Shelby Graham lives surrounded by artwork—it’s in her gallery, her UCSC office, and in her photography studio behind her home near West Cliff Drive. Images—both making and organizing them—have been her passion since her very first camera, a high school birthday gift from her brother.
Graham exactly suits her studio space, which is sleekly equipped with computer, copier, scanner, photographic infrastructure, and loads of oversized images of butterflies, rocks and botanica. She is selecting large photographs from her haunting Drought Series when I visit her studio, some of them destined for the Valentine’s Ball auction at the MAH.
“The series began two years ago at a residency where I was encouraged to try new work,” Graham says. “I wanted a subject that was current. I came home and saw some dried, withered jasmine vines in my yard. So I turned my backyard into a studio and began to photograph.”
Utilizing matte white backgrounds, Graham turned the drought-twisted vines into a photographic series. “A site-specific modular installation—it was a way of creating a large-scale project that would also be easy to transport and store,” Graham says. “I learned that when I lived in Japan for two years during the early 1990s. The aesthetics of small living quarters. I had big ideas, but not enough space or time,” she says.
Director and curator of UCSC’s Sesnon Art Gallery since 1999, Graham has even less time to juggle the hats of photographer, mom, lecturer in photography, and primary curator of exhibitions. “The biggest change at the Sesnon over the years is that now there are more ambitious projects. We used to do unique exhibitions that featured artists no one had ever heard of,” she says with a laugh. “Now we want a broader reach.”
Feb. 12 kicks off Sesnon’s first collaboration with UCSC’s Institute of the Arts & Sciences. The Collective Museum Exhibition is the result of three visiting artists who re-envisioned the university—all 2,000 of its acres—as a museum. Artists will lead an all-day tour of the outdoor museum, including a walk through the site and the people and stories that comprise the unique UCSC campus. “Like artists, gallery directors in the 21st century have to promote their own work. You have to champion your own shows,” says the tireless promoter of Sesnon exhibitions.
“When I’m in curator mode I want to look at a wide diversity of ideas. I know what it takes to mount a show. It’s an architectural skill,” Graham contends, flashing a million-watt smile. “I can visualize how to put up the show, yet still leave room for the happy accident. You have to be open to letting the materials speak.”
How do you mount an exhibition in a gallery space? “You need a strong idea. One that you can pitch,” she stresses. “So I always work hard on the concept and in having a strong title. That’s incredibly important.” Then Graham moves the idea forward. “You figure out how you can show the idea, and then pull images together to illustrate that concept.” Will it be a solo show, or a group show? “To actually select the work, I do a lot of studio visits, asking artists to create specific pieces. I wear all these hats,” she says. Even with plenty of student assistants, she is a hands-on curator personally doing painting, hauling, dismantling, heavy lifting, and all-around schlepping.
“Everything is a decision-making situation,” Graham says. “There has to be a reason why you paint the wall blue, or that a certain piece should be selected, or that the items should be displayed in certain ways and not others. It comes with practice.”
Born in Wisconsin, to a painter mother and an engineer father, Graham was hooked early. “When my mom went to art events, I came along with her. She used my kiddie pool for one of her ’60s happenings,” she says. Graham soaked up museum collections in Chicago while in high school and enrolled in the art program at Colorado State University. “That’s where I also learned to ski,” she says with a grin.
Devotion to outdoor sports—including mountain biking and tennis—led to meeting her future husband, novelist Thad Nodine, at an ultimate frisbee tournament in Denver. “We moved to Santa Cruz where he went to grad school. I taught high school for four years and then got my M.F.A in photography from San Jose State,” she says. “There I found my creative identity as a sculptural photographer.” It’s an identity she explored during her two years teaching in Japan.
With her sons now in college, Graham looks forward to pursuing artist residencies and expanding her own photographic work. “I work more hours at UCSC now because I’m not going to basketball games. There aren’t enough hours in the day,” admits the high-energy arts czarina with a serious yoga practice. “I try to carry that practice through my week, being grounded and balanced, and yet being ready for anything that comes at me.”
Graham, the photographer, has enjoyed the transition from traditional darkroom photographic techniques to digital photography. “Even though you can see what you’ve got right away, there are always surprises,” she says. “That’s the best part—finding something that I didn’t expect.” shelbygrahamart.com.