Mainly known for Fashion illustration, Mariah Graham of Sullivan County, NY is a former model, teacher, printmaker, graphic designer and businesswoman. Originally from South Carolina, she’s a 1st generation New Yorker, who lived in NYC for nearly two decades. She’s also the first to graduate from college — almost unheard of in her blue collar, military family.
When she began her career, women had limited choices, such as nursing, teaching and hairdressing. At the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, Graham was one of only five African-American students. Upon graduation in 1968, the school admitted more people of colour.
“It was a different time then,” she reminisces in an interview with Arts Help. “In 1964, my mother packed everything we owned in my brother’s car & moved up to Harlem, New York. We lived in a two-room apartment on 128th St.”
Growing up with six brothers, who were offered money to go to community college, Graham was the only girl, thus paying for her own BFA degree. “Took 10 years to pay off my student loans. I don’t owe anybody anything.” Her persistence to obtain an education in the arts despite the many gender-based obstacles that existed, especially in Southern communities, echoes the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Gender Equality.
At the time, there were no scholarships or opportunities. “When my mother encouraged me to become a nurse, my answer was: “I am an Artist!” And an artist is exactly what Mariah Graham became.
Mariah Graham Illustrations, Inc. has been her home-based business for many years, while living in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. What started as a young Onjenu, working for twelve years at the New York Times for their fashion page, Mariah has a long list of resume credits (not including a MFA or PhD). Her exemplary experience and strong worth ethic has matched that level of education.
She thinks back to teachers, who’d discourage her from pursuing a life in the arts, saying to her “You’re going to fail.” Yet, these words only made her feel more determined to reach her career goals.
Job offers came from Paris, London and New York, including Fordham and Syracuse University. There were incidents in late 60s and early 70s, when prospective employers were quite impressed with her portfolio, only to give the job to a White candidate.
“I’d get the call to work for a fashion magazine, show up to the interview and the job would no longer be available… The waiting room would have the receptionist, myself and another (White) lady far off in the corner. As soon as the Art Director came out of his office, he’d walk directly to that lady.”
Nevertheless, Graham didn’t let discrimination and racist rejection stand in her way. Her positive outlook on life carried her through what otherwise would have been a set-back. “Out of failure, comes success!” she exuberates.
In 1982, a client in London called with a fantastic position. They paid for her flight and accommodations, only for her to see the job “disappear” upon arrival. “I just smile at them, walk away.. because it’s their problem. Not mine.”
In that particular incident in England, she went to the London Times, and they hired her a model for a week, furnished a studio space — expenses paid.
“I have this mentality: ‘it’s not what happens to a person in life, it’s how the person reacts to it.”
Graham has her own unique style and doesn’t face much competition. “Art is a business. .. an independent business, but a business. [Art] is not just drawing pretty pictures.” Currently, she is working on two posters, fourteen illustrations and an autobiography, all while she sells prints online and teaches graphic design, illustration and industry at EF International, as well as substituting at Monticello High School.
“I can sit and watch their brains work. They are smart, fantastic students. However, I miss the City. I taught two semesters at F.I.T. and one semester at Parsons. The commuting got to be [a burden] until I was about 70.”
This year, Graham is turning 76, and shows no sign of slowing down.
“I know where I’ve been and I know where I am,” says Graham, who has great faith and belief in herself and her talent. Thanks to the internet, business has boomed over the last two decades.
On Graham’s website you can see her portrait of Oprah Winfrey on Making a Difference: Power of One. Her book, From the Cottonfield to the World of Fashion is due out in a year. She’s working with a local writer, Kathy Dailey, and illustrating what’s turning out to be a graphic novel. Finally, she is currently putting together her autobiography for the University of South Carolina.
I asked this force-to-be-reckoned-with what she’d tell her students and other young BIPOC artists who are considering a life in the arts, Graham simply answered: “How badly do you want it?” She followed up: “Now, show me… because talk is cheap.”
See more of Mariah Graham’s work here.