Five questions for Clare Graham of MorYork Gallery

Clare Graham in his “neighborhood portal in the exchange of information and ideas” | Nathan Solis


HIGHLAND PARK — Textures and shapes take form at MorYork Gallery. Often they appear floating in the spaces between a collection of steer skulls or Greek figures caught in statuesque poses; these shapes float all around in one of the most exotic bazaars imaginable.

The York Boulevard warehouse has been the domain of Clare Graham and partner Bob Breen since 1985.  The one-time grocery store is stocked with  items that Graham has created, often discarded objects – soda tabs, doll eyeballs, bottle caps, string and more. He does not consider himself an artist, but a craftsman.  Graham also does not consider MorYork a traditional gallery – he refers to the warehouse as a “neighborhood portal in the exchange of information and ideas.”  Beginning this month, Graham’s work will be shown at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in his first solo exhibit titled The Answer is Yes.

All of this is a long way from the Canadian enclave where Graham grew up with his hunter father and homemaker mother. But, really, it’s not all that much of a stretch that Graham and Breen now host so much art, either found at flea markets or arranged by their hands. This taxonomy of the forgotten that is collected at MorYork was just as important to the young Graham, who would explore the Canadian wilderness and store his finds like some natural biologist in his parent’s home. Atikokan, where Graham grew up, means “caribou bones” in Ojibwe. That’s as good a place to start.

Were your parents concerned about your fascination with nature and bringing home random objects?

We were left to our own devices. I was one of five kids. My father was a hunter, so he often brought home animals and we watched him skin and butcher them. Our town was an iron mine and out our door were hundreds of miles of wilderness. We were very much connected to the whole ‘from the field to the table’ mentality with a kitchen garden. We raised our vegetables and mom would can for the winter. So nature was just part of the process.

You and Bob have been in Highland Park since 1985. What is your take on the changes over the years?

When we bought the building Highland Park was sort of cut off from the freeways. This was a sort of forgotten pocket of industrial spaces along York Boulevard. This space was built in 1933 as a Safeway Super Market and then in the 1950s it became a roller rink, then a slot car place. Part of the texture of Highland Park in the 1930s when this was built was [a street car line] stopped right on York Boulevard and Avenue 50. At the time it was heavily Italian immigrants, and over the years it morphed several times.

Right now it’s a very Yuppiefied, hipster era we’re in the middle of with a lot of businesses catering to the young families. So far everything is one of a kind, with no brands, which is very unique. It gives Highland Park a sort of something extra that other cookie cutter neighborhoods sort of fall into when they progress or develop. It develops too quickly, and then there is a Baby GAP and all the regular brands move in. So far we’re still off brand which is a saving grace.

Many of your projects involve numerous materials, like a chair made out of soda can tabs. Do you worry about materials running out in the middle of a project?

The hard thing in hunting and gathering for materials is that you can never rely on finding anything in particular. You have to apply timeline, a chronology in collecting. Some of the materials I use I’ve been collecting for twenty five years. I just applied the finish to a piece that’s about 65 anagram games over there. Now I’d be lucky if I could find an anagram game every other month. Here in California there are ample flea markets, very good yard sales, estate sales, and those are always offering up some great materials. That’s the process I go through. When people buy on eBay or anywhere else online you’re essentially buying from people who bought from yard sales before at a higher price.

I recently got a large collection of string from a guy for free. An old Chinese man had just passed away and his children were selling his home and everything in it. They had gone through the garage and had put all of his string into bags and then put them onto the curb. Large bags filled with string and sort of filled with little samples of strings he had wound up himself and then put little tags on them. They were marked with length, where he got them and so on. They were just throwing it out, but for me that was such a great sort of evocation of his life span. Probably a byproduct of growing up during war time when materials were scarce, and being a bit thrifty was so important. I find myself with a lot of the same habits, so I made a memorial to him.

What was your first impression of Los Angeles?

Coming from a very small town in Canada where resources were very limited you start to think that the world itself is limited. Then you get to a city like Los Angeles and even then it was an urban sprawl, a multiplicity of things – anything you could want to buy, to see, a multiplicity of museums, endless movie theaters. And it really opens your mind to show that we were in this little parochial, isolated enclave out there. Suddenly the world is our oyster.

Do you ever see religion or spirituality manifesting itself in your work?

Only in the fact that the materials I use are fairly raw and direct. One could say in quotes, “closer to God.” In that they were not overly manufactured. You could say that there is a spiritual aspect, but I wouldn’t say I intend that. What I’m trying to present is the nature in the materials themselves. Let them do what they do well and try not to bend them to any other purpose.

The Answer is Yes will be on exhibit until Jan. 4, 2015

Nathan Solis is a Highland Park resident who writes about and photographs the L.A. music scene. You can find more of Solis’ stories, reviews and photos at Avenue Meander.

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