SOUTH SAN YSIDRO, NM — It had been many years since I had driven down the long dirt road to where Allan Graham (1943-2019) and Gloria Graham lived and worked. I first met Allan in 2000 when he was installing his exhibition Allan Graham/TH: As REAL as thinking at SITE Santa Fe (January 22–March 12, 2000), curated by Kathleen Shields. Robert Creeley, who learned that I was going to be in Santa Fe, said that I should go to SITE and introduce myself to Allan, which I did. 

The plan was that my friend Julia Haywood and I would drive to the church in South San Ysidro, about 35 miles from Santa Fe, where we would meet Gloria and follow her car to the house and studio, which she describes as being in the “wilderness mountain” 45 minutes from Santa Fe. When I first went there in 2000, Allan told me that their only visible neighbor was Val Kilmer and pointed to a faint light on the other side of the valley. The actor has since sold his property, but otherwise nothing much seemed to have changed on this trip.

I had gone there to see work in Allan’s studio because of an exhibition I have been planning, and to see what Gloria was working on. There were three bodies of work in her bright, sunlit studio — two that evidently still needed some work (although they looked done to me) and one that was finished, Earth Moves Shadows (2008). I decided immediately that I would write about the finished one.

Gloria Graham, from the series Earth Moves Shadows (4/13/2008), pigmented ink and graphite on archival paper, 24 x 37 inches

Graham, who works in sculpture, painting, and photography, is inspired by science and draws on her deep knowledge of it, which ranges from chemistry and molecular structures to botany. This is how Clayton Porter described his experience of being in Graham’s studio in Southwest Contemporary:

Spending a morning with Gloria Graham in her drawing studio is like being in the world’s most inspiring chemistry class. She speaks with sheer awe about the structures and movements of molecular particles, telling personal anecdotes about carbon and silicon, acting out the effects of selenium. While her drawings are abstract distillations of the substances that make up the universe and the human body, her own mind and body dwell in the natural world. […] With a botanist for a grandfather, Graham was surrounded as a child by exotic trees and plants, and she had access to a big desk and plenty of sheets of architectural paper.

Graham has never lost that early sense of wonderment. Earth Moves Shadows consists of eight drawings measuring 24 by 37 inches. In the center of each drawing is an image of a black basalt stone that had been fashioned into a tool. Gloria opened the top draw in a cabinet, took the stones out, and began handing them to Julia and me so that we could feel their weight (they are heavier than they look), discover how they fit into our hands, and see where they had been chipped and flaked. She then told us which ones she thinks are spearheads, scrapers, and hoes. 

Gloria Graham, from the series Earth Moves Shadows (4/13/2008), pigmented ink and graphite on archival paper, 24 x 37 inches

Gloria and Julia, an artist who lives in Abiquiu, New Mexico, and works at Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch, discussed who might have made the tools. In a follow-up email, Gloria reiterated what she told Julia and me that afternoon:

They are pre-bow and arrow tools from near 3000 B.C. I don’t know the names of the makers of these. I had the strong awareness that these had been out receiving sun with the earth’s movements for thousands of years as all things on earth. 

After making photographic prints of each, I placed the prints outside in the sun, then set each stone on its own image. On April 13, 2008, from 7am to 7pm I traced with pencil the hourly shadows edge, recording the movement of earth.

As Gloria and Julia were talking, I turned my head and looked out the glass doors, where Gloria said she saw three mountain lions walk by not too long ago. My mind drifted from the current moment to the memory of meeting Allan, who was installing “Time Is Memory” (1999), a reading-meditation space that incorporated Buddhist death poems, for his show, As Real as Thinking. My mind continues to travel back in time, along the path evoked by the stones that Gloria found and kept years ago. 

In Graham’s drawings, the viewer sees multiple records of time, starting with the basalt that was formed hundreds of thousands of years ago, to the moment when a little-known group of people chipped and flaked them to create weapons and tools, to the shadows they cast when placed on a piece of paper laid out in the New Mexico sun. This sense of one’s existence in the face of infinity emerges from a very different sense of materiality than what the art world celebrates.

Gloria Graham, from the series Earth Moves Shadows (4/13/2008), pigmented ink and graphite on archival paper, 24 x 37 inches

In an interview for Southwest Contemporary, Jenn Shapland asked Graham why she became interested in molecules and molecular structure. In response, Graham said:

The body is made up of so many different things, and we’re very familiar with those. But I was reading about supernovas, about that time, the explosion or implosion. And the things that come out of those are the very same things that we have inside of us.

This is a very unique sense of our relationship to time and our material status. This understanding of time, materiality, and change is the foundation of Graham’s work. 

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...