artist interview: travis graves

APPALACHIAN ARTIST CRUSH is a series of interviews with artists from around the East Tennessee region, whose work I admire and who I want to share with the world.

Travis Graves is an Associate Professor of art at East Tennessee State University, a full-time faculty member in Department of Art and Design. An interdisciplinary artist, he works in a wide variety of media, including (but not limited to), video, installation, music, and sculpture. His sculptural works explore the intersection of rugged natural materials and the human form, as well as unexpected spatial relationships between them.

the artist at work

Tell us about your creative beginnings. What was your earliest experience of artmaking, and what drew you in? Was creativity encouraged in your early years?

Paper Bag #4, (c) Travis Graves

I was born in 1973 and spent most of my childhood like others of my pre-computer/technology generation. Which is to say I spent a lot of time outside exploring my surrounding and imagination. I can’t say I really started responding to creative impulses until my teen years, when I became involved with skateboarding and punk rock. I was so into albums, music and skateboard graphics, that I began recreating album covers I loved and making paper stencils for t-shirts, etc. My bedroom wall became covered in drawings and posters. I also started playing in punk bands, which was a very immediate and gratifyingly creative outlet.

I guess I also had an interested in taking things apart to see what was inside of them and how they worked (old phones, alarm clocks, stuff in my Dad’s garage, etc.).

My parents didn’t necessarily encourage my creatively, but they didn’t discourage it either. They didn’t try to mold me into anything other than a good person and citizen. They let the band practice in the basement and let me do what I wanted with my bedroom. They rarely tried to get in the way, which certainly made a difference.

Tell us about your creative process--what makes it unique? How do you create your best work? What do you love most about your process?

Exposed, (c) Travis Graves

Much of my adult artwork has been sculptural in nature. I truly enjoy the gratification that comes with solving a problem as it relates to figuring out how to realize an ambitious artistic idea or artwork. I think my best artwork comes from conversations with others and thinking of the big ideas. If it is a good idea, I try to figure out how to realize it. Much of my inspiration comes from nature and how we as humans fit or do not fit into it.

What has been a habit or focus you've had that's integral to your art practice?

Painters paint, their medium comes first. This is not my approach. I feel that my best approach to artmaking is to let the idea dictate the medium used to created it; rather that the medium dictating the idea. My art practice has included everything from drawing and painting, to cast bronze and video.

Tell me about a hurdle you've had to overcome in your artmaking or art career.

I think many creative people, like visual artists, musicians, authors, etc., can at times suffer from a lack of self-confidence and motivation. One of my biggest hurtles was to take myself and artwork seriously. I realized in graduate school that if I wasn’t invested in my own artwork and didn’t care enough about it, then no one else was going to either. I came to realize that I needed to make my artwork for myself first. And if I thought it was worth doing, then it would have something of value to offer others.

I have also come to understand in myself that my creative desires do not always have to be expressed as visual art. All art is relevant, and I have in the last several years been writing, playing and recording music in my home. Every artist can slip into ruts of predictability, and rehashed ideas for their artwork. Oddly I have found that playing and composing music has expanded my willingness to explore fresh ideas and approaches in my art studio practice.

What is your educational background, and how does it influence your creative work, if at all?

Stacked, (c) Travis Graves

I have a BFA in studio art from Iowa State University, which provided a very firm foundation in an appreciation and use of many medium approaches to drawing, painting and printmaking. I received my MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I didn’t make or explore sculpture until graduate school. That of course had a profound influence on me considering that sculpture is one of my main approach to artmaking. Graduate school forced me to think of my work with more ambition, and come to terms with how to go about realize those larger, more complicated projects and ideas.

What are you most excited about in your creative landscape in the moment?

As an artist in academia, I have the luxury of pursuing whatever crazy idea presents itself. This allows for the time and support needed to go after those bigger ideas, like large installations or big sculptures. I am currently in the process of learning more about and exploring mold-making and casting on a large scale.

Share your favorite local hangout & or another hidden gem.

One of my favorite local hangouts are the local mountains and forests! Not much can beat a day out in the woods.

You can see more of Travis' work at

. . .

See all the Appalachian artist interviews here.