Even though Irene Graham recently turned 103, she is still playing with dolls.
“That’s the kid in me,” she said. “And why should I feel guilty? Some people go gambling, but I do what I enjoy.”
A local artist in Federal Way, Graham is not only playing with dolls, but she’s also creating them. Graham’s daughter Susan believes that it’s her mother’s art that has sustained her through the pandemic and into her 10th decade.
“It’s part of what keeps her happy and sane,” Susan said, and her mother agreed: “It gives me joy. My artwork never stops.”
A multi-medium artist, Graham says her creativity comes from her Italian grandmother, who grew up in a poor area north of Venice.
“She used to take material that people didn’t use anymore and she made slippers for all of us children. She was very creative and from nothing, she’d make something beautiful. I can do the same thing,” she said.
In the middle of Graham’s living room is a large bin of yarn for crocheting. She shows a beautifully colorful shawl she had crocheted herself, which she kept wrapped around her shoulders for the rest of the day.
“Crocheting is very good. It helps with your dexterity,” she said, adding that she prefers it to knitting, a craft she had also learned as a girl in Germany.
Born in 1919, Graham, whose maiden name is Rama, recalled drawing gnomes in school instead of doing her arithmetic, and being inspired by toys and dolls.
“When I was three years old I visited my grandmother and she made a doll for me, and I fell in love with it. As soon as I got home, I made the same type of doll for all of my friends,” she said.
Graham took many art classes in school where she learned to draw, paint, and make sculptures, a medium that she says is still her favorite. When Graham became an adult, she was drafted into World War II as a telephone operator for the German Air Force. After the war, she met her husband Gordon, who was an American soldier, and the two married in 1948.
After moving to the United States, the two lived in a few places before settling in Federal Way.
“Wherever I moved to, I joined painting clubs, sculpture clubs, arts and crafts clubs,” she said. “This kept me out of trouble and it kept my life enjoyable. It was my saving grace to not become depressed.”
Since then, Graham has created award-winning art that includes oil paintings and sculptures of her children, Susan and Michael, the latter of whom died “too soon” of a heart attack. Images of Michael can be seen throughout Graham’s home, including a picture of him holding a baby rabbit that Graham had painted. Her other works of art include impressionist pieces, painted tiles, wood carvings, handmade teddy bears, and her famous, immaculate porcelain dolls. Graham even has the first porcelain doll she ever made, which was sculpted from Susan’s face when Graham’s daughter was a young girl.
In 2019, Graham celebrated her 100th birthday with family and friends and she had said that living so long was like “a fairy tale”. Now, three years later, Graham still feels the same as she did then, and she still believes that you should take one day at a time.
“My life was given to me by the universe, by the cosmos and good genes from my mother’s side. Be thankful for what you have. Love your friends and animals. Eat sensibly, with pizza and beer sometimes,” she said.
When asked how she feels when people comment on her long, rich life story and her artwork, Graham said that, at first, she would feel embarrassed.
“I enjoyed the compliment, but I was embarrassed because it isn’t polite to be a show-off. But now that I’m 103, I’m not embarrassed at all. I love it and it gives me joy when I give something to somebody and they enjoy what I made. That’s the biggest reward, more than money,” she said.
Since she was a child, Graham’s generosity has been as strong as her creativity, and she likes to give people one of her handmade angels or “happy babies.” These small, porcelain dolls resemble an infant dressed with wings. She loves to give them to people as a sort of thank you note.
“If I went to the doctor’s office and the nurse was very friendly, I’d give her one of these little dolls as a thank you,” she said.
Graham’s happy babies have become her latest project, saying that they would help her get through any pain she is going through. “I’d say ‘Go to hell, pain! I’m gonna paint, I’m gonna make an angel,’” Graham said. “They’re tiny, they’re close to us and I create angels, great and small.”