads to another.
To some of us who struggle to find an expression in the world, Sandy’s playful attitude might seem a bit cavalier, but it’s completely believable when surrounded by her genius (functional hardware for the home, stylistic sculpture, jewelry, realism sculpture.) Maybe her pre-school teacher, who’d written on the back of her paper, “Sandy will grow up to be an artist,” was a fairy godmother. Sandy admits she’d spent a few years angry about that forecast wondering, “Why not numbers, or something useful. Why art?”
Sandy was a shy child. She says, overly-sensitive. Her sisters were her only playmates all the way through Junior High. It wasn’t until lettering in cross-country as a freshman in high school that her extroverted nature, so refreshingly apparent now, came forward. Her story doesn’t surprise me. Gifted kids in general are more sensitive to the world around them, making it hard to brush off normal day-to-day comments other children can easily roll with, their emotional depth far surpasses their ability to deal with it. As an adult, that sensitivity would enable an artist to translate the world through sculpture into a universally appreciated piece of art. It’s also not uncommon for that sensitivity to express itself into a curiosity of the larger world and it how it works and in this she is equally eloquent as a third generation Bahá’í, talking about world religions and what they mean through her lens of perception. Sandy is equally interested in her relationships and her marriage and how interesting it is to be married to an artist whose process is so far removed from her own.
A reminder to wind-down, Matt appears and announces he has to take the kids to hockey. Time has gotten away from both of us. During our photo-shoot, I ask her if Matt does half of the work around the home. “More,” she answers, scooping up a darling little tow-head just home from school in a big hug before he shoots out the door for ice-skating. I like this scene. Confident, loving parents, both successful in what they do, neither mother or father surrendering their passions. These are good role models, not just for those boys who are never going to doubt a woman’s worth, but for all of us striving to balance our desires with sharing our lives with others and in some cases, the world.