Why Carl’s a Hawk to Watch:
Wisdom and The Wizard of Oz, LGBTQ+ rights and the legacy of Stonewall, family and the uneasy tension between memory and reality, time and the construction of personal identity. KU alum Carl Grauer is using his background in biology to explore human nature, but not in the ways that you might expect.
Through his work as a contemporary portrait and figurative artist, Carl is exploring the human elements at work in moments both mundane and magnificent, ranging from personal recollections to pop culture icons. With a mix of scientific precision and humanist curiosity, he examines the depths of everyday experience and the meaning we assign to the past, using brushstrokes and fine pigments to tell stories of humanity and document the rich, vivid, complex, entirely ordinary beauty of his subjects in 2-D form.
Meet Carl, our May Hawk to Watch, and learn how a B.A. in biology led him from a pre-med track to graduate work in medical illustration, and later, art shows across L.A., New York, and London. Get his advice for others wanting to pursue a career doing what they love, and discover how he carved out a path that was unexpected, yes, but completely of his own creation, with honesty, kindness and persistence.
Tell us in a sentence or two what you do for a living:
I am a contemporary portrait and figurative artist working in oils.
How did you end up doing what you do? Was there a certain moment when things came together? Or was it a longer journey?
This was a rather long journey. I’ve always had an interest in drawing and art but it took a roundabout way to get where I am now. I started off as a pre-med biology major at KU, but I always had the little voice in the back of my head to be an artist. While at KU, with the help and direction of the career development office, I started taking art courses in drawing, painting and illustration and upon completing my biology degree at KU I was accepted into a graduate program in medical illustration, which then led to work in NYC. During this time I worked with several companies in advertising and then went freelance, all the while drawing and painting in my free time.
About 10 years ago I co-founded a retail antique and design store that hosted art events and openings. This was an amazing lesson in running a business and being quick on my feet in New York. We had great success and began doing interior decorating work and landed some great gigs including the Nighthawk Cinema theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. However, it wasn’t until the passing of my brother in 2011 when I fully decided to make a leap into painting full-time and it was then when things really started coming together.
I decided to start painting as many people as I could in a span of two hours. It started as a practice to get better and then six years later it has grown into a full body of work that will continue until my death. This project began in 2012 and it continues to excite because of this element of time. It documents the subjects in a specific amount of time and also my evolution as a painter. In the past several years I have had the great privilege to paint live in many locations including galleries in Los Angeles, New York and recently I have had in invitation to show in London this coming October. To date I have painted a little over 200 Two Hour Portraits.
What do you feel is your biggest achievement so far?
My biggest achievement would probably be exhibiting with the Royal Portrait Society in London, and building this fully realized body of work for my upcoming exhibit entitled “The Lavender Temple of Their Most Fabulous,” which opens at Carrie Haddad Gallery in Hudson, New York on Wednesday, June 12th. Envisioned as a tribute to the Stonewall Rebellion that occurred in New York City in 1969, the show features portraits of 15 figures who have impacted the LGBTQ+ rights movement. But mostly, it has been finding the strength and persistence to pursue this work I love.
What’s your lowest career moment and how did you pick yourself up and move on?
My lowest point was after I had accepted a job in NYC for a company doing medical illustration, signed a lease on an apartment and was very excited to start this new life. Everything seemed amazing!!! However, after a month working for the company… no paycheck came. The second month…. no paycheck. They kept saying the checks will be coming but they never paid me. It was during the Dot com bust in the early 2000s and unfortunately myself and several other entry level employees were being taken advantage of. I wasn’t able to pay my rent, almost got evicted and had to scramble to find a new job. The main motivator was getting money to afford an apartment. I eventually moved to Brooklyn with roommates, interviewed at as many places that would have me and finally found a job in advertising doing illustration and web design.
Where do you hope to be in 10 years?
I see myself still making a living doing art. With 10 years I will have continued to learn more and to push my work even further. By then I will hope to amass at least 600 more Two Hour Portraits, several strong solo shows, at least 5 residencies including the American Academy Rome Prize as a major goal.
What do you know now that you wish you could tell your 18-year-old self?
Shed your fear, trust yourself and believe in your talent completely. It will all work out.
What’s your best career pro-tip?
Pursue your path with honesty, kindness and persistence. If you believe in what you are and what you are doing, do not give up.
How did your KU degree prepare you for your current job?
My time at KU continues to prepare me. Having a liberal arts degree gave me a breadth of knowledge that I still use as a starting point for research or for general interest. It showed me that there are many avenues in your life and that one path may lead to a very unexpected one and that is okay. Having had amazing instructors in the fine arts department like Jon Swindell, Michael Krueger, and Tanya Hartman, who guided me with a kind arm to look harder, still stands out to me and how I approach my work.
What do you do after you’ve clocked out?
I really never clock out, but cooking at home with my husband, watching movies and taking walks in the Hudson Valley. A must-do once a month is going to an art museum like the Clark, Dia Beacon, Olana or Stromking. Or to go down to the city for the Met, Whitney, Frick or gallery hopping are some of my favorite things.
What is a fun fact about you that surprises people?
I grew up in a very small town in the middle of Kansas called Wilson. It’s always fun to see people’s reaction when I tell them my town had a population of 800, my graduating class had 16 people and there were no stoplights unless you count one red blinking light in an intersection.
Be like Carl. Find your path and pursue it with honesty. For more information, visit the Undergraduate Biology Program and the Department of Visual Art at the University of Kansas. Learn more about Carl’s work and upcoming events on his website, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook page.
Hawks to Watch are disrupters. They’re poised for greatness, inspiring their colleagues and excelling in their professions. Basically, they’re killing it. Having recently graduated, they are just starting to leave their mark and we can’t wait to see how their story unfolds. These Jayhawks span all industries including business, non-profits, tech, healthcare, media, law and the arts.