Sherrie McGraw, Artist, Teacher and Author
My interest in painting started young. I could not stop looking at books on drawing and painting, and replications of sculptures by Michelangelo and Rodin. I copied from them relentlessly. And though I was determined to be an artist, it wasn’t so much the career that held my interest, but what these Old Masters knew. This is what I really wanted—their understanding. Making line or paint seem dimensional on a flat surface seemed mysterious to my young eyes, but even now, the magic of doing this is still compelling.
Sherrie McGraw knew she wanted to be an artist already at age four. She inherited her creativity and entrepreneurial talents from her mother; from her father she learned to follow her passion. From both parents she learned about hard work and being broke at times. Her father had to be creative to make a living as a golfer, and when the family experienced tough financial times, her mother helped generate income by managing the family’s pro golf shop. Sherrie’s mother encouraged her artistic pursuit and the budding artist’s first teachers, Richard Goetz, director of the Goetz School of Art in Oklahoma City since 1949, and his wife Edith inspired her direction in art. An unusual couple by Oklahoma standards, the two painters lived with their six children amongst stuffed owls, Persian glass, old cowboy boots, paintings, and drawings of nudes. Recalling the lively household with “classical music playing beneath heated conversations about Art,” Sherrie remembers thinking “So, this is how real artists live.”
In 1975 Sherrie studied at the Goetz School of Art. That summer she attended Richard and Edith’s summer workshop run at the Abominable Snow Mansion in Arroyo Seco near Taos. Arroyo Seco was rough in those days. Undaunted, Sherrie and her fellow students ventured out forth with their Julian easels to paint colorful renditions of adobe ruins and the local church. After two more summers, Richard stated he had no more to teach her and recommended study at New York’s Art Students League under Frank Mason or David Leffel. Sherrie realized that in order to be a painter she would have to live in New York. In 1978 she worked until she amassed $2,000 and made the move from Ponca City, arriving in New York with two suitcases and her savings. The funds and a Ford Foundation scholarship saw her through her first six months of study at the Art Students League, then she worked nights as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This job gave her the opportunity to study drawings and paintings by some of the world’s finest artists and supported her art studies for two more years.
Newly arrived in David Leffel’s class, Sherrie watched him as he surveyed the room of art students. She saw an intensity in his eyes that she had never seen before in a human being. That intensity also showed in the dramatic light and shadow of David’s paintings. Sherrie had long admired the Old Masters, particularly Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro (contrast of light and shadow) paintings. She responded strongly to the same drama and poetry David exhibited in his painting. A strong proponent of Abstract Realism, he taught how paint could be a piece of light, how it could create air and dimension to create recognizable objects. He became her mentor both as a painter and as a teacher. From him she learned that “being a better artist is not an accumulation of technique, but a way of seeing, of being, and that painting that is not separate from who we are.” David had also stressed that “good painting requires intelligence” and that “being in the moment is where magic happens.”
By 1980 Sherrie devoted most of her time to painting. To earn money the entrepreneurial young artist began making maroger, a thixatropic substance that when applied with oil paint to canvas prevents brushstrokes from dripping. She sold the mixture and her paintings out of a booth at the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit. That same year the Wadle Gallery in Santa Fe accepted her work and Sherrie’s career took off. She began exhibiting and winning awards in shows at the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit as well as the Salmagundi Club, the National Arts Club, the Pastel Society, and the Hudson Valley Art Association.
As her career blossomed, so did Sherrie’s relationship with David Leffel. In 1982, after her final classes at the Art Students League, she moved to New Jersey to live with her former teacher. As her love partner he continued to influence and encourage her. She recalls how, when painting difficulties vexed her, David would “look deep into my teary eyes, and say so calmly and sweetly, ‘It’s just a painting.’ And somehow the drama of the moment suddenly seemed trivial and I was able to relax and simply enjoy painting again.”
With David’s encouragement Sherrie addressed the biggest obstacle she faced in her work: the conviction that she must produce a perfect painting the first time. Her self worth fluctuated depending on how painting went that day. Gradually, as Sherrie let go of perfectionism, her focus changed. She began enjoying the process and what each work she produced taught her about painting.
A parallel career opened to Sherrie in 1984 when she taught her first workshops at the Scottsdale Artists’ School. Four years later Sherrie became an instructor at her alma mater. Initially she took over classes taught by Thomas Fogarty and Gustav Rehberger, then began conducting her own courses at the Art Students League. Her skills in the classroom echoed those of her father who was a natural-born teacher.
Sherrie and David entered into a teaching partnership in 1985. They led workshops at the Fechin Institute at Branham Ranch outside Taos every August through 2009. These visits rekindled Sherrie’s love for northern New Mexico. Like successive generations of artists before her, the area’s landscape, light, rich history and cultural diversity offered visual stimulation. In September 1987 Sherrie and David considered living in Taos. The following year they purchased a house on land outside. Still resident in New Jersey, they leased out their place in New Mexico and the rent covered their mortgage. In 1991, faced with the staggering expenses of maintaining two studios and an apartment in the East, the couple decided to relocate to more affordable housing in Taos. As well known, established artists they could work anywhere in the country. After building studios on their property, they moved permanently to Taos in 1992. From Taos Sherrie continued to conduct workshops throughout the United States and to lecture and give demonstrations for art institutions like the Portrait Society of America, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art, and the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
The lack of an instructive book on drawing and the desire to make the medium available to art students outside her workshops, prompted Sherrie to commence work on what became The Language of Drawing: from an Artist's Viewpoint. She addresses the project’s genesis in her introduction: “In school, I studied my favorite drawings to find their secrets. This was an important part of my education, assimulated primarily visually. When it came time to teach, I was forced to dissect these visual discoveries and express them verbally; that is how the information in this book found form.” The book, published in 2005, took Sherrie ten years to formulate and write.
Another venue for creative expression opened when, as Vice President of American Women Artists, Sherrie helped orchestrate an exhibition presented in a 17th century Cloister in Sorrento, Italy. Much to the citizens and the Mayor’s delight, she delivered a thank you speech in Italian.
The Academy of Art University recognized Sherrie’s many achievements in 2010 by awarding her an honorary doctorate. By then her paintings had been shown in major art institutions, among them the Gilcrease Museum, the Tucson Museum of Art and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum; and prestigious private collectors including Senator John Warner and the Mellon and Forbes families and of fellow artists Howard Terpning, George Carlson and others had acquired her work.
In Taos at their 2011 Fechin Art Workshop, Sherrie and David’s teaching collaboration took on a new dimension. Sharing the stage for the first time in their careers, they conducted simultaneous painting demonstrations at the Harwood Museum of Art. In different genres—David’s still life and Sherrie’s portrait—each showed how they incorporated elements of light, shadow and edges into their paintings.
The event was memorialized in a DVD compilation, that recorded close ups of the brushstrokes that accompanied their instruction. This successful venture instituted the creation of further educational tools: three teaching videos that follow Sherrie’s painting process in her studio.
This year David and Sherrie appeared together in the newly released Taos Portraits book by Taos photographer Paul O’Connor. David’s daughter wrote anecdotal sketches to accompany Paul’s photos: portraits intended to capture the spirit and feeling of Taos characters who impacted the photographer.
Teaching workshops keeps Sherrie away from Taos six to eight weeks out of the year. Otherwise she pursues her passion for painting and drawing. Over the past two years she has won major awards including a silver medal at the Oil Painters of America national exhibition, an award of distinction at the Butler Institute of American Art, and the Mary Fitch Memorial Award at the Salmagundi Club. Sherrie was the featured artist at this year’s American Masters show where the Salmagundi Club showed a retrospective of 20 of her paintings and drawings. The Butler Institute has scheduled a solo exhibition of her work for 2014. When not in the studio, Sherrie devotes the rest of her time to gardening (she runs a mean rototiller), tai chi classes, cooking and entertaining family and friends, and watching sunsets over Taos Mountain with David Leffel.
Why Taos for Sherrie? She considers Taos a slice of New York because while small, it has the same artistic and cultural diversity. For Sherrie “Taos is all about Beauty for me. I moved from manmade beauty to natural beauty. Here I can grow a garden, breathe clean air, relax in the laid-back atmosphere of our walled-in patio, and paint in a studio that would rent for a King’s ransom in Manhattan. I cannot imagine living anywhere else, nor would I want to.”
Sherrie’s favorite places: My most favorite place to hang out is in my studio and garden. But when I do get out, because Taos was home to so many artists, I visit the old artists’ homes and studios. One in particular is Nicolai Fechin’s, now the Taos Museum of Art. I always enjoy the craftsmanship of his carving, and his exquisite drawings and paintings. The Couse Foundation complex is a hidden treasure of old Taos, hardly touched in all these years. The machine shop will transport you to another time. Ernie and Virginia [Virginia Couse Leavitt, granddaughter of Taos Society of Artists member Eanger Irving Couse], the curators of E.I. Couse’s home and studio, are Taos treasures too. It is well worth the trip to visit this piece of Taos history. The Blumenschein studio and home also give a clear picture of Taos in the time of these historic founders’ heyday. And at one time, I rented the John Young-Hunter studio, which is privately owned now by my friend Bill Acheff. It is a majestic structure ornamented with a stone fireplace, carved wooden corbels, gilded, fluted columns, 30 ft. vigas and a Spanish-tiled entrance.
I also enjoy going to the Taos Community Auditorium for plays and all kinds of music, from classical to Celtic. But often, a trip out of the studio means dinner at a restaurant. My favorite ones are Downtown Bistro, Byzantium, Pizanos and Song’s as well as the Taos Inn for breakfast.
For more information on Sherrie McGraw, please visit sherriemcgraw.com
The Language of Drawing and Sherrie’s teaching videos are available from Bright Light Publishing as are two books that she has contributed to: An Artist Teaches: Reflections on the Art of Painting and Self-Portraits: A Visual Journey of Insight (both available at www.brightlightfineart.com) Her introduction to Drawings of Nicolai Fechin is available from: www.fechin.com
By Elizabeth Cunningham, 2012
Blog host, “Mabel Dodge Luhan and the Remarkable Women of Taos”
Photo by Lenny Foster, www.lennyfoster.com