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The Stories Behind "Painting the Past"

Hanging out with my artwork right after getting it all displayed.

I have a show on view this month called "Painting the Past: Memories of Home, Family & Belonging," a two-person show with my friend and fellow artist, Jan Richardson. Read our Exhibit Description and my Artist Statement.

A full view of Jan's work (left) and my work (right) at the Fireside Gallery in Bethel Lutheran Church in Madison, WI.

My six pieces on display at the Fireside Gallery.

Jan and I spent just six months putting together this show. As soon as we discovered that both of us had recently inherited a bunch of old family photos, the idea for the show materialized: exploring family memories using old photos as reference material.

It was quite a journey. It represents the most (completed) artwork I've made in such a short a period of time since college. It was also an opportunity to dive into artwork with more of a narrative than the figure studies and portraits I've been focusing on.

I wanted to share images of the work and my thoughts on them. I'll also share the original photos I used as inspiration. Though I generally don't do this, I think it's meaningful for this particular body of work.

The Photos

As you may know, for the past few years, I have been working on documenting the artwork and legacy of my Grandpa, Kenneth Graham. This has entailed gathering boxes of old photos, letters, and other ephemera from desk drawers and closets in his old house, and trying to organize and preserve them.

I swear, I managed to keep the cat hair off of the photos...

Now, I’ve had the opportunity to transform these forgotten photos into paintings featuring my grandparents, my mom, and her four siblings. And I've had time to think about the significance that the people on this side of my family have had on my life.

Most of the family photos I used were taken by my Grandpa. I was struck by the artistry of so many of these shots. Though he was not yet painting regularly when his kids were young, his artistic eye and intuitive sense for beauty and lighting really comes through in his photographs. I hope I captured some of that in my work.

Mother and Child

Mother and Child. 21x27 pastel on paper.

Original photo of Grandma Rose and baby William.

This was the first painting that I worked on: Grandma Rose with William (aka Uncle Bill), her first child. She is pregnant with her second child, Richard (aka Uncle Dick). I was taken with this image the first time I came across it. I love Grandma’s graceful pose, casually supporting Bill as he stands smiling on this table, and the warm sunlight shining on them.

The Youngest Children

The Youngest Children, 21x27 pastel on paper

Original photo of Miriam with the cow.

This is Miriam, the youngest of the five kids. The photo I used for this is very striking—the dramatic lighting, the look of delight on Miriam’s face.

The family lived on 50 acres of wooded land in rural Indiana, complete with a big barn. They were not farmers, but did have a big garden and raised some animals, including a couple of cows at one point.

Another note about this piece. This is the only single-person portrait I did of any of the kids. This wasn’t entirely planned; it just kinda happened that way. But it occurred to me that it is meaningful that I did a portrait of Miriam: Grandpa painted a portrait of each of his five kids, but only four of them remain. Miriam’s portrait was lost years ago. She has tried to find it, but to no avail.

In painting a portrait of Miriam using a reference photo taken by Grandpa, this could be seen as a posthumous collaboration with Grandpa. It’s not the same as it would be to find the original. But I think it is still meaningful.

Turnip Harvest, 1978 and Rose’s New Dress

Turnip Harvest, 1978. 24x36 pastel on paper.

Rose's New Dress. 24x36 pastel on paper.

Original photos of Grandpa and Grandma.

I conceived of this pair as a diptych. To help keep them feeling like they belong together, I decided to work on them side by side.

This proved challenging, since these were my largest pieces at 24x36”, and I didn't have a board big enough to hold both of them (plus, my studio space is not all that big). As luck would have it, Justin had a big piece of board in the garage that was just the right size for the job...and it fit in my space.

Working on the Grandpa and Grandma pieces side-by-side in my studio.

These were the only color photographs I used for this entire project. Both of them were taken in the late 70s, after their kids were grown up—just a few years before I was born. The one of Grandpa is sort of a “classic” family photo. It really just begged to be painted.

The one of Grandma had writing on the back: "Rose showing off a new dress. Material purchased by Ruth. Made by Hope, resident of MH Nursing Center." Had there not been that inscription, I would have assumed that Grandma, master seamstress, made it. I don’t know any more of the story. But given the pose, the lighting, and the time frame of this photo, it just felt right to pair it with the one of Grandpa.


Crossroads. 21x27 pastel on paper.

Original photo of the two kids holding chickens in their front yard.

There are quite a few photos of the kids with chickens, and this one of my Mom and Uncle Dick really drew me in. What are they looking at? The contrast between the cute baby chickens in their arms and the solemn look on Dick’s face interested me and seemed to hold some narrative possibilities. I placed them in a scene that looks very much like the road they grew up on: farm fields and gravel roads as far as you can see.

Also, I didn’t think about this until I start writing this, but remember the portraits my Grandpa did of his kids that I mentioned earlier? The one he did of my mom is of her holding a baby chick. So this ended up being a kind of unconscious nod to that piece.

In This Together

In This Together. 21x27 pastel on paper.

Original photo of the four oldest kids.

I loved this image from the start. Clearly staged by my Grandpa (as many of the photos were, Mom tells me), all four kids are standing together, yet each one has an individual expression that shines through. I think this piece speaks to some of what I was exploring in this show—conveying something of what these people mean to me while also acknowledging the individuality of their lives and experiences. This was the last piece I worked on, and I feel like doing so kind of helped to conclude and sum up the whole project.

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