Dorothy Graden creates contemporary art inspired by petroglyphs and pictographs found on rocks by the early artists of North America. With gratefulness and respect she interprets this ancient art form, working intuitively to bring awareness into the minds of people of today so that our cultural history can be noticed, appreciated and respected.
When was the first time that you remember realizing that you are a creative person?
When I was a child growing up in Gary, IN I walked up and down the city alleys collecting discarded boards. I would bring them home and paint on them. My older brother, Bob, loved my paintings and would purchase them for a dollar each! He still collects my prints and tacks them on the walls of his office.
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I often won art contests in town, and the teachers in my school had me design their bulletin boards. At the time I didn’t know about being a creative person, I just loved creating.
Where do you find your inspiration for your designs?
Two of my favorite artists are Paul Klee and Joan Miro. I have always loved their simple yet complex work.
I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time hiking in the American west and began to see rock art: petroglyphs (pecked or carved images) and pictographs (painted images) on the rock walls that reminded me of Klee and Miro. Many of these images were created by prehistoric artists, and some date back to 12,000 years ago!
I thought, “Why have I not heard of these? Why don’t they teach about this in schools? This is the history of North America!” It’s difficult to interpret such art due to cultural and world view differences but some appear to represent births, deaths, war, maps, hunting, spiritual beliefs, shamanic art, vision quests, astronomy, celebrations and much more.
The styles of the art are different depending on the time period, the culture and the geographical area. For example, the rock art in Texas, Utah, Montana, Colorado, and New Mexico are all different from each other. The mystery of it all truly intrigues me.
Is there an overarching theme that connects all of your work?
So, I guess you could say that the overall theme of my work is inspired by early artists of North America. I want to bring this ancient art into present awareness and into the minds of people of today so it can be noticed, appreciated and respected.
We have kept this part of our history hidden for too long.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I am a big fan of Japanese woodblock prints, so the style of my art is inspired by them.
I love India ink and use it in many of my paintings. I am also a SCUBA diver, so there are often hidden sea elements – my personal experiences and adventures flow through my art.
What motivates you artistically?
I travel with a good friend who is a Hopi Elder. When we are approaching a site we become quiet and we do a small ritual of gratefulness and respect before we enter. Sometimes we stay at a site for a few hours, just sitting and meditating.
When I am in my studio I enter into that mental and spiritual space while I am painting.
What different creative media do you use in your work?
My work keeps evolving.
For a few years I was making big sheets of paper from cotton rag and pigmenting them in the paper studio.
Lately, my Hopi friend (and hiking buddy) who loves my work started gifting me with sand from the Hopi reservation in Arizona so I have been incorporating it into acrylic paintings on paper. The sand takes on a life of its own and tells me what to do with the paint and images.
Sometimes I photograph the rocks, print them on paper and create a painting. I also make small clay sculptures of rocks and I’m planning on experimenting with molding paste to create a 3D rock texture on paper.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I am definitely an improviser!
I usually start out with a grand idea and constantly change it as I paint. I change images, add images, change colors. A few times I actually put the paper in a tub and scrubbed off the painting!
After every painting session I set aside about 45 minutes to just sit and look at the painting and take notes in my journal on what should be added or changed the next day.
When is your most productive creative time?
I begin painting every day around noon and paint until 4:00. My studio is in my house and it’s way too small! There are books and toys everywhere and my computer is full of photos I’ve taken in the field.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
It usually takes me about 40- 50 hours for me to complete a painting. I work on only one painting at a time.
All that I see, hear and feel when I am in the canyons and desert mountains immerses me into a sacred space and I hold that space until the painting is finished. I just know when a painting is done because every painting tells a story.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
I usually begin with developing a color palette and that helps me decide the images I will use, as well as the overall color theme. Then I work on creating the structure and composition.
Sometimes I hit a wall about then so I go back to my journal and add notes about the story I want to tell. That usually moves me forward to adding more colors and details. I usually leave something for the next day so I can then immediately return to the story.
Which part of the design process is your favorite?
I love coming up with the story and the message I will send out into the world.
There is so much information in each painting and often viewers have a totally different interpretation and I think that is great. Everyone interprets the paintings through their own minds, subconscious, beliefs and experiences .
Tell us about a time when you truly stretched yourself as an artist.
A while back I was doing ink drawings of small images on paper. A friend of mine liked them and told me to “go large”!
I was totally intimidated but accepted the challenge. Surprisingly, two of them were accepted into juried exhibitions! After that I was so energized that I moved on to more challenges and have continued to try new art endeavors
Where can people see your work?
If you live in the Chicago area, you can see my art in galleries, coffee shops, art centers, and museums. Just check out my website for current exhibitions .
Interview posted August 2023
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