Page 21 - the Noise December 2017
P. 21 • the NOISE arts & news • OCTOBER 2014 • 1
the view from up above the clouds
skimming along air currents, floating among the vantages of don graham
Don Graham’s folksy demeanor, paired with an uncanny resemblance to good ol’ Saint . Nick, belay little hint of the consummate artist harbored within. A man of many and varied aptitudes — some may say “altitudes,” as his day jobs include hot air balloon pilot, mine EMT, and billboard painter, to name a few — his use of vibrant colors and unique perspective lend his work an almost “floating among the clouds” quality, a buoyancy that resonates in this month’s cover, Escarpment and Four Peaks.
The piece positions the viewer at an altitude few are privy to, thousands of feet above the ancient ocean floor of modern-day Verde Valley, looking north while the rouge ridges routing Oak Creek Canyon give way to the distant cobalt of Do’ok’ooosliid, the sacred San Francisco Peaks. Greyish white clouds hover high above, perhaps a proximity more relative to the flight of a falcon making a day trip from Mingus Mountain to Munds Canyon. Time is of no consequence from this vantage, and the vestiges of contemporary life are nowhere to be seen.
Mr. Graham’s details are inlaid with what seems like a fine-tipped ink pen, their vibrancy soaking up the canvas in rich color and high-contrasting pigments, his craft stylistically evolving from 4 years ago when he made his debut in this magazine after a decade’s hiatus from creating art. Savvy readers may recall it was the push from a local shopkeep that gave him the moxie to grab his sketchbook up again, unleashing new imaginations, and sparking the impetus to finish some abandoned compositions from years ago.
“Ruth Ann [Border from Visible Difference] liked some of my stuff and suggested I con- tact The Noise to see about getting Turtle Abduction on the cover,” says Mr. Graham of his first impression in this magazine, which appeared to critical acclaim in the October 2014 edition, its depiction of members of the Testudinidae family “beamed up” by a Turtle Mother Ship, bringing at once fits of snorts and howls from local UFOers and military industrialists alike.
His progression continued the following year when Hopi Maiden made the cover of #171; the subject, a young woman clad in a katsina-mask and hairloops à la Princess Leia, as she scouts westerly over the horizon — veined red rocks unveiling bulbous clouds bubbling from behind the mountain, as if she were steaming.
His re-emergence into art has gained renewed traction, and Mr. Graham has been pro- lific, churning out new imagery nearly every month, registering over forty canvases, a num- ber that nearly outflanks his early years, before the decade of drought.
“Ballooning and aviation in general provides a lot of inspiration for many of my works,” he says. “I feel like it’s kind of my way of producing ‘bird’s eye views’ of what I see, so that folks who don’t get to fly get an idea of what the world looks like from the air — not exactly a religious experience, but often when I am airborne, I feel like I am in some type of church.”
His most recent works, exemplified in Mingus Sunset (at left) and Verde Valley Monsoon #5 (above), have taken on panoramic dimensional attributes, his crisp gradients evoking something close to photorealistic. But far from what the camera can capture, Mr. Graham seems to revel in the motions of color across the landscape and sky, drawing a viewer’s eye to the peculiarities in lingering pools of water vapor, both reflecting and refracting light while gliding above the desert floor.
He remarks that “ballooning is a lot like being in a three-dimensional sailboat without a rudder” — the experienced pilot must rely solely on attuned knowledge of air current, as it winds its way through arroyo and plateau; some air streams gentle and uplifting, others bumpy and not so predictable. Like during summer monsoon, anything can happen, says Mr. Graham. A freak morning lightning storm may surface in the wee morning hours, forcing him to scrub a flight, as prevailing winds can send a balloon miles off course in a short amount of time, “and the last thing we want to have happen is being stuck with a basket full of people, dangling from a pine tree.”
So Mr. Graham is vigilant with his weather readings, taking in reports from all points of the compass. Oftentimes what’s off in the distance will suddenly make an appearance broadside, and bracing for the inevitable wave is key when you’re hundreds of feet up, teth- ered only by hot air in a pocket of fabric and its response to the air around it. “Sometimes a plume of smoke off in the distance will give me a clue; other times, I’m looking out at the contours of the land to guide me,” he says. “Either way, I’m always looking for a spot for a nice soft landing — one that isn’t so spiny and thorny like much of the stuff growing around here.”
When Mr. Graham isn’t flying balloons, he can be found back at the hanger, “messing with whatever’s on the easel at the moment,” or on occasion, he’ll get out and skate with the roller derby dames whenever there’s a good bout that requires an eagle eye for refereeing. His penchant for decent beer will also get him out and about irregularly, he notes, with a nod to one of his favorite pieces, Cowboy’s Dream 2048, an homage to Phoenix’s A-1 Beer advertising campaign from 69 years ago.
His frequency in these pages is matched by a recurrent presence at Main Stage Theater in midtown Cottonwood, and semi-annual showings at Mountain Oasis along Heritage Square in downtown Flagstaff, where this December, he will be half of a duet exhibition, alongside Dolores Ziegler, a fellow member of the Artists’ Coalition. An intimate dinner reception is slated for the 7th, beginning at 5 o’clock.
Mr. Graham is also a juried member of Art35North, of which he reminisces about his in- volvement last July: “I really like those art tours, ‘nary but for the really hearty conversation that balloons over an afternoon!” The artist can be reached at . • the NOISE arts & news • october 2015 • 1 | the NOISE arts & news | DECEMBER 2017 • 21

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