Interview by Tess Martens
I went to high school and the University of Guelph with Graham. He is the kindest person and his paintings are honest. I am not usually a fan of still life paintings, but Graham has convinced me otherwise with his paintings. They really grow on me the more I look at them. He is showing his paintings in his series titled My Take: recent paintings by Graham Ragan for the month of September in the front room of my house in Waterloo, Ontario. The space is called The Front Room Gallery (IG: @thefrontroomgallery). Graham will play live music at the opening on Saturday, September 15th, 7-9pm.
Martens: What made you continue to do still life?
The successful painter is continually painting still life. -Charles Webster Hawthorne
Ragan: I had a lot stuff to figure out. I felt like I had so much to learn. I gravitated towards still life. One because I didn’t have money for models and I was too shy to ask for their portraits. I never considered going to a portrait drawing class. Landscape, too difficult. Abstract, I didn’t have many good ideas for conceptual abstract paintings. Still life was a very easy, dirty way to start. It is, so many painters will say, the quickest, easiest way to make a painting. That is why I look at my early still lifes and always see things that I would want to fix. I was always looking back at paintings and saying okay for the next painting, I will do this. It was a constant circle of challenging myself. Challenging myself with different types of objects, different placements, different groupings, tight grouping, far away objects, different vantage points, doing fruit, doing a spoon in a weird perspective. Constantly challenging myself. There is even further to go. I could do crazier things. I wanted to do dead fish for a while. Like Manet, fish heads from the Chinese market. There is so much more I can do with that kind of subject. I did a portrait recently. I thought to myself that I could do a whole bunch of still life paintings around the figure to give some symbolism. Give it drapery and clothing. I got all of those stills now because I have painted still life for so long. I feel pretty comfortable with it now. Still life was a great way to start. I love looking at other people’s still lifes. I would love to put a bowl of fruit in front of you, Tess and ask you to paint because you’re a painter. You just do a representation of it and your take on it. It is super interesting, everyone is different.
Martens: Your objects seem very personal. Is there something intimate between you, the painter and the objects?
In Art, Man reveals himself, and not his objects. -Rabindranath Tagore
Ragan: Yes. A lot of them are stuff from memories. It is more engaging and interesting painting something that you have a history with. It is fun painting someone you know and have a relationship with rather than a stranger. I like to pick objects that I have seen for a long time in my life. For some reason, I feel so much better about it being materialized like a glass my mom has had. I like to paint handmade pottery. I like to go to potters and buy their handmade mugs and glasses. I find they are interesting shapes. When I was in school, I used IKEA mugs or whatever I had, but you just get bored of those mechanical shapes. I like things with more personality in them. Also, just things that I have grown up with like the orange glass in my still life. I remember we had a set of those glasses in the house. I always thought, these are cool glasses like the colour when the light shines through it. They are cool glasses. That is the last one because they all broke. I think the last one is broken now. One still life has a Mexican glass. My mom’s friend bought them from Mexico. They were such cool shapes. They are hand blown. They look so crazy with the drapery. If you are not interested in painting it, if it is a super boring object, it is just not going to turn into an interesting painting.
Martens: How would you describe your paint application?
Each brushstroke is a decision. -Robert Motherwell
Ragan: I look at some of my paintings, and ones I feel like I failed. They didn’t turn out as good as because I rushed the background. There are areas that I could have done better, here, here and here. The Cezanne style, you got your focus but every square of the canvas you treat the same. So, I try to treat everything the same. Especially if you are painting a portrait. Obviously, the face is the most important in the painting; the eyes, nose, the mouth because people look at it right away. When I was doing a portrait class, I tried to get the face down right away. The painting needs the same care and attention in every part of the painting. It is ridiculous, a tiny, 9x12 canvas can seem massive when you are doing that. Every area is in the back of your mind. Oh shit! There is this part here. It’s got its own little world. I try to put as much care into the paintings as I can. You can actually move through it. It is easier said than done. You can’t just paint a void. The background needs to be a part of it.
Martens: Do you find that your paintings are an ode to painting?
No one can be a painter unless he cares for painting above all else. -Edouard Manet
Ragan: Yeah. I just love painting. I love looking at other people’s paintings. People would say that I am a traditionalist. I tried to be clever or witty, I come back to what I like in painting. I like honest painting. I try to paint super honestly. It is how it is handled and how you look at it. The person’s intent and focus on what they are doing.
Martens: Can you speak to your colours?
There is no blue without yellow and without orange, and if you put in blue, then you must put in yellow, and orange too, mustn't you? Oh well, you will tell me that what I write to you are only banalities. -Vincent van Gogh
Ragan: My colours are changing a lot. There is a time in art school, when I was taking swatches of colour of matching it exactly. You get to a point where there are some colours you can just not mix. You can’t. You cannot mix them. Are you going to spend an hour to mix that one colour? You have to work with what you got. You just have to work with values. Just get all the values right and bring out some contrast. The more I paint, I use the colours that I have on my palette. It’s tough, colour is hard to get right. You know? That’s what does it for the painting. Colour is the polish.
Martens: What painters do you look at other than Manet?
Ragan: My favourite painter of all time is Van Gogh. I love David Hockney. I love Monet. Cezanne. Cezanne is great. When I see their still lifes, it’s like woah! It is always better in person. I love Van Gogh’s flowers. I like Chardin’s still lifes with the dead rabbits.
Martens: Do you see your paintings as a series?
Ragan: Yes. It is definitely an unfolding thing.
Martens: What would you say to someone who told you that your work is outdated or boring?
If you hear a voice within you saying, 'You are not a painter," then by all means paint, boy, and that voice will be silenced, but only by working. He who goes to trends and tells his troubles when he feels like that loses part of his manliness, part of the best that's in him; your friends can only be those who themselves struggle against it, who raise your activity by their own example of action. -Vincent van Gogh
Ragan: Um. I would say fine, well I have a ways to go. I got a lot more to do. Maybe if people may see it and be like, this is boring and plain looking still lifes. I have been brushed off like that before. One day, I’ll paint something that you will actually like...I always feel like I have paintings in me where someone will say that is unique. I am still learning and figuring out my style. I have a long way to go still. Try to prove those people wrong one day would be my answer.
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You can spot Tess Martens performing with all her heart during karaoke night because she has to compensate for her singing voice or cracking jokes at a music open mic night. She is a performance artist and painter that exploits her vulnerabilities and humour. When she is not doing art, she is working with seniors. She recently received her Masters of Fine Art at the University of Waterloo. She now resides in Waterloo, Ontario. Follow Tess on Instagram.