Nancy Stevenson Graves was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on December 23, 1939. By the age of twelve she knew she was going to be an artist. Her interest was fed by repeated visits to the Berkshire Museum in her hometown, where her father was assistant to the director. The combination of art and natural history in that museum's collection was a formative influence in the approach to art she later developed, merging disciplines such as the natural sciences, history and cultural studies.
Graves took art classes at Vassar College, but majored in English Literature (B.A. 1961). She was awarded a scholarship to the Yale Summer School of Music and Art in Norfolk, Connecticut (1959), which led to her enrollment at the Yale School of Art and Architecture (B.F.A., 1962; M.F.A 1964). There she studied painting with Jack Tworkov, Alex Katz, and Al Held, among others. In 1964 she was awarded a Fulbright-Hayes fellowship to study painting in Paris. The following year she traveled to Florence, where she discovered in the wax models of the seventeenth century anatomist Clemente Susini, housed in La Specola, the combination of visual aesthetics and the natural world that was to become a leitmotif in her own art. The first camel sculptures were produced in Florence in 1966.
Working in New York, Graves made three camels (now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada), which composed the first one-woman exhibition held at the Whitney Museum of American Art. (Two subsequent camels are in the Neue Galerie der Stadt Aachen, Germany.) Graves explored paleontological and anthropological imagery in her sculpture until 1971, when she returned to painting. In 1976 a commission from the Museum Ludwig in Cologne to create a bronze version of one of her fossil sculptures, provided the opportunity for her to explore the possibilities of that medium, first using the lost-wax process of bronze casting, then moving into direct casting techniques at the Tallix Foundry in Peekskill, New York.
During the early 1970s Graves also explored filmmaking, producing five films between 1970 and 1974, two of which, shot on location in Morocco, featured camels (Goulimine, 1970; Izy Boukir, 1971). In a 1985 collaboration with choreographer Trisha Brown, she created the set and costume for Lateral Pass, which brought Graves a New York Dance and Performance Bessie Award (1986). Other honors include the Skowhegan Medal for Drawing/Graphics (1980) and an honorary degree from Skidmore College in 1989.
Graves has executed prints since the 1970's exploring lithography, screenprint, monotype and the intaglio processes, including aquatint and drypoint. In addition to Graphicstudio, she has worked with Landfall Press in Chicago, Simca Print Artists, and Tyler Graphics, Ltd., in New York, and with 2 RC in Rome.
Graves' first one-person exhibition was held at the Berkshire Museum in 1964. Other important solo exhibitions include those at The National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa (1971, 1973), Neue Galerie der Stadt Aachen (1971), Museum of Modern Art, New York (1971), Institute of Contemporary Art of the University of Pennsylvania (1972), La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art (1973), Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (1980), and Vassar College Art Gallery (1986). In 1987 The Fort Worth Art Museum organized a sculpture retrospective, accompanied by a catalogue raisonné. (Fine/Corlett 1991, 278)