Northeast objects of art

Graham at work in his studio. Photos by Iris Schneider.

"It all started as a kid when my grandparents gave me a rolltop desk with all the little drawers and spaces," Clare Graham said in describing his path to becoming an artist. "I was a kid who collected bones of my dead pets, leaves, rocks and I could fill up all those spaces. Now, my studio is 7,000 square feet and it's basically an enlarged version of that rolltop desk."

Perhaps that's how it began, but it's what Clare has done with those collections that makes him unique. Using recycled objects like buttons, tin cans, wire, yardsticks, pencils, soda can pop tops, teddy bear eyes and rosaries, the artist has created an environment that is a jaw-dropping homage to creativity, imagination and perseverance. This weekend his studio was one of many open to the public as part of the Arroyo Arts Collective tour. I was awed by the sheer creativity and imagination on artful display in every nook and cranny of Graham's breathtaking space.

claresstudio.jpg"Sometimes the objects tell you what you need to do. Rosaries are a good example. I had been collecting them for years, but I needed to mass them and get all that prayer power together," Graham said, referring to a totem of 3,500 rosaries towering behind him, reaching up toward the ceiling. As he describes his process, more intuitive than artful, the objects become more than the sum of their parts as pop tops are woven tightly together--he estimates that 250,000 went into a large ball that he can sit on--buttons are stacked and hung, yardsticks are laid side by side to create his version of a Stickley bench. Tin can bottoms are riveted together to make tabletops and cabinets. Dominoes, scrabble tiles, puzzle pieces are rescued from the trash and turned into art. It makes it hard to think of ever throwing anything away. Graham often opens part of his studio, known as MorYork Gallery, to other artists, and hosts monthly music nights in what has become his role as patron of the artists of Highland Park and the Northeast Arts district.

He is currently preparing for his first show at the Craft and Folk Art Museum next year, and has begun showing his work at galleries around town. Word has spread gradually about his artistry. "It's totally word of mouth," he said. "I don't use any of the mechanisms to spread the word about my work. There are tons of images now on Instagram and from cellphone cameras taken by people who have toured the studio. It's interesting to see what they see in the place, their take on what the mother ship is." Indeed, step over the threshold and you are definitely in another world.

The studio was open this weekend with a Tygh Valley Traders Trunk show to benefit the Fowler Textile Council at UCLA, and on Sunday as part of the Arroyo Arts Collective.

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