The Makers: B.D. Graft
Introducing The Makers: our weekly interview series with artists in and around the Milk community. Find out who’s making what, why it matters, and what’s next. First up? Amsterdam-based fine artist B.D. Graft.
Hailing from Cologne, Germany, B.D. Graft is an independent artist living and working out of Amsterdam. Alongside a new puppy called Homer (Graft is a huge Simpsons fan), he creates work that acts as a tangible reflection of his good energy and positivity. From Virgil Abloh DM-ing him to collaborate to Instagrammers getting his sketches tattooed, his art inspires people across the globe. “It’s so rewarding to see that other people enjoy [my work] and that the positivity that I feel while I’m making [it] can have an impact on the observer as well,” says Graft. What started out as collage-making in 2013 has since evolved into painting and pastel work; although his process and mediums have evolved over time, his style and voice have remained constant. When you see Graft’s work you know it.
What are you doing right now? How did you start your day?
Usually, I’ll start the day at home just drinking coffee and answering my emails. My girlfriend and I got a dog a few months ago, so I’ll take him on a walk. He’s still a puppy and it’s quite a lot of work, but it’s very nice. It keeps you active, makes you have to go outside in the morning, go for a walk in the park, and that’s also good to get the creative juices flowing a bit. And then after this conversation, I’m going to head to my studio and start working there.
Cool. Is your studio far from your flat?
No, it’s a five-minute bike ride, so that’s quite nice as well. I recently rented out a new space. Before that, I was in the city center of Amsterdam, and now I’m a bit more to the east, a bit closer to where I live. It’s a private space for myself, so I’m very happy with that.
And so in regards to your personal practice as an artist, when we were trying to schedule this interview, I found it super interesting and important that you don’t work over the weekend. What was your reasoning for that?
Because I work for myself, I find it very hard to just take some time off, you know? Just to give my brain some time to stop thinking about work, stop thinking about all the projects I’m doing, take some time for my girlfriend and my family and my friends. I’m the kind of person who thinks about art and work constantly, and I find myself checking my emails in the middle of the night when I wake up. It gets to the point where I quickly have to do this, and quickly do this. And then I basically just find myself always busy with work. This is just a way of limiting myself; making me take some conscious time off to really enjoy life, apart from work. Of course, my work is my passion, but I also need to focus on other things as well.
You do have to keep challenging yourself and work on projects that stay interesting.
When you’re an artist, your work does kind of bleed into your life, and vice versa – when it also becomes a job, how do you keep it expressive and enjoyable?
You do have to keep challenging yourself and work on projects that stay interesting. I don’t like doing the same stuff over and over. I try and take commissions that I haven’t done before, that challenge my way of thinking, that challenge my way of working a bit; maybe I have to use different materials or work on different subject matter. I just try to keep things fun and varied. For a long time, when I started doing art full time, I just took on any job I could find because, of course, it’s quite hard to start making a living as an artist. But now, luckily, I’m in a bit of a luxury position where I can turn down commissions that don’t really resonate with me, and my style, and my taste.
So you studied film and Literature. What media are you consuming?
To be honest, I don’t really have much time to read anymore, which is a shame. I try to read books about art because I’m trying to try to know more. I didn’t study art, and sometimes I feel like I’m a bit of an imposter. I’m a bit scared that people will ask me questions about art and I won’t be able to answer. I mean, of course, it’s not that important, because I’m doing my own thing, but it also just interests me. I’m currently reading a book called “What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye” by Will Gompertz. It basically summarizes the last 150 years of modern art, it does so in quite a funny, entertaining, engaging way.
The “imposter syndrome” resonates with a lot of people – if you look at the definition of an artist it’s someone “who creates drawings or paintings as a profession or hobby” but as a society, we’ve layered on so many other checkpoints and hurdles you feel like you need to surpass in order to reach this level.
Yeah, it’s funny; I’ve only just become comfortable with actually saying I am an artist by profession. It took me a while to say, “Yeah, I make art for a living.” Before, it was always what I studied, and whatever else I did, because I did some writing as well, but now I’m getting really comfortable with saying I’m an artist.
Congratulations, that’s an obstacle that a lot of people are not able to get over.
Yeah – thanks. I don’t take it for granted, I’m really surprised, myself, that it went this smoothly, and that I’m able to do this. I think it’s also thanks to Instagram, and the way stuff works online nowadays. You can just do your own thing, and let the world see it, and commission you to do work. It’s all so connected and easy if you have the right network set up.
I was looking at Instagram and I saw that someone got your work tattooed on them. It looks so good.
It’s all these things that are kind of crazy. I would have never imagined stuff like this happening a few years back. Musicians that I admire, they suddenly write to me, and they want to work together. All of this amazing stuff is starting to happen.
How does it feel that you have the ability to impact people so far away, and maybe initially just from an Instagram post?
It’s amazing. It’s so great because I enjoy making art so much. It’s so rewarding to see that other people enjoy it and that the positivity that I feel while I’m making the work can have an impact on the observer as well.
What are your favorite materials to work with? If someone gave you unlimited funds what would you buy?
I’m very much into oil pastels, and acrylic paint, charcoal as well; when you use that on a rough surface, this grainy paper I use – it’s just great to work with. I like texture, so when I use acrylic paint I make sure I apply it on paper really thick so that you can still see the brush strokes. Then I let it dry, and then I can cut it out, and work with that for my collages. When I started out making art, I basically only used imagery from books that I would cut out and remix in my own way. Since then, I’ve really moved onto using my own materials and my own paint. Apart from my, “Add Yellow” project, I hardly ever source other people’s materials anymore.
What do you take when you’re on the go? Say that you’re going on vacation or if you’re walking with your dog?
I used to have a little notebook and pencil that I carried around with me. Nowadays, I’m very digital on-the-go, which I never thought I would be. I actually have an iPad now, with an apple pencil. The final artwork is always handmade, but it’s really good to gather ideas; you have all these paints and pencils, and everything you need to visualize an idea. It doesn’t sound as romantic as a notebook, but it gets the job done.
It’s really interesting the way that technology and art intersect. I read that you have an original Daniel Johnston hanging in your flat – if you could own any piece of artwork, besides this, what would it be?
We recently moved into a new flat and that piece is not hanging yet, but I’ve got to get it hanging soon! He’s a fascinating character.
This is a hard question, maybe “Memory of Oceania” by Matisse or “Women Singing II 1996” by Willem de Kooning. de Kooning has these abstract women; he made these very abstract oil paintings often on paper, of these quite scary looking women, actually.
What is your proudest moment as an artist so far?
Last year, I got a private message from Virgil Abloh. He wanted to commission me to make some designs for Off-White, and we kind of started chatting on Whatsapp and discussed these ideas. There’ll be some T-shirts released in a few months. Being personally approached by him was a really big moment for me. At first, I didn’t believe it. I was like this, “This can’t be him.” He messaged me on Instagram, and then he just ended up giving me his phone number. He’s a super down-to-Earth guy.
What was the first thing that you sold?
The first thing that I sold, it was a plant; an abstract flower collage. I used the clothing and the limbs, the arms and legs from paintings in books, and I placed it over a photo of flowers. This was quite an old work of mine, I think from 2014 or something. I sold that to someone in London. That was when I started thinking that it was actually possible to sell my art; it opened new doors. That was the beginning of me trying to work towards being able to live from art.
It’s really nice because at the time I had an office job. I was writing articles for a company, and I enjoyed that a lot because I wanted to get into writing screenplays for films; that was one of my main aspirations. At one point, I had to decide between my office job at my art career, and I thought, “Okay, I’m still fairly young. I don’t have a family to feed. I’m just going to go for it.” This was just over two years ago; I’ve made the jump and then it’s really been going uphill. Luckily, I don’t have any regrets.
I don’t have any regrets.
Obviously, as time goes on, your work will continue to evolve, but is there any element that you hope remains the same?
I kind of take pride in the fact that my work is quite recognizable. For example, the kind of materials I use, the colors I use, the compositions. I hope my work never becomes boring or that it gets lost. You have very popular styles right now, where it’s impossible to tell which artist made what, if you know what I mean. I just hope I don’t go down the route of uniformity. I hope that I carry on having fun in what I’m doing. I don’t ever want it to be like, “Oh no, I have to make art now to satisfy other people and to pay my rent.” I just want it to carry on being a passion, and just keep evolving my work in a fun and natural way, and not in a way that I think it has to develop.
One of your main goals in creating work is to radiate the positivity that you’re feeling into someone else’s day. Art aside, how do you stay so positive and what inspires you?
I’m a bit anxious at heart, I’m not really a depressed person, but I do have to sometimes look for positivity. I don’t just wake up and I’m always happy. Making art is also quite therapeutic for me, it just kind of makes me focus on the positive. It’s a bit of an exercise to stay positive and look for the nice things in life. It really helps me to see beauty in the world, and trying to add to that. I think life is often serious and depressing enough, so I wouldn’t really want to make this deep, depressing art; I appreciate it, and I often quite like darker art when I see it, but my own personal relationship with art is more positive because of that.
What’s the last exhibit that you saw?
There is a painter called Raoul de Keyser, that’s work was showing in S.M.A.K Museum in Ghent, Belgium. It was really colorful, abstract paintings that I enjoyed seeing.
Images courtesy of Sjoerd Cuypers
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