Meet

Langdon Graves

Where are you from and where do you reside?
I’m originally from Northern Virginia and I now live in Brooklyn, New York.
What’s your favorite part of living in Brooklyn?
My favorite thing about living in Brooklyn is that I get to be in two neighborhoods: in Greenpoint where I live, and in Bushwick where my studio is. The walk between them is about a half hour, so I can get in a podcast or part of an audiobook, or sometimes I’ll just take in what I hear and see along the way. The route is through a mostly industrial pocket, not particularly scenic, but I pass by two of my old studios as well as the street I used to live on, and I always see little bits of my fifteen years here float by. Especially on a sunny day, I like the alone time with my surroundings when I can stretch my eyes out ahead of me (away from a screen) and not feel rushed to be somewhere.
What necessities do you require when making your art (radio, specific paintbrushes)?
Oh, hm. Time. That’s number one. I have to be in the studio alone for a little while with my thoughts and sketches and research before I can settle into the work. I also like to work at night because it’s quiet and obligations disappear, and things come into focus more easily. When I’m drawing, I’m either listening to instrumental music or ten thousand audiobooks, depending on what part of the process I’m in. When I’m in the figuring-out part, still putting the story together, I can’t have other words coming in. When I get to the draw-draw-draw part, I can get into some research via audiobooks and podcasts.

You have a particularly unique process for creating your artwork. How do you choose your materials? What led you to this process and how did you know it was the right one to pursue?
For sculptural things, often the work I want to make will tell me what it needs to be in my head and I’ll try different materials and techniques until something clicks. Working 3D is much more experimental for me and I make a lot more discoveries. For the drawings, I have very particular materials and processes that I’ve developed over time. I work on frosted mylar and treat it somewhat like an animation cell - drawing on the front, color on the back. Because the mylar accepts graphite in such great detail, I can get pretty tight and I typically draw with a .3mm mechanical pencil with 4-6H graphite. I have a buffet of erasers that I use (RIP the discontinued Magicrub Peel-off) including kneaded and a few different Tombow Mono erasers, my favorite being the mechanical Mono Zero. I also slice off slivers of erasers that I hold with tweezers. Colors appear muted through the mylar, which has partly shaped my palette. Certain materials will produce punchier colors and higher contrast, like acrylic paint whereas pastel and colored pencil look cloudier, so I’ll use those for more subtle areas of color.

Oh, and books! Lots and lots of books. Those are necessities. And music, I keep a lot of playlists.

Asclepius

Slant
Colors appear muted through the mylar, which has partly shaped my palette. Certain materials will produce punchier colors and higher contrast, like acrylic paint whereas pastel and colored pencil look cloudier. — Langdon Graves

I also have a particular way of storing and transporting drawings that aren’t in frames, which is to build stackable “pizza boxes” out of foamcore. Graphite doesn’t settle into the mylar the way it would on fiber-based paper, so it’s pretty vulnerable to smearing. I use the boxes as many times as I can before they fall apart, but I try to keep them clean and neat to remind myself (and others) to handle them with care.

How has your work developed in the past few years, and what are some recurring themes or motifs that have emerged?
My themes - always somehow stemming from an interest in belief - have shifted in the last few years towards ghosts, spirit communication, death, afterlife, and related practices and rituals. My interest began with a re-kindled tradition of listening to my grandmother tell her tales of personal ghost encounters and I realized it was a way to learn more about her life and about the other women in my family (past and present), some of whom started chiming in during conference-call story time. During this time, I got into the history of American Spiritualism and attended some séances at a Spiritualist church. This opened me up to the links among Spiritualism and other concurrent social movements, such as early women’s rights and abolitionism. After my grandmother died in late 2018, my research naturally took me more into the culture and industry of death, funerary practices, caring for the dead, historical methods for rendering death, etc. I’ve come to see how ghost stories and superstitions surrounding death can be metaphors for a lot of our shared and individual anxieties about aging, loss and grieving. I’ve been especially fascinated lately with the relationship of food and death, which I began to explore in my work last year. I’m currently reading Dying To Eat: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Food, Death, and the Afterlife by Candi K. Cann and it’s great.

Home Circle (Blue Deck)

Home Circle (Red Deck)

Do you admire or draw inspiration from any of your peers who are also working now? Have you ever collaborated, or would you? How solitary is your art-making process?
My process is very solitary. I’ve had short-term assistants here and there but more brains in the studio tend to slow me down. It’s not exactly a collaboration, but the Home Circle decks I’ve been making over the last couple years have turned out to be an interactive project, which I didn’t fully realize when I had the idea to make them. They’re hand-printed cards, front and back, that make up a kind of oracle deck. The imagery and stories for the cards come from my drawings and sculpture, reworked as simplified symbols.

I’ve done several readings with the cards at art fairs and out of my studio and it’s been fascinating to see how they “work”. During the early part of the pandemic, I needed something I could work on at home so I grabbed the couple decks I had left from the first edition, and some printmaking supplies to print new ones. I began inviting friends - mostly my women artist friends - to do virtual readings and I had no idea how meaningful this would be. I think many people were craving connection to their friends and community in April and May, so it provided a bit of that, but it also offered the time and space for reciprocal storytelling. I connected with an old friend (who’d been my mentee when she was in school) who now lives in Kyoto; with a few people who were really just acquaintances; with someone I hadn’t seen in twenty years; with very close friends; and also with a few people I’d never met before. Two people I did readings for purchased the last two decks, so the experience was more than virtual because the cards were in front of them. The readings have inspired me to keep adding cards to the deck, to experiment with different colors, and maybe create custom decks for people.

Home Circle (Mourning Deck)

Slant
My themes have shifted in the last few years towards ghosts, spirit communication, death, afterlife, and related practices and rituals. — Langdon Graves
Do you remember the first work of art that captured your attention?
I saw two shows at the Hirshhorn when I was in middle school that tattooed themselves onto my brain. I grew up near DC so as soon as I was old enough to take the metro by myself, I would spend weekends in and around the museums. One of the shows must have been from the collection because I haven’t been able to trace it, but I know it included a Kiki Smith because I saw it again later. There were other works that had a darkness to them - literally and thematically - and featured sound and projections, and lights cast onto objects with heavy shadows. I’ve wondered if one piece might have been by the Quay Brothers - it had that flavor. The exhibition seemed to come from a different art world than the Sargents and Matisses of my art education. The other show was an Eva Hesse retrospective. I fell in love with her early.
Why do/did you choose to work with drawing?
Drawing is my first love. My undergrad major was Painting and Printmaking and I always got criticism from my ab-ex painter professors that I was “drawing with paint.” I never had the love affair with paint that so many artists do, and eventually I gave myself over to the precision of the pencil point and stopped trying to be a painter. I started working three-dimensionally my last year of undergrad and I’ve kept up both modes of making. At times, the tightness of my natural drawing style gets frustrating and working sculpturally gives me more of a sense of play. But drawing will always be the constant.

What’s one of your favorite objects you own? What’s the story?
I have one of my grandmother’s doodles framed. She made drawings in small yellow legal pads while on the phone and would tuck the pads into the drawer of her telephone table, where they stayed even when the pads were full. Later at her house in North Carolina, she stuffed them into a drawer by the rotary phone in the kitchen. The drawer was overflowing with them, so much so that you couldn’t get it open, half the time. I knew all the legal pads would have been thrown out after she died, but I found one inside a box of photos in her bedroom. I also have a second edition copy of Upton Sinclair’s Mental Radio, which he wrote about his wife, Mary Craig’s telepathy. It features over 200 drawings she made during telepathic experiments, with a preface by Albert Einstein.
Is there any artwork on display in your home/studio? Whose is it?
Oh yes! Nina Chanel Abney, Jonathan Marshall, Bonnie Ruben, Justin Nelson, Kelie Bowman, Jennifer Caviola, Ross Mantle, my grandmother, and lots of art books and objects like Shannon Taggart’s Séance, the Autonomic Tarot deck by Sophy Hollington & David Keenan, and Alexis Beauclair’s beautiful riso book Enigma.
Are you influenced by any author or non-visual artist? Are you influenced by any artist that does something completely different than you?
I’m influenced by writing, maybe even more than visual content. And music. I’ve always said that I want my work to do what music does. My favorite poet is Sharon Olds, who influenced me a lot when I was in undergrad. I can still turn to her writing to inspire an unexpected way to describe something - that gets to the feeling of experiencing it, rather than the thing. The way she writes is both surprising and the exact right thing to say, and no other arrangement of words would have been enough.

I’ve read several books in the last couple years that have helped shape the work I’ve been making: Radical Spirits by Ann Braude, A History of Ghosts by Peter Aykroyd, Ghostland by Colin Dickey, The Golden Bough by James G. Frazer, The In-Betweens by Mira Ptacin, The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch (the title for one of my drawings comes from a quote from this book: “Mourning is a romance in reverse”), The Ghost Studies by Brandon Massullo, Spook by Mary Roach, From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty, Heavens on Earth by Michael Shermer, and lots of others. I mostly read for research but Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous also knocked me out, this year. Like Olds, he can make familiar words seem new.

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