Visual Arts » 2D

The Talented Mr. Graves

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Mike Graves strikes me as the kind of person a lot of people would want to know, both personally and professionally. He has connections across the city as a contemporary artist and deejay, laughs easily, and, given how freely he speaks about his creation process, strikes me as someone who would make a great teacher. An hourlong conversation gave me a glimpse into his life and how he got his start as an artist.

Graves photographed at the ArtsGarden. - MIKE GRAVES
  • Mike Graves
  • Graves photographed at the ArtsGarden.

Born in Indianapolis, Graves moved around a lot due to his dad's work in the Air Force, coming back to the Circle City on breaks between military assignments. As a teenager, Graves spent more than four years in the Philippines before briefly attending Warren Central High School. Due to varying curriculums in the United States, Graves found himself with more credits than his peers and was able to take art electives during his three months at the school. A field trip to Herron when he was a senior "really stuck with him" and it was up to Graves to make a decision about his future. "In my family, you're going to college," he says emphatically. In response to Graves claiming, "I'm not even that smart!" he was told by more than one relative, "You better figure something out."

Graves learned from an early age that he could become an artist, thanks to his big, supportive family. "Growing up, there was never a restriction on what I could do," he says. "I still had that drive to be the best at it." He got art practice from the comic books and hip-hop magazines he was able to find no matter where he was in the world. When it came time to choose a college, Graves "wanted to go to a school of art, not someone's art department."

To his surprise, Graves' initial portfolio didn't get him into Herron. He was, however, academically strong enough to get into IUPUI. He took regular college courses and also painted, reapplying to Herron the following year. Following his acceptance, he was able to take nothing but art classes at first, but quickly found out "there's a lot of school in art school; it's not just there for you to explore yourself." Speaking in the voice of his confused younger self, Graves says, "I thought I came here to express myself and be crazy!"

Dr. Fate, acrylic and collage on canvas, exemplifies Graves' use of comic book imagery in his work. - MIKE GRAVES
  • Mike Graves
  • Dr. Fate, acrylic and collage on canvas, exemplifies Graves' use of comic book imagery in his work.

After two-and-a-half years at Herron, Graves left in a "cloud of shame" after being put on academic probation. "I promised myself I would paint harder," he says. "I would not be a failure as an artist. It was a sense of pride." Graves' departure was actually a great opportunity. While his art student friends were being given assignments, Graves learned things he wasn't being taught formally in school.

"They weren't going to teach me how to be my own business, how to do shows, how to handle myself in the modern art world," Graves explains. "They don't teach you how to present yourself in a professional manner to a gallery." And with a laugh, he says, "Half the teachers at Herron are looking for their own shows!"

But he's quick to point out that he's not knocking Herron. He learned a great deal while he was there, especially in the library where he read about artists and techniques he'd never heard of. Still, his real-world experience meant he was already selling his work when his friends were preparing their senior theses.

A self-proclaimed "communal" artist, Graves says, "My world has always been art around people," lamenting the exclusionary approach some other artists have with their work. Graves was always out in the world, doing his "weird stuff out on my own." A big fan of graffiti art -- a.k.a. outsider art -- he would tag trains and underpasses, which led to his first show at the Midland Arts and Antiques Market, thanks to someone he knew from the outsider art world. His communal approach "kicked into high gear" about 10 years ago when he found himself bored with his own work. "I'd be halfway through it and be like 'Eh, I'm done,'" he says. "If I'm not going to grow, what's the fun in it?"

Soon after, he started collaborating with his friend and fellow artist, Justin Cooper. They quickly discovered they had the "same brain on different tracks," according to Graves. They could both see the long view but had different ways of getting there. The two had lots of conversations about bringing their styles together, Graves noting that "collaboration forces you to take your aesthetic and break it down." A longtime fan of abstract backgrounds, Graves would build canvases and drop them off for Cooper to work on. "The more we [collaborated], the more it grew as its own individual style. It's become its own weird thing."

Who's Who reflects the influence of graffiti on Graves' style. - MIKE GRAVES
  • Mike Graves
  • Who's Who reflects the influence of graffiti on Graves' style.

Here are some opportunities to experience Graves' work:

Graves also deejays every other Saturday at Pure Eatery, where he is the art curator. For folks headed south, Graves' work is on display for the next two months at Bistro 226 in Bargersville. Whether you're into mixed media on canvas, metal sculpture or want to reminisce with a selection of '80s tunes, Graves likely has a talent that will appeal to you. Literally laughed at for being a fine arts major and teased that he wasn't going to graduate with a job, he "painted more focused and intensely than I ever had in my life. I had something to prove. Everyone in that hallway who laughed - you're wrong about me. You may be right about everyone else, but not about me."

The Train to Sendai City '68 -- acrylic on canvas. - MIKE GRAVES
  • Mike Graves
  • The Train to Sendai City '68 -- acrylic on canvas.

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