Inaugural Interview: Lise Graham

 "The Other Side" by Seattle painter Lise Graham

The Other Side, Lise Graham

I’ve known Lise for 3 years. We work together, which means that she has seen me arrive fully caffeinated and fully uncaffeinated, ready for the day and ready to return to bed. She takes it all in stride and always finds something for us to laugh about. She is both funny and smart, and one of my favorite people I’ve met in Seattle. She is also, as it turns out, game for jumping into the unknown, agreeing to be interviewed by a novice for a blog I am still figuring out.

Rebbecca: Where are you from originally? 

Lise: I was born in New Brunswick, Canada and my family immigrated to the Boston area for work when I was young. I grew up in and around Boston, very much aware of my Canadian background, and that connection is very important to me today because that is where much of my family lives. I really do consider Boston home, though.

Rebbecca: What brought you to Seattle and how long have you been here? Did you find it hard to meet people, when you first moved here?

Lise: I moved to Seattle to attend the MFA program at the University of Washington five years ago. Grad school provides a built-in and immediate group of acquaintances. I have not found it difficult to meet people through the common interest in the visual arts.

Rebbecca: How long have you been painting?

Lise: I don’t remember exactly how long. When I was a child, my grandmother used to do paint-by-numbers to pass the time and that amazed me. At the time, it seemed like a puzzle of shapes, and as she filled in those shapes, pictures emerged. We had a neighbor who made beautiful landscape paintings and I remember just quietly thinking I am going to do that. In high school I kept trying to get into art classes, but they’d always be full. I began taking drawing lessons from another neighbor while I continued trying to get into the high school art classes. When I finally succeeded, that was it–I’ve been painting and drawing ever since!

Rebbecca: What do you call yourself, artist or painter?

Lise: I am not overly concerned with what I call myself. Sometimes I say artist and further clarify as a painter if someone asks what my medium is, and other times I just say painter. It has taken me a long time to call myself either really. That is probably because for many years I worked as a design engineer—I considered the job creative; I had to solve problems and got to draw the solutions so that they could be manufactured. I made a nice living, but I knew that it wasn’t really me, especially after the early years when the pencil and drafting board were replaced by the computer. I really did enjoy learning the CAD drawing tools and working in 3-D, although throughout that time I found as many opportunities as possible to continue painting and drawing, both on my own and through evening classes.

Rebbecca: Why do you paint? And what does a typical day look like?

Lise: I am challenged by paint, the brush, and the surface. I am very curious to know what a painting is going to look like and love to be surprised by something I did not expect when I first began the work.

I begin a typical studio day in the morning by looking the work from the previous day. If there is nothing in the work that tells me what I want from it, I force myself to make a move, or I temporarily abandon the canvas to work on some small studies. Most often, because of my stubborn streak, I feel the challenge to make a bold move–that usually results in a “fortunate” mistake that forces me to look at everything with a fresh eye. That is often what it takes to move the work forward. It is in that back and forth process where I discover surprises in the work that make me quite happy. I paint mainly to find those unexpected moments. I eat my lunch while reading and then get back to work. (I love reading artist interviews.) I will stay until five or six, sometimes later. Not every day in the studio is productive and I often leave at the end of the day with a sense of doubt.

Three Sisters, Lise Graham

Rebbecca: What do you paint?

Lise: In my paintings I look to define a moment in time based on an experience of a particular, although not a specific, place. I am inspired by what poetry can do. There are the formal elements and the imagery that combine to create something else.

Rebbecca: Who are some of your favorite artists?

Lise: There have been so many artists that have inspired me over the years—I continue to look at Matisse, Philip Guston, Terry Winters, Susan Rothenberg, James Bishop, and Morandi. Also, I have looked a lot at Mary Heilman and Louise Bourgeois, as well as Kiki Smith, Joan Mitchell, and tons of others. When I am stuck for a solution to a problem I most often go back to Matisse, to see if he has any answers. I look at a lot of artists’ work for the courage to continue doing what I do. I look for signs of struggle and development in the work.

Rebbecca: If you weren’t an artist, what would you be doing?

Lise: If I could not be a painter I would work as an art conservator doing restoration work. I never pursued this because I was discouraged by an acquaintance who worked in a museum. She was near exhaustion and got paid really poorly. But the stories of travel with the finished works to ensure their safe arrival did sound romantic. Especially when it meant going to Italy or some other far away location.

Rebbecca: What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?

Lise: My biggest accomplishment? Well, aside from having a wonderful son—which I have to give him most of the credit for—it would have to be deciding to quit my job and go to finish my undergraduate studies in art at the age of 49. I always knew getting my art degree was something I would accomplish; I just had to find the right time to do it.

Rebbecca: What do you consider your biggest challenge?

Lise: My biggest challenge? That would be to have made it through my 20s, 30s and 40s. I am happy that all of that is behind me—I learned so much, much of it the hard way. I was a drafts person when there were hardly any women in that field; I was a design engineer in a male dominated environment. I worked my butt off! I guess that was all good training for not quitting on a bad painting day.

Rebbecca: What do you like best about Seattle?

Lise: It is funny because it took me five years to learn to love Seattle. I discounted the first two because I was in grad school. Then I realized that it wasn’t the city I thought it was. I now appreciate the fact that it is a small town in an urban environment. It is so much less intense from my east coast past. I like that someone can open a boutique store and that you are allowed to sit in a coffee shop as long as you like. The coffee of course is amazing! I also love that I can commute on my bike. That is something I always dreamt of doing.

Rebbecca: What are a 3 of your favorite Seattle places/things to do?


The downtown library—for the architecture and the view.

How sparkling the sound is on a clear day seen from one of the higher vantage points and Discovery Park.

Riding my bike along the Burke Gilman at night or early in the morning before the crowds (I love riding on a warm summer night!)

Rebbecca: Thanks Lise, for volunteering for the first interview, and for your good humor as I worked on this.

Lise: Thank you Rebbecca for including me in your blog!

Seattle painter Lise Graham as photographed by Rebbecca Tomas of Seattle Maker

Lise Graham

 For more of Lise’s work, check out her website.