Obituaries

Julie Graham, artist and Museum School teacher, at 71

Ms. Graham said her “inspiration often springs from ‘the other side of the tracks’ — urban industrial areas, abandoned buildings, vernacular architecture, minimalist spaces, and clustered housing in foreign lands.’’
Jerry Russo
Ms. Graham said her “inspiration often springs from ‘the other side of the tracks’ — urban industrial areas, abandoned buildings, vernacular architecture, minimalist spaces, and clustered housing in foreign lands.’’

During annual trips to an island in Maine’s Penobscot Bay, Julie Graham would go out on the porch of the house she visited and create paintings.

“She worked on maybe eight pieces at one time. They often informed each other,” said Mags Harries, a longtime friend and artist who sculpted alongside Ms. Graham on those summer days.

“She was very intuitive in the work,” Harries added. “She would move from one to the other and build on each one. They became part of a conversation.”

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With Ms. Graham, who had lived in Cambridge and was 71 when she died of cancer on Aug. 23, her paintings could be appreciated separately or, better yet, in a gathering as they seemed to whisper secrets to each other. On her Instagram account, the paintings are a chorus of shapes and colors, one picking up where another leaves off.

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In a 1998 show in Cambridge, Ms. Graham also used “her artwork to grieve,” Globe art critic Cate McQuaid wrote.

Paintings created after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made use of “copper, cloth, stone, and straw fragments buried in layers of tar, plaster, sand, or clay” in ways that seemed “to create the earth itself, and our vain efforts to scratch some meaning out of our life into the immutable sod,” McQuaid added. “Candles appear in nearly every painting, snuffed but persistent as symbols of ritual and hope.”

For her show “Incidental Matters” at the Kingston Gallery in Boston in October, Ms. Graham told Take magazine that she sought ambiguity in her work. “I’m interested in fractions or fragments of things,” she said.

“Incidental matter refers to those things that we see or find that are not necessarily meant to be together,” she added, “but they are together by default, and uncertain or unplanned relationships.”

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Such, too, was her life, which was filled with board memberships and teaching gigs that included a painting faculty position with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, since 1991, and workshops she offered in places such as Venice, Vermont, and the Virgin Islands.

Not long before Ms. Graham died, a friend e-mailed her to express admiration for the way “you lived your life and your art. Always working through it with such clarity until it was right.”

“That rings true for me,” said Ms. Graham’s son, Jason of Los Angeles. “She was always continuing to hone her pieces. She was very, very hard on herself and her work, and nothing was ever right, until it was.”

She found inspiration for some of her paintings in the photographs she shot. “You could see it coming out in her work the coming year,” said her husband, Rikk Larsen. “It was really quite wonderful seeing how she processed it. It was a miraculous process for me.”

Ms. Graham “loved architecture and she loved surfaces and juxtapositions and crazy things together. The paintings are abstractions of some of the ideas in the photographs,” Harries said. “Also, she was a superb colorist. If you look at the paintings, they’re really juxtapositions of colors that are really quite surprising.”

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In an artist’s statement on her website, Ms. Graham said that her “inspiration often springs from ‘the other side of the tracks’ — urban industrial areas, abandoned buildings, vernacular architecture, minimalist spaces, and clustered housing in foreign lands (big boxes in some cases, shanty towns, in others).”

05juliegraham - Troubled Waters, 2017 (Courtesy of Julie Graham's family) (Courtesy of Julie Graham's family)
Graham family
Troubled Waters (2017).

She added that “such places and structures are ordinarily overlooked and hidden, but I seek them out. I’m drawn to simple forms and humble materials, upon which time, nature, and humans have made a complexity of marks. These marks are embedded in and imposed on walls that carry the history of our time.”

The older of two children, Julie Shapiro grew up in Elmira, N.Y., the daughter of Jess Shapiro and the former Rita Eisenberg, who ran hat stores in upstate New York.

Ms. Graham’s maternal grandparents were from Poland, her paternal grandparents from Germany. As the children of immigrants, her parents “never thought that being an artist was a career,” Jason said.

“But she was very strong-willed and so passionate about the arts,” he added, and in retirement, Ms. Graham’s parents both followed their daughter into the arts — her father as a potter, her mother making jewelry and belt buckles.

Ms. Graham graduated from Hood College in Frederick, Md., with a bachelor’s degree in art after spending her junior year in Paris, studying at L’Ecole du Louvre and the Sorbonne. Afterward, she went to the Central School of Art and Design in London, from which she received a master’s in fine arts.

She also married Gary Graham, an architect, with whom she had Jason. Their marriage ended in divorce.

Her work was part of group exhibitions from the 1970s onward, in venues including the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University and galleries in Boston, various suburbs, New York City, Texas, and California.

Along with teaching as part of the Museum School’s faculty, she had taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Rhode Island School of Design.

“She was a great teacher. She put me in the shade in terms of teaching,” said Harries, a Museum School colleague. “She was very engaging and just an incredibly supportive teacher, but challenging, too.”

About 20 years ago, Ms. Graham met Larsen, who also was divorced, at “one of those dinners of 50-year-olds. Both of us knew we were there to see if there was any chemistry,” he said. There was, even though she had only one son and he was the father of 10 children, some biological, some adopted.

Larsen and Ms. Graham subsequently went to dinner and a movie, and then she left to teach in Venice. “This is so long ago people wrote letters to each other,” he recalled. They did, and upon her return they became a couple and married.

“From the moment I met her to the moment I watched her die she was a soft, gentle, and dignified person,” he said.

Though painting, teaching, and commitments such as the board of the Brookline Arts Center demanded much of her time, “she was an amazing grandmother,” Jason said. “One of the rules that she made was that she could never go more than three months in a row without seeing my kids.”

In addition to her son and husband, Ms. Larsen leaves four stepsons, Tage Larsen of Chicago, Jens Larsen of Brainerd, Minn., Christian Larsen of Guatemala City, and Trygve Larsen of Kauai, Hawaii; five stepdaughters, Kari Bilik and Siri Garcia, both of Larchmont, N.Y.; Anika Larsen of New City, N.Y.; Britta Larsen of Cold Spring, N.Y.; and Nissa Larsen of East Hampton, N.Y.; three grandchildren; 16 step-grandchildren; and two great-step-grandchildren.

The family is planning a private service in October.

“I don’t like to waste paint,” Ms. Graham said in her artist’s statement, and noted that leftover material often formed the basis for something she was beginning.

“Each piece holds the histories of preceding works until it finally takes on a life, and reason, of its own,” she wrote. “The process speaks of shifts of time.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.