20 Watts

ISSUE 19 | Pop Art: Forget art school — Jim DeGraff learned to paint in concert crowds by 20watts

Jim DeGraff sketches at a Technicolor Trailer Park show

The sound of squeaky wheels and rusted metal screeches gratingly as Jim DeGraff pulls his wagon along the edge of the Chemung Canal Trust Company parking lot. Once red, the wagon has worn to a faded brown from years of abuse. Tattered boxes stacked to capacity with tubes of paint, a jug of Poland Spring water and a canvas roll-up of paintbrushes barely fit into the cart.

Pausing briefly, he lights up a hand-rolled cigarette. Today is the first annual Rhiner Festival, a day of music and historical reenactments in Ithaca’s Waterfront District, and DeGraff is anticipating a lively day of painting and honing his craft.

The self-taught painter and former bouncer has been sketching and painting live concerts for nearly five years, and his hulking, paint-splattered form — with accompanying easel and rusted wagon — has become a common sight at Central New York concerts, especially in the Finger Lake region.

“For me, going to a concert, it’s hard unless I have something to do,” DeGraff said. “If I have a sketchbook with me, it enhances the whole experience. Artwork is like catching a moment.”


DeGraff is catching a lot of moments at the Rhiner Festival.  The first venue he hits is located at the Chemung Canal Trust Company, an unusual bank branch located in an old train station — complete with passenger cars and a locomotive. Here on the rail platform, Long John and the Tights, a 5-piece bluegrass band, are plucking and buzzing in front of 15 forty-somethings and little kids. Though it’s chilly under the drive-thru, DeGraff sets up his skinny easel and secures his wooden canvas. While others came to watch Long John and the Tights on a sunny Saturday, DeGraff came to paint.

“Bluegrass is probably easiest to paint, because they don’t move much,” DeGraff laughed.

As the band plays on, DeGraff stands alone with his brush in hand, focused on and entranced by the wooden board in front of him. A dab here, a stroke there and the music comes alive in bright color as DeGraff sees it.

Ever since a 2005 benefit show at the Ithaca State Theatre for Hurricane Katrina victims, DeGraff has never put down the brush or pencil at concerts. That night, DeGraff completed five paintings before the end of the show.  He pushes himself to finish one painting per band, no matter the circumstances — when it comes to concerts, it’s a ritual.


As a kid in the 1970s, DeGraff’s first inspiration to draw came from reading old Conan the Barbarian comic books. By his teenage years, he had begun to sketch skulls and crossbones.  It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that DeGraff saw the old HBO documentary Jimi Hendrix: Live at Monterey, 1967 and was exposed to the idea of painting live bands.  In the film, painter Denny Dent splatters paint against a brick wall, magically shaping an image of Jimi Hendrix’s face. DeGraff still name-checks Hendrix as an artist he would have killed to get a chance to paint, if he weren’t four decades late.

Even with that inspiration, however, DeGraff didn’t pursue painting full-time.  He eventually took a job at The Nines, where he worked as a bouncer and sketched during his shift.  Later, he began working for the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, a local non-profit.  But painting was always in the background, said DeGraff’s father Tim.

“I think painting was something he wanted to do, but didn’t have the training,” he said.  “He learned the hard way. He has a natural gift.”

DeGraffe’s gift tends toward the gestural, even abstract.  Because his work relies so heavily on his emotions, DeGraff usually has to really like the show. Nonetheless, if he thinks the band really sucks he’ll paint them out of spite — like a Dave Matthews tribute band that he hated.  His exact style varies according to his mood.

“I bounce around with different styles like splatter work when I’m having a bad day,” DeGraff said. “It’s really messy, but it’s a lot of fun, or I’ll see some image stuck in my head and I’ll paint it from memory.”


There can also be a certain darkness and violence in DeGraff’s work, a style that his father Tim attributes to his son’s troubled past.  Jim’s parents divorced during his childhood, and he remained distant with his father afterwards.  He recovered from alcoholism 12 years ago.

“I don’t know about artists, because I’ve never been one,” Tim said. “He has a dark sense of style in his paintings.”

But no one who has seen DeGraff in action — poised in front of his easel, or with pencil and sketchbook in hand – would ever accuse him of being “dark.”  In fact, painting shows has become a kind of a catharsis for the self-taught artist, a growing process that allowed him to realize his childhood ambitions and reconnect with his father.

In the past year and a half, DeGraff has begun showing his work at local galleries, though painting remains his passion and not his career.  His big break came from the local restaurant/art gallery Moosewood, which is renowned for its art shows. The director of the Moosewood gallery, Ned Asta, took notice.

“If he keeps at it, he’s got so much potential,” Asta said. “It’s really psychedelic with all the oranges and blues. It’s really trippy.”


Several promoters and bands have also invited DeGraff to paint their shows.  Lisa Gould and boyfriend Jerry Ponner met DeGraff at The Nines when Ponner was a cook there and DeGraff was a bouncer; later, when Gould and Ponner formed their own band, Technicolor Trailer Park, they asked DeGraff to paint them.

“Never seen guys do [what Jim does] before, but he’s good at what he does,” Gould said. “The work I’ve seen is fabulous. He does it with so many different mediums.”

DeGraff has also painted big artists like Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez when they came to Ithaca. In fact, after the Joan Baez show, DeGraff stopped by to show her his painting while she was signing autographs – she said it was nice.

But the best show for DeGraffe was Ithaca’s Positive Jam, the first show his father attended with him.

“He saw me in a different light,” DeGraff said, “and not just some fucking kid.”

Back in the bank parking lot, the show is just beginning to wind down.  DeGraff dips his brush into a cup of red paint one last time in order to slither a distorted signature on the top left corner of the painting. He takes a step back, looking it over, and rolls another cigarette.

“That’s as good as it’s gonna get,” he says.

— Story by Jett Wells
— Photos by David Korman and Blake Rong


1 Comment

I grew up with Jim, and even in our youth his artwork was magnificent. I have not seen him in 22 years. If anyone knows contact info for Jim I would love to say hi.

Comment by Scott Turco

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