After depression and grief, Paul Graubard's paintings, collages celebrate the light
LENOX — Paul Graubard has endured enough darkness in his life. Art provides him with an opportunity to revel in the light.
"I laugh a lot at my own paintings," Graubard said at his home studio Monday.
The 87-year-old artist hopes gallerygoers will have the same reaction to his paintings and collages in "Light Works," Kimball Farms Life Care's spring art show. The exhibition will also feature pieces by Roselle Kline Chartock, Tom Warner and Michael Wolski, many of which draw from folk traditions. On view through June 24, the show will open with a reception from 3 to 5 p.m. today, aiming to delight with whimsy and other lighthearted material.
"I'd like people to leave with a chuckle," Graubard said.
One of his larger pieces might inspire other expressions of joy. In "Let's Dance," Graubard surrounds three circles of dancers with musicians blowing horns and banging drums, using his typically bright palette to accentuate their soaring spirits. The work combines canvas, torn paper, wood and string and includes whirling dervishes, a recurring group in his work.
"I work in themes. I'll do American folklore ... birds ... and when I'm kind of between things, I'm not sure where I'm going, I like to paint dancers. I love to dance," Graubard said.
This creative tendency is rather new, at least for an 87-year-old; Graubard didn't come to art until his 60s, teaching himself how to paint. That background has landed his work in several group shows and the permanent collection at the American Visionary Art Museum, a Baltimore institution that celebrates the country's self-taught artists.
"Paul Graubard speaks in the universal language of smiles hard won," the museum's founder and director, Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, wrote in one of Graubard's catalogs. "I've witnessed our visitors of all backgrounds and ages loving his work because they transmit the power of his finding his road back home from that which nigh destroys."
Born in Elizabeth, N.J., in 1932, Graubard grew up in nearby Passaic,"a mill town 15 miles from New York City and 50 years behind the times," he describes on his website. During his youth, Graubard grappled with depression, but he had "a great fantasy life." Jack London's stories and the Arctic fueled that imagination.
"When I went through depression, I just went back into that world because it was a very happy world to me," Graubard said, standing in front of a self-portrait called "Yukon Paul" that uses fur to depict a hat.
Art wasn't an escape during his youth.
"Art was not ever in my life. I didn't grow up in a house that had paintings," he said.
After graduating from the University of Michigan, he worked as an elementary school teacher and as a professor of special education at Yeshiva University. During a sabbatical year, he moved to the Berkshires full time, starting a private practice and consulting business in psychology. But when his eldest daughter, Risa, was diagnosed with cancer and later died, Graubard turned to smoking and drinking. It wasn't until he happened upon a life drawing class in London that he became hooked on art. What was it exactly that drew him to painting? The psychologist doesn't have any answers.
"I have no idea," he said.
Early on in his new creative career, Graubard learned a couple of lessons. The first was to only paint canvases that you could fit in your car. The other was to work with acrylics; he was "too sloppy" for oils, staining his clothes. Viewers will note his brush work in his circus paintings, a couple of pieces inspired by "Moby-Dick" and a series that draws from the story of "Stack" Lee Shelton. In 1895, Shelton shot his friend Billy Lyons dead after Lyons grabbed his hat during a dispute. The incident's legend has since grown through a popular folk song.
Graubard has long gravitated to such tales, consuming folklore as a child. He has work in the permanent collections of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M., and the Jewish Museum of Switzerland. His religious and cultural heritage is important to him.
"I learned from our history: you stick to your ways and keep going no matter what," Graubard writes in one of his catalogs.
When asked if he had started his creative career earlier, the artist said he had mixed feelings.
"I love being an artist. It's really play all day, but when I make my expenses, I'm happy. A couple years, I'll make some money, but not enough to ever support a family, so I'm glad I didn't know about it when I was younger because I had to make a living," he said. "But I'm sure glad that I got into it."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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