More than a Painter
Early Artist Carl Graf

by Joanne Nesbit

“I heard about Brown County when I was in the east ten years ago,” said Carl Graf, Indiana Artist, at his studio in the Union Trust building [in Indianapolis]. “The Brown county movement is one of the biggest things in art circles in the middle west. There is no such group of artists from New York to New Mexico.

“For the last six years I have been spending my summers down there, and in all my rambling around over the states I have found none like Indiana, and no spot like Brown county with its infinite variety of scenery and plant life.”

This is how Carl C.Graf still felt about Brown County when he wrote an article about himself and his career as an artist for the Brown County Democrat.

Interested in art since childhood when his mother drew pictures to entertain her youngsters, Graf first thought of becoming an artist when in the eighth grade. The teaching of art had just been introduced into the public schools. After a public education, Graf took a job with his hometown newspaper in Bedford, Indiana where his boss noticed his ability to sketch. The suggestion was made that Graf become a cartoonist. With that in mind, the young man headed towards Indianapolis and classes at the John Herron Art Institute.

“But the general education I got there in art made me lose sight of my ambition to draw caricatures, Graf told the Brown County Democrat. I studied portrait painting, but later confined myself to landscape work. Oh, of course, I break over into other subjects, but landscape makes the strongest appeal.”

And so Carl Graf became known as one of Brown County’s finest landscape painters, often featuring one of Indiana’s native trees in his work, feeling that the sycamore ran a close second to the beech in popularity. “For me the sycamore has a little more grace of line and a more prominent color,” he told the Democrat. “Then the bark offers opportunity for the painting of lights and contrasts.”

Graf, who lived only 55 years, died in January 1947. He became famous for his works that captured the intricate realism and natural beauty of Southern Indiana scenery. He worked in the county for about 28 years. During his summer residences here, he helped design and build the Brown County Art Gallery.

But, there was more to Graf’s artistic talents than painting Indiana landscapes. He was also a sculptor. His talents in this genre led to a commission in 1936 for a memorial in Illinois. Seems an Indianapolis architect was on the hunt for a sculptor to do some figure work for the Mother Jones Memorial to be located in the miners’ cemetery at Litchfield, IL near St. Louis. The work was erected by the Progressive Miners of America and dedicated to Mother Jones for her active work among the miners.

Mother Jones became known as “the greatest woman agitator of our times.” She was denounced in the U.S. Senate as the grandmother of all agitators. Mother Jones was proud of that title and said she hoped to live to be the great grandmother of agitators. Jones became involved in the struggles of coal miners and became an organizer for the United Mine Workers, attending her first UMWA convention in January 1901. She had been on the union payroll for the past year. Her earlier work in miners’ strikes and organizing had been as a volunteer, not as an employee.

Graf’s design for the memorial won out over other entries. He planned a series of steps mounted by a large pink granite shaft with two life-size figures, a miner and a laborer, standing on each side of the shaft. On the thirteen-foot high shaft was to be a bas-relief of Mother Jones.

“The figures of the miner and laborer are realistic in their attempt to represent characteristic men of the trade in their working clothes with pick and hammer,” the Brown County Democrat reported. “They stand five feet nine inches on their base in action of ‘at rest,’ looking into the future.”

Graf’s contract for the sculpture called for working models to be ready for approval within three weeks. The completed plaster casts were to be ready for the bronze casters within 90 days. Graf used nondrying modeling clay for the figures. The plaster casts alone weighed about 125 pounds each. The bronze casting was done in New York.

During his career, Graf did a lot of ornamental subjects in plaster, supplying column caps, etc., for various buildings. He also did portrait heads, plaques and figures that were exhibited at the Herron Art Institute. He also did a large plaque in tile that was placed above the entrance of the original Nashville High School’s gymnasium.

Graf’s landscapes won many prizes, counting among them the Hoosier Art Salon. He also helped decorate the City Hospital (General Hospital) in Indianapolis, and restored and cleaned the collection of Steele paintings at the Steele memorial near Belmont in Brown County.