Q + A with plush artist, Danielle Graves

Hoosier painter and plush artist Danielle Graves has been following her passion for art from a young age. A recent college graduate, she tells us about her influences and career as an aspiring contemporary artist in the Indianapolis area.

Bridget Barbara: Tell us about your journey as an artist so far.

Danielle Graves: I just graduated from the Herron School of Art and Design with an Illustration degree. I was an intern at the Indiana Repertory Theater my last semester. After graduation, they hired me in for a part-time role as the scenic painter. That’s my first professional artist opportunity, but it takes away a lot of time from my own artmaking. Since graduating school, I’ve been trying to get my own artwork out there as much as possible.

BB: How did you get started in art, and what made you choose it as your profession?

DG: My mom was a heavy influence on me. When I was little, she would take me to the painting or basket-weaving classes she went to. In high school, I had an art teacher that went to the Herron School of Art and Design as well. He really pushed me because he saw potential in me, so that’s where it all took off. Deciding to study art in college became my entire life.

BB: What is a fond memory you have of Herron?

DG: That’s so easy. During my freshman year, my professor, Sherry Stone, told our class about this documentary on PBS about an artist named Wayne White. My roommates and I watched it in our apartment, and ever since that day, I’ve become obsessed with him.

Wayne White is a painter and works with all sorts of mediums. He did a lot of work on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. A couple years later, I was told that he was going to be coming to Herron, and I flipped out. They had this other artist talk at the Indianapolis Museum of Art the weekend that he was coming. I went (to the talk) with my roommate for fun but didn’t realize that he was going to be there that night. I freaked out when I saw him.

Nobody was around him. It was just the strangest thing. I guess nobody is as obsessed with him as I am. We continued following him around the museum. He was upstairs looking at the paintings by himself, so I thought, ‘I have to go over there and talk to him.’ So at that point, I don’t really know what I said, I kind of just blacked out [laughs].

I told him about my current work and such dumb things. I remember telling him I watched his documentary the night before as well as so many other ‘why did I say that’ moments. He told me he would be talking the next morning to graduate students, but I was an undergrad.

I asked my professors if I could go to his talk, and they said I could. I saw him looking around the classroom. He said, ‘Oh, not you again!’ I freaked out again that he had acknowledged me like that.

After that talk in the morning, I went home and made him this yarn portrait. I went to his talk at night and gave him that yarn portrait. Later, he made it his Facebook profile picture. Then he shared the memory a year later, and it was great.

BB: What’s a stereotype for an art school kid? Did you live up to the stereotype?

DG: There are definitely stereotypes of art students. Something I’ve noticed about a lot of artists is that they’re super deep. When they talk about their own artwork, they find all this meaning in it that I don’t see. It’s good to have, but I feel like I don’t want to be that cliché.

BB: What kind of medium do you prefer?

DG: I like soft sculptures because they’re very inviting and fun to make. They’re like plush toys, and who doesn’t like that? When I was graduating, not a lot of people were exploring soft sculpture, so I enjoy it because it stood out the most. My preference always changes though. I’ve started to paint and do three-dimensional paintings, but those are kind of soft sculptures as well. So in general, I enjoy plush the most.

It’s fun sewing and stuffing my drawings on my sewing machine; I was never satisfied with solely drawing. I always wanted to do sculpture, but not necessarily stone or ceramic.

BB: What projects are you currently working on?

DG: I just finished this packaged meat piece that I made. It was originally a painting of a t-bone and… I don’t know what the other slices of meat are called [laughs]. I made those into plush paintings and took a clear vinyl to make it look like it was in that styrofoam sort of packaging you see in grocery stores.

I don’t know why, but this was something I wanted to make a while ago. I had a sketch of it on my wall, so I figured I should finally make something. I’m going to start a series of packaged meat products that will be partially oil-painting, partially plush sculpture. I’m pretty excited about them!

BB: What are you doing when not working on your art?

DG: Honestly, not much. Art is my main thing, but graduation has made it difficult to have a set time for studio work. You can find me working at the Indiana Repertory Theater doing scenic painting, but doing someone else’s artwork is so draining. When I get home, I’m so tired and not ready to work on my own artwork.

I’m reading and sketching, and I recently became involved with Know No Stranger. A long time ago, I went to this play called Optical Popsicle 5 (OP5) and it was Know No Stranger’s annual musical. It reminded me of the work of Wayne White and I just fell in love with it.

My sophomore year of college, Know No Stranger held this selfie challenge at the intermission of a fashion show. People would send in their selfies, and then the artists would draw them and display the drawings on a projector. I was picked to be a drawer. That was my first time working with Know No Stranger.

For years I was so nervous to work with them because I thought they were all so cool and talented. I still think that now. This past fall, Matt Helfrich convinced me to work with them again. I started helping them with the musical, Heck Above Deck, and I was a voiceless puppet in the play. I helped make props and did behind-the-scenes. Now, I’m doing a web series with them.

BB: What Indy spots inspire you?

DG: I’ve been going to Saturday morning ‘drawing and donut’ events with other illustrators in Indy. This kid named Jacob Butts started it through Instagram. We just talk and sketch for about four hours in the morning every Saturday at The Dancing Donut. Talking to other people about my work and hearing about theirs has been inspiring.

I enjoy being outside or going on walks. I used to live in the country with my family, and now I live in the city in a small apartment; that can be overwhelming sometimes.

BB: What do you like most about the creative community in Indianapolis? What can improve?

DG: I like where things are going. For instance, Know No Stranger started because they felt like there wasn’t enough going on in Indianapolis or were tired of people saying there wasn’t. It was cool to see them bringing more to Indianapolis rather than artists leaving Indy because they don’t think there’s much going on here.

Big Car has done a lot in Indianapolis too. Really the whole Garfield Park area is growing art-wise because of them.

I do wish there was more contemporary art and more groups doing things similar to Know No Stranger. I know there are a lot of things going on that I’m not a part of, but I like that people are bringing what they want to the city. There needs to be more people innovating like that.

Photography by Aubrey Smith.
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