It’s a little past 9 p.m. and I’m hanging out with American fine artist Carrie Graber on the deck of her beautiful South Pasadena home: a ranch built in 1939. The night is cool, the Pinot Grigio is crisp and the clove cigarettes are crackling. The conversation meanders like the smoke, touching on Carrie’s early years, art theory and her obsession with David Bowie. We’ve been chatting for only a few hours, but for the short time she’s let me into her world, I’ve come to understand that Carrie Graber is the thinking person’s artist.
Throughout the night, she constantly refers to her thoughts as either left-brained-for her analytical side-or right-brained, referring to her emotional expressions. “I’m a right-brained person, living in a left-brained world,” she tells me, though it’s obvious from her artwork, which is stunningly photorealistic, that the left side of her brain is alive and well. It’s this perfect blend of emotional expression and literal analysis that explains why her artwork hangs in the homes of private collectors around the world and why there are so many Web sites that sell her prints.
Interestingly, Carrie illustrates the dynamics of her talent by referring to the online Myers-Briggs personality test. “My test results came back that I was supposed to be a writer,” she confesses, “And I couldn’t be an artist because I wasn’t perceptive enough and I thought too much. People think that picture books are just for kids, like it’s some remedial form of communication. Words are just sloppy seconds to images.” After I remind her that I’m a writer, she adds, “But I’m not bagging on words. Words can be terribly effective.” Carrie studied art at the prestigious Art Center in Pasadena and one of her instructors was Burne Hogarth. As Carrie relates it, Hogarth asked the class what the simplest way to draw a cat was, offering 20 dollars for the correct answer. When no one got it, he turned to the board and wrote C-A-T. “He was touching on impressionism,” Carrie explains, “You picture the cat in your head. So I don’t debate the power of the word at all.”
It was at Art Center that Carrie learned her most important lesson of all. “I couldn’t paint,” she admits, “I could draw beautifully and when I tried to paint, it was crash and burn. I didn’t understand color. I didn’t understand warm, what was cool, what was back, what was forward. I didn’t understand that it was simply the same thing as drawing, but it was more three-dimensional.” Her breakthrough didn’t come until over a year later, during a head painting class with a Native-American model. “One day Little Bird was modeling and I painted Little Bird. I sat back and said, ‘Holy shit! Yes!'” Her parents still have that painting.
These days, Carrie mostly paints women performing mundane acts, like putting on a shoe, writing a letter or drinking wine. “I was influenced by Johannes Vermeer-a 17th century Dutch painter-and he painted 17th century women doing mundane things.” When I suggest he only did that to get laid, Carrie replies, “Why be an artist? To have beautiful lovers.” Of course commercial aspirations also influence Carrie’s subject matter. “Women like paintings of women because it reflects them. And men like paintings of women because they’re of women. Paintings of men are more difficult to sell.” Some people think she’s a sellout, but she shrugs off the label. “There’s a certain reconciliation to be made, between being happy as an artist and being happy as an artist in a commercial sense. There are things that appeal to a mass audience and things that don’t.” Then to hammer the point home, she paraphrases a quote from Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, “Just because you make money doing something, doesn’t take away any integrity from its creator.”
That’s not to say that Carrie solely paints for other people. She spends her artistic free-time exploring her whims. “Right now, I’m in this Degas phase, so I’m painting a lot of ballerinas. No wonder artists throughout the history of time have painted dancers! Because they have such…mathematically exact body lines; it’s incredible. From toe to toe, finger to finger,” Carrie sculpts the air with her hands as she describes a ballerina and her hands explode apart when they reach the waist. “Then they have this little poof!”
While Carrie describes herself as a “recovering left-brained person” she is also a consummate artist in every sense of the word. When she’s ready to sell a painting, there is no celebration or reward in the conventional sense. Her only reward is “Visual pleasure. Knowing that in the morning I’ll stumble out and see what I did. That’s good enough.” Moreover, Carrie Graber never actually finishes a painting. For her, life is more about the journey than the destination. “I don’t think I would ever be happy with anything that was finished and perfect. Perfect is boring. Brad Pitt is ugly. Perfection is awful. If I were to quote Bowie’s wife, Iman, even though I just want to wring her neck because she’s fucking Bowie, ‘Beautiful people are a compilation of their flaws.'”
“I think everything boils down to personal perception,” she adds. “And I don’t think there’s any objectivity in art. It doesn’t belong. It’s entirely subjective. Your perception of my art is just as valid as anyone else’s.” When it comes to the meaning of her work, Carrie says, “You tell me. I go half way. You go the other half.”
In the end, it’s this acceptance of indeterminate finality that makes parting with her work less difficult for Carrie. “I can’t exactly paint in a vacuum. You need somebody to view it. And you need somebody to appreciate it. And you need somebody to give it the rest of its life. So as much as I’d like to revel in my own aesthetic success, I have an easier time letting go than hanging on.”
You can read more about Carrie Graber in her upcoming book due early next year.