Music conductor goes deaf – trades baton in for paint brush; sells some painting twice.

Traditionally when an artist does their first solo exhibit someone with talent and a background in the genre the artist has chosen writes a review.  We didn’t know anyone with art review experience so we asked Don Graves to tell us who he is and why he does what he does.  We will let the art speak for itself, it is on display at the Fireside Gallery at the Burlington Art Centre and is there until the end of the month.  There were a lot of those little red stickers on a number of the paintings – one had two little red stickers – not sure what Graves is up to with that one.

By Don Graves

BURLINGTON, ON.  February 11, 2013  So, what does a deaf singer/conductor become when he’s lost his baton? Answer: a painter of landscapes in Muskoka, Algonquin, Ottawa Valley and Gatineau with designs on Gananoque, The Rideau Canal and maybe this year a sketching trip to discover the lost, fictional village of Three Pines of Canadian mystery author, Louise Penny’s vivid imagination.

Ian Ross, Executive Director of the Burlington Art Centre joins Don Graves, on the right, at his first solo exhibit.  Graves’s work can be seen in the background.

So, how did I get from hearing loss to painter?  I’m a singer/conductor, trained at McGill’s Faculty of Music  with time spent in their wonderful English department with people like Louis Dudek and Hugh McLennan.  Met my wife, also a graduate from the Faculty of Music, and together we directed  productions in Montreal, and I free-lanced for CBC, Theatre de la Poudiere and we became smoked meat and bagel aficionados.

After moving to Toronto, I spent almost 30 years at Sheridan College, first co-founding their renowned Musical Theatre School and being a part of what has become a very successful Theatre Sheridan.

The winter scenes were done in locations in and around Burlington. Strong, bold strokes with almost a touch of rawness to them. At the Burlington Art centre until February 27th.

I kept ignoring the growing feeling that something wasn’t quite right with part of my head and finally learned that I had a steadily growing hearing loss. Pick up a phone with my left hand, hear nothing, flip it to my right and all was well. Never occurred to me that the problem might have been me…or maybe I did. In the end, a friend pointed out that there was a limited market for deaf conductors and it was time to move on.

The opportunity arose to become the Dean of Arts, a large amalgamation of theatre, film, fashion, media, visual art, crafts and animation. I took it and had a great time. Wonderful to escape the politics on a Friday afternoon in a certain craft studio whose second claim to fame with a well-stocked supply of good malt. It was also a place for many thoughts and passions to merge and age: I’d studied voice in Montreal with an English tenor who connected colour with voices. His favourite line: “what colour is a soprano in a country village church choir with a top C in the dusk with a light behind her?”  (with apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan, but understandable as he had been a principal tenor there for almost 20 years). Colour and sound became an integral part of my musical process.

This collection of four paintings includes vineyards, scenes from Algonquin Park and the Gatineau Hills in Quebec.

I left Sheridan for a five-year stint as the Dean of Art and Business…yes, you read that right…at George Brown College…which was interesting for the almost 3 years it lasted. The combination isn’t as strange as it appears. Art is very much a small, independent business in Ontario, one that combines business acumen, marketing smarts and artistic skill. A bunch of advertising students, who had been finishing near the bottom of an annual competition, learned that after working with an acting coach before they competed and came in third. The Toronto scene was complex, very different from Sheridan and included a daily GO train ride where I indulged myself in writing three  mystery novels.

The hearing loss gained company with some other health issues which resulted in early retirement in my mid 50’s, two major surgeries, a condition called chronic pain syndrome mixed with osteoarthritis and a fast trip from type A to type D with no fuel stops at B and C on the way down.

And there I sat, and even now I find it hard to say or write the word, depression. To this day I’m not sure which is worse, the physical or emotional impact. I lucked out in finding a frank and caring specialist at the Chedoke Rehabilitation Clinic, now at the Hamilton General.

Graves is not only an artist and a music director – he is also a raconteur of some renown.  He is in full emoting mode.

From there to now has been a trip blessed with a new beginning in painting: following a childhood dream of losing myself in the northern nature where I fished, picked blueberries and was casting bait for my father’s trolling. I studied with two Burlington artists, later at the Dundas Valley School of Art, joined a studio in Hamilton where I met and paint with artist, John Stirling and planned for that moment I was working toward.

In teaching and learning, I believe in the convergence of the right teacher appearing when the student is ready to receive what is on offer. My passion lies in colour, texture, French Canadian artists like the late Bruno Cote and Gordon Harrison, a Canadian landscape artist living and working in Ottawa. My goal was to be ready and that happened in June of 2012 and will again, I hope, this year. I found the final link between music and painting; the colour of voices, how my baton became my brush, how the canvas is a theatrical set that tells a story, a different story for each viewer. You find your way into a painting as you do a story. And like a theatrical production where you sit down and have your inner space moved, I want my paintings to do the same.

I have two shows on the go, one in Burlington and one in Toronto. And while it’s good to sell my work, it’s quite something else to meet people and watch them looking at my work and wonder how the story is unfolding for them. (Graves has also taken part in the Art in Action Studio Tour)

No artist works entirely alone. My wife, family, fellow artists and friends have become a team I rely upon. And in my spare time I read mysteries and write book reviews.



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1 comment to Music conductor goes deaf – trades baton in for paint brush; sells some painting twice.

  • Ask and ye shall be answered. Why are there 2 red dots on one painting?

    Osteo-arthritis…that’s why. red dots are tiny and my fingers don’t rise to doing tiny red dots.