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Picture Poet

The sheer joy of poetry and literature as expressed in “DeLoss McGraw: As a Poem, So Is a Picture,” currently on exhibit at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art on the Pepperdine campus, makes this back-to-school season a cause for celebration.

The early fall showing of nearly 100 pieces of McGraw’s work, divided into series, each of which is devoted to a particular author, was booked nearly two years ago by the Weisman’s director. “Since the artist lives in Los Angeles, we were able to formulate the show over a long period of time,” said Michael Zakian. “We talked about ways to utilize the space in an imaginative way.”

With one’s first stride into the main gallery, imagination, innocence and whimsy nearly burst the eye. Larger than life sculptures depicting the Mad Hatter’s tea party from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” beckon the viewer into McGraw’s own world of wonder.

The paintings that accompany the works of W.D. Snodgrass, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet with whom McGraw often collaborates, go well beyond illustrations. The painter and the poet construct a balance between brush and pen that brings to mind a choral composition for two voices.

Featured here are the vibrant series “In Response to the World of W.D. Snodgrass” (1982-83); “The Death of Cock Robin” (1983-85), based upon the 18th century English nursery rhyme, “Who Killed Cock Robin;” and “W.D.’s Midnight Carnival” (1989).

While Scottsdale Center for the Arts organized the exhibit, one grouping was created this year specifically for the Weisman. A circle of 19 angels, each 8 to 10 feet high, soars overhead. In all postures of flight and repose, the figures sing praise to the celestial visions of William Blake.

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Appearing in the more intimate of the two downstairs galleries is a progression of small encaustics (1988-90) inspired by “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Powerful Depression-era commentary and a deep sense of art history are evident in “Rambling Shoe,” a series that interprets John Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” as well as the lyrics of Woody Guthrie.

The exhibit continues upstairs with “Frankenstein and Mary Shelley: Monstrum I,” a sequence of paintings that darkly parallel Bart Thurber’s contemporary poem. McGraw turns again to Blake (1757-1827) to explore spiritual, romantic and gothic themes for the series, “In Response to William Blake.” A monumental canvas entitled “Interruption” (1992), which is based upon Blake’s novel, “The Return of Martin Guerre,” dominates one wall.

The artist, who was born and raised in Oklahoma, was graduated from California State University Long Beach and received a master of fine arts degree from the Cranbook Academy in Michigan. He studied at the Otis Art Institute and at the Instituto de Allende in Mexico.

McGraw’s works are represented in the public collections of more than 20 museums, universities and major libraries across the nation and appear in many private collections. In addition, his art is published in literary journals such as the Paris Review, Ploughshares and the Southern Review and in various books and children’s stories. McGraw has shown in numerous one-person exhibitions in the U.S. and in Europe since 1974.

Perhaps it is because McGraw synthesizes a wide range of historical sources, from Giotto and late Medieval painting to Marc Chagall and Paul Klee, that the museum’s director says, “It’s the type of work that when you see it, you feel you have always known it.”

Returning students and the community alike can’t help but share Zakian’s long-ago discovery that, “The message behind DeLoss’s work is that literature fires the imagination. Reading is fun.”

“DeLoss McGraw: As a Poem, So Is a Picture,” Tuesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Oct. 4. Reception for the artist Aug. 29, 4 to 6 p.m. Children’s art workshop Sept. 19, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Poetry reading by W.D. Snodgrass Sept. 24, 7 p.m. For information, call 456-4851.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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