Profile: Lonnie Graham (1954-)

Lonnie Graham is a fine art photographer, professor, installation artist, and cultural activist investigating the methods by which the arts can be used to achieve tangible meaning in peoples lives. In January 2013, Graham spoke at the TEDxPSU symposium. 

Early studies

Lonnie Graham is a Professor of Visual Art at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, near State College, Pennsylvania. He studied graphic design and commercial photography at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1976 he studied fine art photography and drawing at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Nova Scotia where he attended private sessions with photographer Robert Frank and critiques by art critic Donald Kuspit. In 1977 he traveled to the San Francisco Art Institute and studied with Linda Connor, Jack Fulton, Regan Louie, and Henry Wessel. He was assistant to Larry Sultan and pioneering visual anthropologist John Collier Jr. Graham was mentored in large format photography by Pirkle Jones, close friend and colleague to Ansel Adams who made frequent visits to the Art Institute.

Later career

From 1990 to 1997 Graham was director of Photography at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an urban arts organization founded by William Strickland, Jr. dedicated to arts and education for at-risk youth. Graham developed innovative pilot projects including the Arts Collaborative, which merged an art and academic curriculum. This program attracted the attention of First Lady Hillary Clinton who visited the site and honored it as a National Model for Arts Education. Professor Graham has served as a panel member and site visitor to the Commonwealth for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. He also served in a similar capacity at the national level for National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, DC.

From 2001 until 2003 he held the post of visiting instructor of graduate studies at San Francisco Art Institute, in San Francisco, California. In 2002, Kimberley Camp, Executive Director of the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania invited Graham to conduct an oral history of the Barnes. He was later made instructor of special programs and continued to teach at the Barnes until 2007. From 2007 until 2009 Graham was the acting associate director of the Fabric Workshop and Museum.

Influence of Graham: One former student, Jeremy Dennis, is a Native American artist who currently engages with issues of diversity and inclusion. He works on his native land in New York, where he explores ideas of myth and mythology. Dennis uses his art as a platform to raise awareness among members of the public about the social disruptiveness of their actions, and to urge people to interact with other cultures in respectful ways. Another former graduate student, Brian Gaither, has embraced some of Graham’s teachings by returning to his hometown of Pittsburgh, where he continues to use art to connect constituents within his community, and focuses on issues surrounding race. And, after working with Graham in his “Art and Social Activism” class, another student, Corrina Mehiel, went on to become the director of a Harrisburg nonprofit; to teach in Cincinnati; to work as a community organizer in India; and, before her untimely death in March 2017, to work with artist Mel Chin to address issues of lead-free drinking water in elementary schools.

African and Asian trips

Beginning in 2003 Graham began collaborative photographic expeditions to India, Ethiopia, and Iceland with photographer Linda Connor. He traveled with Jack Fulton to India, Nepal and Tibet in 2007.

Graham initiated a number of funded and self-funded trips to Africa and Asia that relate to artistic and cultural work he had undertaken in Philadelphia with the Fairmount Park Art Association and in Pittsburgh with the support of the Three Rivers Arts Festival. These projects were meant to prove that substantive change could be achieved in people’s lives by making the arts a viable solution to common problems.

Toward this end, Graham was awarded a number of major commissions. In 1997, Jeanne Pearlman at the Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, commissioned the “African/American Garden Project.” This was part of a larger series of an exhibition called “Points of Entry” which included installations from artists, Ann Carlson, Group Material, Michelle Illuminato, Daniel J. Martinez, and Fred Wilson.

The African/American Garden project provided a physical and cultural exchange of urban single mothers from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and farmers from a small farming village in Muguga, Kenya. As a result of this project, Graham built a series of urban subsistence gardens as a component of other projects.

In 2001, Mary Jane Jacob invited Graham to participate in the Spoleto Arts Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. She and Tumelo Mosaka curated “Evoking History,” which included Graham’s “Heritage Garden Project.” Because Graham had visited traditional cultures in Africa and Asia he constructed larger projects including a number of artists and community members. The goal was to establish a method for modern artists to work in a traditional way, addressing the basic needs of a community.

From 2000 to 2010 Graham worked in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with artists John H. Stone and Art Sanctuary director Lorene Cary on a project commissioned by the Fairmount Park Art Association, for Project H.O.M.E. in north Philadelphia. In addition to installations, projects, and neighborhood events, the result of the commission was a mediation park, which was dedicated and gifted to the community in 2010.

In 1997 Lonnie was honored with a major commission for travel to Papua New Guinea to document the harvest of the Woowoosi tree used by the Maisen tribe to produce ceremonial tapa cloth. He later collaborated with curator Lawrence Rinder on an exhibition of photographs and artifacts produced from that expedition.

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