“Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady,” advised writer Nora Ephron. “I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.”
Artist Susan Graham began stirring things up in 1995 as a young sculptor in New York City selling white, lacy guns she made of sugar and eggs whites.
“My father was into the NRA, and hunting, and I had a childhood fascination with guns,” she recalled, looking back on her conservative, Midwestern roots. “My younger brothers could use them, but I was not allowed to. I ended up being a liberal.”
Graham’s father didn’t approve of her art studies either, thinking she should be more practical and major in science. She followed her own path anyway, graduating with a BFA, with an emphasis on sculpture, from Ohio State University in 1991 and moving to New York City the following year to study at the School of Visual Arts. After paying her dues as a waitress and faux finisher, she located a small, shared studio that was once a classroom in an abandoned school. Her next challenge was to find a medium she could afford.
“I didn’t have tools and had to do something that meant something to me,” she remembered. “Sugar was the answer because of its lightness and sweetness. It’s also domestic and white.” Graham liked the ethereal, white-on-white effect as well.
She started by making beds with white sugar as an expression of the insomnia she experienced in college that sometimes left her sleep deprived for up to three days. That led to the inspiration to begin a gun collection.
“I made guns for a year and a half in sugar, then porcelain,” she explained.
“The mixed message sent by a dangerous object like a gun being made in a fragile material like sugar or porcelain is a reflection of my own mixed feelings of desire and nostalgia and apprehension toward guns.”
At one point she called her dad to get a list of the firearms he owned.
“I eventually had to broach the topic with my parents because, of course, my father especially was quite aware that the gun imagery probably had something to do with his own guns and he alluded to this—eventually opening the door to more stories about them being told as well as there being more arguments between us about the politics of gun control in the United States. We could agree on some things but others seemed to set us at opposite ends of the spectrum.”
Soon Graham branched out, drawing on her dreams, fears and memories of the American Midwest by also fashioning machinery and industrial goods into delicate representations.
Her next project titled “Beautiful Ohio” with its semis, taxis, monster trucks and SUVs pays homage to the American car culture she first experienced in Dayton where family, friends and neighbors worked for General Motors.
That was followed by another iconic expression of Midwest Americana: lawn mowers.
Her most recent project, “New Gardens” unfolded after Graham looked up at a tree one day, then realized it was a cell tower instead.
“It made me think of this odd and, at this point, futile way we are trying to make these technologies more appealing by blending them into the landscape,” she explained.
Like guns, Graham says there is ambivalence with cell towers, which she describes as “very American.”
The “New Gardens” show last year took place at the Schroeder Romero Gallery in New York. Her work has also been exhibited at the Neuberger Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum at Phillip Morris.
Graham lives in Harlem with her husband and two children.
Visitors to the Lux Art Institute have the opportunity of viewing and discussing these projects with Graham who will be in studio through Oct. 6. The exhibit will remain on display through Oct. 27.
Lux Art Institute is located at 1550 South El Camino Real, Encinitas. Hours: 1 to 5 p.m. Thurs.-Fri., and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sat. Admission $5. For more information call (760) 436-6611 or visit visit luxartinstitute.org or susangrahamart.com.