We couldn't believe our luck when we found local artist Bob Graham, a.k.a. the Saltwater Cowboy. His art is stunning, and well, totally on theme. You'll see some of his work at our Best Of fête, featuring everyone's favorite kind of cowboy — the kind you find at sea. We chatted with Graham to find out a little bit more about the man behind the cowboy hat.
CP: When did you start creating art?
BG: I started drawing as early as I can remember drawing. The earliest drawing I can remember is one that I gave to my aunt I think at 22 months. They took me to a fair, and I drew a picture of a clown, Jolene. The thing was way out of proportion, but looking back at it, I noticed I drew five fingers on each hand, fingernails, and eyelashes. I was looking at details and noticing the little things.
CP: When did you know that art was going to be your career?
BG: I always could draw, and I took art classes in middle school and high school. Growing up I spent 90 percent of my time playing sports. I played in college for four years, but I wasn't the biggest guy on the field. After that, I knew a career in pro sports wasn't going to be my forte. I started to think I like this art thing, and I went to Savannah College of Art and Design for graduate school. Then the time that I had spent on sports I started spending on art and drawing. I've always said, "artists aren't made they're born." Some people go back to painting at 75, and I always tell them you've always been an artist.
CP: What do you usually like to paint?
BG:I love drawing people first. Whether it's a western style or historical style or just people I meet, I love drawing people's faces. I always think that person has a story to tell, and oftentimes, their story is much more fascinating than what their facial features might say. I love to get to tell that story visually through portrait work. I love doing rodeo and action stuff too, and I love drawing ballerinas. I love the movement of the bodies, and I think that has to do with my sports background. My dad was a doctor so I grew up in and around hospitals. For a long time, a medical illustrator was the only career I really knew. I still have some of my medical illustrations. Understanding the bone structure, where the bones sit, helps with drawing people, too.
CP: Why cowboys?
BG: Guess I've always been attracted to the cowboy lifestyle ever since I was a little kid, watching the old westerns playing cowboys in the backyard with my older brother, it was just something I really related to. As I got older I just wanted to portray and capture that period in our history before it's lost. Cowboys and the Wild West are so much a part of Americana. It's part of the story of what makes us great. The cowboy code of ethics and how they live each and every day, it's so simple and no-nonsense, direct and to the point. In the end I guess I'm just trying to preserve it the best way I know how and show the beauty of it to others. For when I stand before the Man upstairs at the end of my days I hope that I would not have a lick of a single bit of talent left in me and could say I used everything you gave and blessed me, that I did the best with what cards I was dealt.
CP: What's your inspiration?
BG: I think walking down the street and never knowing, when you turn that corner, who's gonna be the next portrait. I tell people that when I see them I see the Mona Lisa. I see all that beauty, and I just want to capture it. Some people can walk by 1,000 times and never notice it.
CP: Is there anything new that you are working on now?
BG: It's funny that you ask that. I'm always telling people that if you're not failing in life, you're not setting your goals high enough or trying hard enough. I'm always trying to fail. I never have finished a painting. I've always enjoyed building things. When the hurricanes came through and the storms washed up driftwood on Sullivan's Island and Folly, I saw the natural beauty in that. At the time, I needed some new porch furniture, and I started making furniture with it. The wood is fascinating on its own, but I started creating my own signs with 1850s to 1920s advertising look. Because of that, I am painting on surfaces that I never thought I would be painting on, painting with paints I never thought I would be working with. I never know what the surface is going to feel like. With paper and canvas I know the feel of it, but each piece of wood is new.
CP: How much of an impact does living in Charleston have on your work?
BG: I was born here, but I was raised in West Columbia. When I got the chance, I moved back to Charleston, and I've been here for a quarter century. When I first came back to Charleston, there were a few galleries and few artists. I was good enough to know some, and they took me under their wing. I have seen the art community here explode. I tell people all the time that I think we rival New York and Santa Fe. Charleston is an art destination. We've got some of the greatest restaurants, but we've also got some of the greatest artists and galleries. I think also it's a historic city which is a big inspiration. It's hard to walk down the streets of Charleston, with all the history, and not be inspired.
To see Bob Graham's work locally, visit Studio 151 Fine Arts Gallery Fine Art at 175 Church St.