Art scholars often look at the text, context and subtext to reveal the multiple meanings of a piece. The same can be said about examining an artist like Yakima’s Jason Graham. Though Graham has built a resume of working in various jobs, he is above all an artist.
“Creating for me is like breathing. It’s not something I can stop doing,” he says. “A professor asked me why I create, and I said, ‘Because I have to.’ ”
Graham, 37, has experimented with various media, but over the years has gravitated toward drawing, painting and rock carving. Even so, as many artists understand, he can’t quit his day job as head manager at Yakima Cinema.
After graduating from Davis High School in 1993, Graham bounced around to several colleges until 1997, when he and his wife, Angi, landed at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla. “I said, if you’re going to apply, I will, too, not thinking I’d get accepted,” says Graham. But accepted they both were, and the couple packed all their belongings into a Honda Accord and moved to Tulsa to begin a new leg of their lives.
Angi completed her degree in studio art, with an emphasis in ceramics. Jason changed his major four times, jumping from theology, graphic design and art education before finishing a studio art degree with an emphasis in painting.
“I had asked myself, what do I really want to do?” he says. Then, one day in 1998 as he was driving along Interstate 5 near Everett, he observed the sun beginning to set on the mountains. A thought struck him: “I don’t know if it was a voice or an urging. I needed to get dirty in what I did.”
Though he wasn’t sure what that meant at first, he had been drawing his entire life; so he decided to “jump in with both feet” with painting.
“I had never done it before,” says Graham. “Painting is 90 percent drawing, and I thought, well, that gives me a leg up, then.”
Both of Graham’s parents were artistic, and as a boy he drew airplanes, dragons and scenes of war. Early on he had a realization about his talent.
“I found out I was a fantastic copier,” he says. “If I sat in front of something, I could copy it. So that’s how it began.”
At Oral Roberts, Graham established a kind of link to Pietro Annigoni, who is considered one of the last great Italian master artists of the 20th century. Graham’s instructor, Lee Shortridge, had studied under a fresco painter named Ben Long, who was one of Annigoni’s students.
“Six degrees of random artists,” Graham muses.
In Oklahoma, Graham was part of the team of artists that spent two years working on a 12- by 175-foot mural called Allegories of Redemption. In 2002 the art deco mural, which was created in Tulsa, was moved close to the site of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The mural’s theme is one of redemption.
Nathan Opp, assistant professor of art at ORU and Graham’s former teacher, witnessed Graham’s decision to get dirty with his work.
“He became more explorative,” says Opp, who has maintained a friendship with his former student. “He wanted to play and get very physical with the material.”
The Grahams returned to Washington state just four days after they graduated from ORU in 2002. Their son, Josh, was born in July 2001, and the couple wanted to live closer to family. Fresh out of college with a new family of their own, they also needed money. Jason took a job in Seattle with a company that designs fabric for the airline industry, and soon after the family moved to Bellingham, where he ran an equipment rental yard at an oil refinery.
Graham is used to taking on odd jobs. Over the years he has worked at an Alaskan cannery, in construction, handling hazardous materials and has made dental crowns and bridges.
“He has an inability to be squelched,” says Opp, adding Graham has spent more than a decade “trying to make ends meet, and at the same time make art. He is a formidable spirit.”
But he’s faced a series of life setbacks, too.
“There was a point where I felt I lost my voice,” he says, after his father committed suicide in 2005. “I was trying to deal with that loss — a father, a friend. There was no explanation, no goodbye.”
Poetry stemmed from that loss. In one poem, Pieces of You, Graham wrote: “My heart beats pumping blood carrying pieces of you.” And in He Called Me Buddy, he wrote: “His last moment comes in to focus when I shut my eyes. A brief time of peace before the cold steel kissed his temple.”
Graham’s pain found expression in another medium, too. He created a mannequin that starkly depicted his father’s suicide — and to raise awareness about whom suicide leaves behind. The mannequin was displayed at Yakima’s Larson Gallery in 2006. Graham added a description of his father, the family he left behind and a note: “My dad was 49 years old, and I miss him very much.”
After his father’s death, Graham revisted another dream, one he had with friend and former co-worker Jeff Clemmons before college. In 2006, the two opened The Beer Shoppe in Yakima.
“After my dad died, I said let’s do something crazy,” says Graham. He served as co-owner for more than two years, until he needed to back away because of other heartbreaks the Grahams endured.
The couple has experienced seven miscarriages: one before their son was born, and six following, the last one occurring just over a year ago. Those losses sapped Graham’s creative energy.
“I couldn’t write. With a poem, I used to come up with one line, then build. After our last loss, I couldn’t build,” says Graham. “I’ve always been of the mindset that there’s beauty out of tragedy. After that last loss, I called bullshit on that.”
But a newer chapter in Graham’s portfolio opened up in 2010 when he discovered how he could apply his drawing ability in another form. He was inspired by his friend Jason Alexander, who had started an art company called American RiverWorks. The company specializes in carving images on river rocks. Graham had been “itching to be creative,” he says, so he selected a rock and carved a tree frog on it and asked Alexander to educate him about the entire rock carving process. “It’s putting a 2D rendition of a 3D image on a 3D object in two dimensions. And there’s no color,” he says. “It’s a challenge.”
Then Graham was inspired with a new idea to carve baby feet on rocks. He took his son’s newborn footprints and practiced carving on rocks and kitchen tile.
“I got bored with doing fish, and wanted to branch out,” he says. Now, people ask him what else he can carve. “I’m always up for a challenge.” Although he hasn’t shown his other art for some time, Graham sells his rocks, which range from $50 to $200. He has sold rock carvings of animals, Chinese symbols and even the Virgin Mary. And soon, American RiverWorks will have a website, www.americanriverworks.com, which will include Graham’s creations.
“I think he’s worked really hard to find his personal voice, and although he’s dabbled in lots of different materials, I think he’s really excited about the rock carving he’s doing,” says Opp. “From the outside to me it connects his interest, going out into the local mountains and bringing back nature space into the studio and allowing his mark to be left on it. That, and the joy it brings to people comes together in a confluence of something that just resonates with him.”
The Grahams have been eager to expand their art projects. Angi, currently a barista, has the equipment to “throw” pots, but since space is tight, she’s focusing on making jewelry. In addition to his rock carving, Graham now hungers to get dirty once again with painting, and he continues to write poetry.
“If I don’t do it, it feels a part of me is dying. It seems kind of cliché, but if I’m not working on something, I don’t feel whole,” he says. “God has given me this ability, and to not use it would be to bury my gift. There’s some guilt there if I’m not creating; there’s a chance I would miss out on to bring joy to others.”