Darryl Abraham: sculptor, teacher, landscape designer, and Finger Lakes original

Naples native Darryl Abraham’s work is in big-city art galleries, major collections, and the Smithsonian. It’s also in a church, a bank, and on the walls of many homes in the Finger Lakes town he calls home.

“His work is so funny. He’s like a rural Red Grooms.” I was eavesdropping. I admit it. It was OPEN STUDIO Day this past October in Naples. People who relish the richness of the area’s art community were visiting the galleries of photographers, sculptors, weavers, painters, potters and glassblowers to get an upclose look at where and how they work and perhaps – in the process — discover art they’d want to take home.

People were streaming through Darryl Abraham’s studio, smiling, chuckling, and seeing something that reminded themselves of life in the Finger Lakes. The collector who compared his work to Grooms snatched up a drawing of two musicians and a fulsome dancer in a honky-tonk I’d had my eye on. No problem. Thrilled that she bought it! Like everyone in my family, I love it when people enjoy Darryl’s work. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy it for nearly 50 years. He’s my brother, and I was there when he first put pen to paper.

At 54, Darryl gets that “do you really have to?” look on his face if the family talks about how, as a tyke, he created whimsical people that far surpassed the stick figures most kids drew. He wishes there were a statute of limitations on crowing about his early years, but I’m going to do it anyway. He could draw. I couldn’t. It made me jealous then. Today, it just makes me so darn proud!

The first teacher to identify and nurture his talent was Juanita Morse, who acknowledged Darryl’s skill in first grade when she told me, “Honey, that’s fine work but the real artist in the family is Darryl.” Mrs. Morse taught art at Naples Central and she clearly saw in Darryl’s work what gallery owners and collectors – and best of all – people like you and me see today: an eye for the humorous and ironic and a gift for storytelling straight from the heart.

An artist who honors the people he portrays
“I’d take issue with those who say that Darryl’s work is like a rural Red Grooms,” says David Blasband, a New York intellectual property lawyer whose friends and clients have included artists such as Ken Nolan and Roy Lichtenstein. “Red Grooms knows his city landscapes, but you don’t have a sense he knows the people who populate them. When you look at Darryl’s rural scenes, you understand immediately he ‘knows’ the people too. He’s had conversations with the trucker pulled up at the loading dock, and he’s talked with the waitress at the diner. He’s heard the farmer who plays a guitar on the steps of his porch after a long day. He has a respect for them. He honors and appreciates their everyday lives. It’s what makes his work resonate instantly with viewers.”

Darryl does know his people and it’s by choice. In the mid- ’70s, after he graduated from the University of North Carolina, he settled there and began to teach. His sculpture and illustration were becoming recognized: he was invited to show his work in “hot” galleries in New York, Washington, and Chicago.

Big name collectors such as Saul Steinberg and Allan Stone added his pieces to their collections. The nation’s foremost art supporter, Walter Hopps, purchased sculpture for the National Collection of Fine Art at the Smithsonian and the United States Embassy in Japan. Some folks suggested that Darryl move to the Big Apple, the “art capital of the world” where Warhol was in vogue and the Bosquiats and Schnabels were starting their rise. Get a studio, be part of the scene...

But Darryl living in New York? That would be like Keith Richards strumming a few tunes for Muzak. You just can’t imagine it. His inspiration comes from the fields and streams, farms and towns of rural America. He needs space, green, silence and neighbors he knows to create and feel at home. He needs to be able to dig in the dirt, pick up a stick he can whittle, look out the window and see the creek his likes to fish in.

A life choice that fuses myriad talents
Darryl made a choice. He moved his young family from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, back to the Finger Lakes gem, Naples, the town he’d grown up in. He had a plan: he’d continue to teach, at the college level. He’d start a landscape business to ensure a steady income, and he’d concentrate on his sculpture and drawing during the winter months. It’s a plan that has worked so well that today, he blends the skills of landscape architect, illustrator and sculptor in nearly all his creative efforts.

Residents and visitors to Naples see evidence throughout the town. A 3-D metal and living wood entrance mural that shows two hikers ascending a waterfall trail graces the entrance of the emerging Naples Community Park – a multipurpose facility being created on Route 245. Abraham plans to “encourage” the trees – the living wood — to fuse as they grow so that the hikers appear to be crossing a ravine on a log.

Darryl’s lyrical murals in St. Januarius Church, Bath National Bank and Reservoir Creek Clubhouse honor the grape-growing agricultural heritage of the community. He created the Stations of the Cross and baptismal basin for the church’s interior. In recent years, he has integrated spiritual icons with humorous quotidian themes in several sculptures.

His specially crafted signs add whimsy and humor to numerous Naples businesses – from Dean’s Furniture to Monica’s Pies. “I don’t have just a sign for my business,” says Monica Schenk, “I have a work of art on the front of my store and my customers know it. They love the Monica’s Pies postcard Darryl designed for me too. They tell me going home with a Grape Pie and an Abraham card is part of the ‘visit to Naples’ experience!”

Every client gets a free drawing with the bill
Canandaigua Lake master home builder John Perrin has involved Darryl in landscape projects because “not only is he good, I love to get his bills! How often can you say that about someone?” Every invoice Darryl sends to a client arrives in an envelope with an original illustration. Perrin and others have collected them into collages over the years. “Darryl’s drawings make you pause and smile,” he says. Perrin, also a noted winemaker, has an Abraham-designed wine label that “delights friends almost as much as the wine in the bottle!”

John and Katie Brahm, owners of The Grapery in Bristol Springs, asked Darryl to create a wine label for one of their new Arbor Hill varietals, a Concord-blend called Rhine Street Red. “Darryl’s design is a lot of fun – not at all pretentious like some wine labels,” says Katie. “In the store, it draws people to it and gets them talking and tasting. It’s a wine label that doesn’t intimidate anyone!”

“Few fine artists have been able to so successfully create for different markets,” notes Marissa Rosoff, a Los Angeles children’s counselor and drawing collector who is a fan of the Finger Lakes region. She hung an illustration purchased some years ago called “Merry Go Round” in her office to get her young patients talking. “You can see his work in a fancy New York gallery, but it is also accessible every day to people who work and live in the Naples community. You can own an Abraham original for $5 or $5,000. You can’t say that about many artists whose work is in national collections.”

Local folks don’t hesitate to commission Darryl to create for special occasions: births, weddings, anniversaries, special birthday cards, and even illustrated retirement tributes. And because he knows so many people in the area, the work is often intensely personal and on target, capturing an honoree’s signature pose or stance. Childhood friend Michael Rectenwald, who grew up on the farm that is now Reservoir Creek golf course, says, “Darryl’s tribute to my parents, ‘Ed’s Barn’ would have pleased my Dad immensely. It is a reminder to people who enjoy the 18 holes and clubhouse that where they play was once a working farm with cattle, grapes, and acres of corn.”

Darryl has landscape design in his DNA. Our parents, Doc and Katy Abraham, known as The Green Thumb, have helped people design and grow gardens in the Naples area for nearly six decades. But both acknowledge that Darryl came by his love for sculpture and drawing on his own, doodling and drawing on every scrap of paper he could find, filling drawers, folders and notebook after notebook with cartoons, figures and scenes. He has passed his love for art on to sons Cullen, 32, and Christopher, 30, who live in Naples with their families, and team up on occasion to create large-scale sculpture and playground environments. And there’s evidence on Darryl’s office bulletin board that the talent is passing to a third generation: granddaughter Madeline’s drawings are tacked up next to his. “She’s got an eye for line and color,” notes Darryl with more than a hint of pride.

Darryl’s wife Jan helps him organize a busy life that includes teaching on the faculty at Cazenovia, where he is resident artist at Stone Quarry Art Park and lecturer. Jan says she and sons Carl and David try not to get too attached to any particular piece of sculpture since chances are it will travel to an exhibition where odds are good that it will be purchased and find a new home. “Darryl has created a couple of pieces just for me and everyone knows they’re part of the ‘Jan Collection’ and off limits,” she laughs.

Jan is business manager for both the studio and Abraham Landscape & Design. Like all good business managers, she tries to keep a consistent policy on pricing the artist’s work. “Darryl is such a sweetie, he’d give you the drawing and the shirt off his back. He
really wants people to enjoy his work and get emotional warmth from it so he is generous with his talent,” she adds. Darryl often donates sketches and sculpture for community fundraisers and worthy causes such as the local hospice, Naples Hospeace House.

Darryl is always modest about what he accomplishes and shies away from the kind of publicity that people in a city like New York pay good money to make happen. In fact, he really wasn’t sure whether my writing this article about him was a good idea. (Perhaps he was wondering whether I would tell about the time he took all my new colored pencils and wore them down to nubs? Or the time in college he introduced me as “a friend of a friend from New York,” because he didn’t want fellow students to think he had any family tie to that awful urban jungle? Not to worry bro. We’ll save that stuff for family dinners or Oprah.)

No, he wasn’t worried about that. He just dislikes anything that smacks of hype. And he was worried that my lack of objectivity would make him sound like Picasso with a little Mother Theresa thrown in.

Not a chance. I may be subjective, but I do see him clearly. Darryl’s the guy I can call at the end of a grueling week and in two minutes we’ll both be laughing so hard about some odd little thing in life that our sides ache, just like when we were kids. He’s the guy whose weird and wicked humor can conceive of practical jokes still played on me, his sons, his colleagues, or any one else with a sense of humor that matches his. He is the guy who will stuff a name and number in an envelope (always illustrated) and send it off to me with a note: “She is the granddaughter of a friend, just out of college and moving to New York. Told her to call you. Thanks for helping her out. DA” Or the guy who has a super-sized supply of patience and listening time for young people who are trying to figure life out.

He’s the guy who worries about the demise of family farms and frets about the increasing lack of optimism and confidence about the future in the college students he teaches. But then he turns that worry on its ear. He shows them how to build confidence, with self-expression and craftsmanship. “I get them to look at unsung heroes around them,” says Darryl. “To appreciate their everyday lives. I help them see humor and bring compassion to the struggles and joys of ordinary folk. That’s part of teaching – passing on what works for you.”

What critics say about Darryl Abraham’s work...
“In ‘Garden,’ Darryl Abraham turns nature on its head. Jazzy, human-scaled metal renditions of trees and climbing vines are crowned with everything from a Blue Bird Inn to a pianist, with a wonderful witty jab at Chagall thrown in. Abraham’s
expressive use of curling metal edges, fringes, and petals is matched by vivid, impressionistic dabs and swoops of paint…here the artist manages a nice balance between rococo exuberance, andformal restraint.”
- Art Critic, Lee Fleming, The Washington Post

“His miniature scenes, especially one of a man sitting on a swing, dare to provoke a human response. Call it nostalgia, in the case of a decaying hotel out of Erskine Caldwell. Or identification with the Earth, in the artist’s farm vignettes. But Abraham puts his materials – wood, metal, plastic, soil – at the service of something larger than the art object itself. Don’t be fooled by his primitive techniques, in their own way, the pieces are highly polished. ‘Scrupulous Realization,’ however, has not taken
precedence over the transcendent quality of a past tradition.”
- Art Critic, Alan G. Artner, The Chicago Tribune

Darryl Abraham Studio
13 Sprague Street
Naples, NY 14512

We are open by appointment and always welcome an opportunity to show you illustrations and sculpture in the artist’s studio.

In addition to gallery-quality fine art, Darryl Abraham can bring his unique style, sensibility and humor to the creation of:
• Custom art work for tributes and life’s celebrations (birthdays, anniversaries, graduations etc..)
• Camera-ready postcards, note cards and stationery
• Business cards
• Wine labels
• Memory Book Covers

by Leanna Landsmann
Leanna Landsmann is the proud sister of Darryl and is also the president of Time for Kids magazine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *