Meet visual artist Rachael Grad

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March 12, 2024

Portrait of Rachael Grad in front of her Mommy Mayhem painting

Rachael Grad is a visual artist. Her abstract art practice incorporates collage, observational drawing and painting. During Women’s History Month (March 2024) her exhibition Motherhood Hit Me Like a Train will be on view at the Gallery at the J at the Miles Nadal JCC. We caught up with her to learn more about the project, how she started painting with toy trains, and who’s inspiring her in Jewish Toronto lately.


Kultura Collective: Hi Rachael! Can you please tell us a bit about you and artistic practice?

Rachael Grad: My recent art series revolve around motherhood. I left practicing law to study painting full-time at the New York Studio School and then New York University (NYU) before transferring to OCAD University. In 2022, I graduated with a BFA in Painting and Drawing from OCAD University as the Governor General’s Academic Medal and Mrs. W.O. Forsyth Award Winner. I’m currently in the Master of Fine Arts program at York University (expected graduation this year).

Over the years, I’ve experimented with various materials and techniques. My current art practice incorporates digital painting and collage along with observational drawing and painting.

Motherhood Hit Me Like a Train paintings by Rachael Grad (detail)

KC: What was the inspiration for Motherhood hit me like a train, your new exhibition at the Miles Nadal JCC’s Gallery at the J?

RG: The series started during pandemic lockdowns in 2020-2021. I was constantly stumbling over and overwhelmed by my children’s toys and messes in our home. Stuck at home, my children and I created a lot of art and experimented with different materials and techniques. One day when making art with stamps, my kids started testing building blocks and other toys instead of the stamps. At first, this worried me because of all the toys I’d have to clean but then I embraced their idea and began testing different toys as potential paint brushes.

KC: In this series you use unconventional materials to paint and draw. How did this process start?

RG: My eldest child was obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine for several years and we accumulated a nice collection of toy trains. Trains are some of the most annoying toys to trip over (lego and blocks also make the list). To express motherhood in body and gesture, I use small toy train to make fluid marks across watercolour paper. I tested various brush strokes and differing marks with the toy train, including quick pushing of the train to letting it move on its own across the page. I decided on a sweeping arm motion to make track marks. I found the rolling motion to be a more satisfying way of using the train, as compared to dabbing it like a stamp.

This rolling motion requires loading up significant water and pigment for each mark run. In order for the paint colour to show up on the paper, I have to heavily press down on the toy train during the entire rolling mark movement. Despite this physical effort, I am usually unable to equally apply the paint throughout the same mark. I make the large arm movements both while standing over the paper and also while sitting or kneeling beside it.

The mark making proved to be unexpectedly tiring for my arm and back. Ironically, working in this way caused the same physical exhaustion, aches, and pains as those I experienced after childbirth, as a mother to a newborn. I must work in short bursts and take many breaks while creating these paintings. Resting alone and respite from one’s own kids is also highly recommended when mothering.

Motherhood Hit Me Like a Train paintings by Rachael Grad on view at the Gallery at the J

KC: You are an artist, mother, and former lawyer. How do these multiple roles influence your art making?

RG: Since becoming a mother, I have learnt to create art in between mothering and childcare tasks. Having multiple roles has forced me to work more quickly and create projects that are portable, quick-drying, and easy to clean up. Working around my children and their messes significantly changed my artmaking. When I became a mother, I could no longer spend long days in the studio. To create art, I had to carve out space and time for short bursts of creation. I have learnt to snatch and capitalize on the art-making moments as they present themselves.

My MFA research has focused on the work of artist mothers and ways to parent and create art. Studying the work and techniques of other artist mothers is a never-ending source of encouragement for me.

KC: Your work will be exhibited during Women’s History Month. How does your work celebrate and tell female stories?

RG: This series shows one way to portray parenting and make art about motherhood. The abstract paintings and the ideas behind them are meant to be humorous and mocking of the ideal mother. The paintings create order out of the chaotic, complicated parenting experience.

Mother art and mother artist experiences are often overlooked. According to art critic and writer Jori Finkel, “Motherwork is the last taboo in contemporary art” (Finkel, Jori. (2018, April 17). Artist and mother (Season 9, Episode 7) [TV series episode]. In Artbound. Public Media Group of Southern California. Retrieved from https://www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/episodes/artist-and-mother).

While once shocking and scandalous artwork is now common and acceptable and wide-ranging minorities and lifestyles are embraced, motherhood remains stigmatized and ignored by the art world. So, I’m thrilled that the Gallery at the J is showing my “Motherhood Hit Me Like a Train” series, an appropriate art exhibition for Women’s History Month.

Motherhood Hit Me Like a Train paintings by Rachael Grad on view at the Gallery at the J

KC: On March 21 you are hosting an interactive workshop – what can participants expect during this session?

RG: Participants in the March 21 art workshop can expect to partake in a series of short art experiments. These exercises are meant to spur creativity and spark new ideas for parents and caregivers. I am asking participants to bring their most and least favourite toys or other personal objects to draw, paint, and collage with. 

Any caregiver or parent can register to participate. Children will not be around during the art class.

KC: The Gallery at the J is a very busy space so there will be thousands of people of all ages who will see your exhibition. What do you hope they take away from the show?

RG: I hope that visitors to the show will think about the connection between parenting and artmaking, and how the experiences of mothers and parents can be the impetus for creativity and artwork.

KC: We know you are very busy with multiple projects on the go, including finishing your MFA at York University! What else are you working on right now?

RG: I’m teaching a version of my interactive JCC workshop at my children’s school. Next month, an essay accompanying my speculative fiction short stories will be published in FEMSPEC. These stories feature my children’s stuffed animals, which are recurring characters in another painting series (“Mommy Mayhem”), coming to life in the future. I am also volunteering to organize community-building arts events with UJA for the spring and fall.

Motherhood Hit Me Like a Train paintings by Rachael Grad on view at the Gallery at the J

KC: Who is inspiring you in Toronto right now?

I’m inspired by the Jewish community professionals and volunteers who are working hard to counter antisemitism. Also, the ongoing photography and mezuzah project of Polish artists Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar. An exhibition of their work, On the Doorposts, is on view at the Schwartz/Reisman Centre.

KC: What other Jewish creatives should we know about?

RG: I’ve long admired the work of artist Barbara Astman, who just won a Governor General award and recently read the moving memoir Kiss the Red Stairs by Marsha Lederman.

KC: What’s inspiring you Jewish-ly lately?

RG: The Purim story and how our Jewish ancestors have fought antisemitism. I look forward to seeing The Jackie Mason Musical in April at the Prosserman JCC and From Shtetl to “Post-Jewish Town”: Opatów through the Eyes of Mayer Kirshenblatt at the Toronto Holocaust Museum.

KC: Who is your creative Jewish role model?

Painter Amy Sillman.

KC: If you could have Shabbat dinner with anyone, who would it be and why?

RG: My great-grandparents who were killed in WWII for being Jewish.

KC: Lightning round question!

  • Applesauce vs sour cream? Sour Cream
  • Purim vs Passover? Purim
  • Fiddler on the Roof vs Joseph? Joseph

Rachael Grad, Motherhood Hit Me Like a Train (Diptych) Rosie Coloured Windows, 2024, watercolour and ground on canvas_each panel 24 x 36. On view at the Gallery

About the Artist:

Rachael Grad is a Toronto artist, mother, and former lawyer who has studied and worked in the US, France, Italy and Hong Kong. Grad left practicing law to study painting full-time in New York City at the New York Studio School and then New York University (NYU) before transferring to OCAD University. Grad earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting and Drawing from OCAD University as the Governor General’s Academic Medal and Mrs. W.O. Forsyth Award Winner and is expected to graduate with a Master of Fine Arts from York University in 2024. Grad’s abstract art practice incorporates digital painting, collage, observational drawing and painting. Grad combines her experience as a mother, former lawyer and traveller into her artwork.  

Grad’s artwork has been shown in solo and group shows in Washington, DC, New York City, Venice, Italy, and Toronto. She holds degrees from Brandeis University (BA, Honors in Economics & Minor in French Literature), Duke University School of Law (JD) and Sciences Po in Paris, France (Diploma, International Relations). Grad studied painting and drawing at New York University, the New York Studio School and OCAD University and York University in Toronto.

About the Miles Nadal JCC:

MNjcc strives to be an inclusive, welcoming hub for healthy & joyful community, anchored in Jewish values where all downtown Toronto feel they belong.

The Gallery at the J:

We are attracted to artwork that tells a story. We want our viewers to experience a journey – yours and theirs. Artists and organizations are asked to examine universal values through a Jewish lens. Each month has been assigned a theme/subject which represent a selection of our core principles. The Gallery at the J has been presenting exhibits since 2005.

Learn more at mnjcc.org/visualarts

Motherhood Hit Me Like a TrainAn MNjcc International Womens’ Day exhibit

Rolling a toy train across my artwork is a not-so-subtle metaphor for being a mother and an artist. Motherhood hit me like a train. When I became a mother, my art changed course. Toys overtook my home and artwork. In this series I reverse the ubiquitous toy train and turn it into a paintbrush. To express motherhood in body and gesture, I use small toy trains to make fluid marks across watercolour paper. For the paint colour to show up on the paper, I must heavily press down on the toy train during the entire rolling mark movement. This sweeping motion is unexpectedly tiring for my arm and back, like the physical aches experienced when mothering newborns. I must work in short bursts and take many breaks while creating this painting. Resting alone and respite from one’s own kids is also highly recommended when mothering.

The exhibition runs from March 5 to 27, 2024.

  

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