Terry Graff is a multi-media visual artist who is best known for his evocative images of mutant duck and bird machines or avian cyborgs, a distinctive vision in Canadian art that speaks to the conflicted relationship between nature and technology and to daringly dark existential themes, such as ecological collapse, a deadly pandemic, and the grim horrors of war. Comprising a blend of sci-fi fantasy, black humour, and apocalyptic angst, his mixed-media drawings, paintings, collages, assemblages, sculptures, kinetic works, and multi-media installations have been presented regionally, nationally, and internationally to both critical and popular acclaim.
Graff was born on November 12, 1954, in Cambridge (formerly known as Galt), Ontario, Canada. Recognizing his passion for art at a very young age (his kindergarten report card described him as “extremely imaginative” and his artwork as “outstanding”), and in response to his precocious adeptness for drawing, his parents enrolled him in formal adult art classes at the local YWCA and in oil painting classes at the Doon School of Fine Arts. His consistently creative and prodigious artmaking throughout childhood and adolescence, which included making a series of experimental 8mm films, won him several awards and commissions beginning at the age of six, and evolved into a lifetime devoted to the visual arts.
At age eighteen, Graff enrolled in the three-year Fine Art program at Fanshawe College of Applied Arts and Technology in London, Ontario. Instructors Don Bonham, Mick Durham, Ben Linssen, and Stephen Joy, along with immersion in London’s dynamic art scene and field trips to New York City, introduced Graff to new ideas, materials, and methods of making art. While still a student, he started showing his work professionally in group exhibitions, and was singled out in a review in the London Free Press: “Of particular interest are the works of Terry Graff. His canvases, particularly the piano paintings, show a fine understanding of the medium in an intellectual exploration of the relationship between art and music.” Further, artist Eric Atkinson, the Dean and founder of the Fanshawe program, commented: “Terry Graff has a natural instinct for the manipulation of paint and very sophisticated use of calligraphy. He is the calibre of student I like to support.”
Graff went on to study painting at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht under the tutelage of the expressionist painter Pieter Defesche, one of the Amsterdam Limburgers and a close colleague of Cobra artists Karel Appel and Corneille. With his wife Kim Leaver Graff, with whom he eloped in 1976, he travelled throughout Europe, visiting art museums and galleries. He described the experience as “awe-inspiring, one that greatly deepened my understanding and appreciation of the history of art and fuelled my love of museums.”
When the couple returned to Canada, Graff continued his education, earning a B.A. in Fine Art from the University of Guelph, and a B.Ed. in Visual Arts from the University of Western Ontario. He also took advanced courses in art history, philosophy of art, media arts, and art education at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, before he and Kim moved to the Maritimes with their two sons Darius and Thalion. In addition to a postgraduate diploma in Fine Art (M.F.A. equivalent) from the Jan Van Eyck Academie, Graff also completed a M.A. in Art Education from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
For Graff, art has always been synonymous with education. His work has been shaped as much by his extensive formal education as by experiential learning working with industrial materials in several factories and with car parts at General Motors. His pursuit of employment opportunities, which included as an art teacher and gallery worker, meant moving his family to residences in Ontario (from Cambridge to Bright to Woodstock to Windsor), and further afield to New Brunswick (Sackville) and Prince Edward Island (Mermaid), then back to Ontario (Ridgeway) followed by Saskatchewan (Saskatoon) and New Brunswick (Island View). Living in these different places contributed to the development of his work, to an amassing and synthesis of an eclectic accumulation of experiences and knowledge that found ideal expression in the form of assemblage art and junk sculpture, not only of bird-machines, but of “robo-fish” and funky wildlife lamps.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Graff fluctuated between creating purely abstract process-based “matter paintings” and his signature duck-machine works. Although both directions had to do with transformation and materiality, the duck works eventually won out, offering greater visual, narrative, and conceptional possibilities that connected with the artist’s childhood and his interest in birds and topical environmental, social, and political issues. Childhood experiences, memorabilia, and the numerous drawings from his youth that his mother saved have had a profound influence on the development of his work throughout his career.
During his Sackville years in the late 1980s, Graff was drawn to the wetland environment of the Tantramar Marshes and the newly created Sackville Waterfowl Park for inspiration and developed his concepts around a perceived analogy between art and ecology. He produced many of his duck works at this time and explored how abstract a decoy could be before its powers to deceive broke down; that is, before it would no longer be read as the real thing in nature. His popular Sitting Ducks exhibition in 1987 featured not only many of his decoys and assemblages, but four live ducks and a selection of duck drawings by both him and his two sons. In Sackville, he created his extensive series of Eco-Deco works that culminated with The Great Canadian Landscape, 1988, the large-scale, two-person touring exhibition Élan Vitale : The Comedy of David Bobier and Terry Graff curated by Ted Fraser, and the major commissioned installation Cosmic Sea, 1990 at Purdy’s Wharf in Halifax.
Graff’s immersive mechanical marsh installations (Tantra Mantra, 1990 and Ecotopia: Season of Return, 1993), and autoethnographic writings, such as “Art-in-Place: Bioregionalism, Art and Ecology” (Parallelogramme Vol. 16 No. 5, Summer 1991), have been lauded for their sociocultural commentary, and as a conduit for issue-based education and the advancement of thought-provoking ideas about bioregionalism, the culture of nature, and environmental issues. The American art critic Suzi Gablik praised his 1991 thesis Ecological Vision: A New Model for Art Education with these words: “Your writing is just beautiful! After reading your deeply thoughtful essays, I need hardly tell you how relevant and timely your thinking is,” a sentiment echoed by numerous followers of Graff’s art and writings over the years.
Along with an extensive history of exhibitions and accomplishments as a visual artist, Graff has had a distinguished career as an art educator, art writer, curator, and gallery director. He has served as executive director of four public art galleries in four different provinces of Canada: the Beaverbrook Art Gallery (NB), the Mendel Art Gallery (SK), Rodman Hall Arts Centre (ON), and Confederation Centre Art Gallery (PEI), as well as of the artist-run Struts Gallery in Sackville (NB). He has curated over 200 exhibitions and authored numerous articles, catalogues, and books on both contemporary and historical art. Along with serving as Education Curator for the Art Gallery of Windsor, he taught visual arts as a high school art teacher in Ontario (Hagersville Secondary School) and New Brunswick (Riverview High School) and developed a special program for gifted children designed to encourage and expand their creative thinking. In addition, he has been an advisor for several postgraduate art students, and taught drawing and sculpture at Mount Allison University and Contemporary Management in Arts and Culture for the University of New Brunswick.
Graff credits his experience working at the Art Gallery of Windsor with its then director Ken Saltmarche and curator Ted Fraser with igniting his early interest in gallery work, specifically in building collections and curating exhibitions. Over the years, he has implemented many innovative strategic plans and programs, and navigated through several massive renovation and expansion projects. He has worked with and written about a diverse range of artists (Armand Vaillancourt, David Askevold, Brian Burke, Yvon Gallant, Luc Charette, Shirley Bear, Jane Ash Poitras, Eric Atkinson, Herzl Kashetsky, William Cyopik, Marie Hélène Allain, Catherine Hale, Tom Benner, and numerous others), curated the colossal retrospective exhibition Don Bonham RCA: Stranger in a Familiar Land, and produced several major exhibitions and publications that examine both contemporary and historical themes in Canadian art.
In New Brunswick, he curated an extensive series of exhibitions, such as Off the Grid: Abstract Painting in New Brunswick; Hot Pop Soup: Neo-Pop Trends in Contemporary New Brunswick Art; Ekpahak (Where the Tide Ends) with Alan Syliboy; and Wolastoq (Beautiful River): The St. John River Project, that examined the various forces that have shaped the province’s art and culture. Along with founding the magazine Billie: Undercurrents in Atlantic Canadian Art, which won Best of Region in the category of Editorial in the sixth annual Canadian Regional Design Awards (The Redgees), he authored Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery (Goose Lane Editions), which was published in conjunction with the monumental international touring exhibition of the same name and shortlisted for a Best Atlantic Published Book Award and a Canadian Regional Design Award.
A tireless advocate for the importance of art in people’s lives and as an essential ingredient for the health and well-being of communities, Graff has provided public service in the arts as a volunteer, a consultant, a mentor, and an arts juror at local, regional, and national levels. He has supported countless artists in a variety of capacities, and has served on numerous cultural committees across Canada, including the Acquisitions Committee for the Samuel E. Weir Foundation, RiverBrink, Queenston; the Culture Committee for the City of St. Catharines; the St. Catharines Art Collection Committee; the Advisory Committee for Graphic Arts Program at Niagara College, Welland; and the Cultural Advisory Committee for the City of Fredericton. In addition, he has served as a board member of the artist-run Struts Gallery and Gallery Connexion, and was chair of the board for ArtsAtlantic magazine, the Friends of the Mi’kmaq, and the Museums Association of Saskatchewan.
Graff has been the recipient of major commissions, grants, and awards for his art, which can be found in many public and private collections, including the Canada Council Art Bank, the Province of New Brunswick Art Bank, the City of Cambridge, Galerie d’art Louise-et-Reuben-Cohen, and the Crown Collection of the Official Residences of Canada (The Canadiana Fund). In recognition of his cultural contributions across Canada, he has received many prestigious honours, including the Fanshawe College Distinguished Alumni Award; the Commemorative Medal for the Centennial of Saskatchewan (Official Honour of the Crown recognizing individuals who have made a significant contribution to the Province of Saskatchewan); the Christina Sabat Award for Art Criticism in Atlantic Canada, sponsored by the Sheila Hugh MacKay Foundation; and two eagle feathers from the Mi’kmaq First Nation for his work in promoting the art of First Nations artists.
Graff currently lives and works in Island View, New Brunswick, with his wife Kim and their Siamese cats. He maintains an active studio practice as a full-time visual artist and is a member of the Remix Collective, a creative group of contemporary artists from different parts of Canada who make sophisticated, socially conscious art outside the mainstream.