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clare graham: artist and recycling guru

Sometimes I love an artist so much that I want to keep them just for myself, but alas, I have kept the genius of Clare Graham a secret for far too long. Graham has been a recycling champion for years and years, in fact it is the basis of all his artwork, sculpture and furniture. Each piece he makes is based on a 'collection' of items be they buttons, bottlecaps, puzzle pieces, game pieces, paint by number art, yard sticks or swizzle sticks.

Graham’s began his compulsive collecting and tinkering during his childhood in Atikokan, Ontario, a town of 2,300 people. Growing up in a working-class family with limited means and four siblings, he had to make the best of hand-me-downs and whatever raw material he could find. “Those kinds of circumstances make you frugal,” he explains.

In the mid 1960s, Graham attended Long Beach State University. A part-time job at Disneyland in 1968 turned into a 25 year career there, by the time he left Disney in 1993, Graham oversaw a staff of a hundred as a senior art director for Disney’s global network of theme parks. This can begin to explain why his work is so dazzling.

Clare Graham’s work could be categorized as outsider art, but his wild conglomerations of bottle caps and buttons show an obsessive drive for perfection, his collecting of the materials being the most difficult portion of the process.  Graham scours swap meets, flea markets, garage sales and thrift stores for the massive quantities of material he utilizes. Just one of his organic, free form chandeliers (my favorites) includes 25,000 buttons, arranged by color and size. He estimates he has recycled close to three and a half million buttons for his sculptures. He works a bit of magic transforming cast off materials of of scant value into usable, functional pieces.

Because his work is enormous in scale —he works out of a warehouse in Highland Park California that was built in 1933 as a Safeway supermarket, the space serves as a gigantic gallery not only for Graham’s work but for the wide-ranging collections of art, decorative objects, anatomical figures, animal bones and other curiosities that he and his partner, Bob Breen, have amassed over many years. In addition, Graham and Breen have set aside 1,200 square feet for the Mor York Gallery, an exhibition space dedicated to presenting the work of other local artists. They host open-houses each second Saturday night of the month where one can witness the spectacle of his amazing creations.

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