As a kid, I drew my own comic books and made up my own story lines. I knew early on that I’d be a visual artist. Not so with writing, though I read prodigiously and scratched out half a novel when I was in the fourth grade.
Discharged from the Army in 1955, and having been exposed to what had become the renowned New York School of Painting, I was desperate to paint. It wasn’t until I’d graduated from Fresno State and had accepted a high school teaching contract that I set goals toward becoming an abstract expressionist. Simply put, I’d seen the work of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, and my life had changed.
While opening Art Trio, a commercial art business, I tried to raise the level of graphic art and illustration in Central California and at the same time pursue my love of painting. That meant buying canvas at Pacific Tent and Awning, stretching and prepping it myself, and hauling the final products to exhibit areas where nothing of their size and ilk had ever been seen before. In 1959, my large black-and-white painting “Madrid” won best oil in the first San Joaquin and the Fresno Bee Art columnist asked me to act surprised in the photo celebrating my victory.
At that time, Fresno had no venues where artists could show their work. In 1961, claiming to live in Southern California, I had three paintings accepted for viewing in the Los Angeles Art Institute. Martin Janis, a respected Los Angeles art dealer, invited me to hang another four pieces in his contemporary gallery, and I felt like I had an avenue upon which I could pursue my dream. Then real life came thundering into the picture. The Institute found out that I resided in the San Joaquin Valley, a place far from any dreams, and Martin Janis called to tell me he hadn’t sold any of my paintings.
However, his brother, the famed Sidney Janis in New York, had visited Martin, taken all four and sold them in his Manhattan gallery, where he’d hung them along with Kline, deKooning, and Pollock. Sidney Janis and a select number of art dealers, writers and critics had convinced the world that this group of wild men with brushes had taken the New York school from nothing to an explosive phenomenon that gave the world a new art expression that was truly American.
Martin gave me a a check (for about the same amount of money I was collecting each month as a Fresno city teacher) and a note from his brother suggesting that if I came to New York, I could possibly join the other hopefuls he represented. My wife Jo Ann just given birth to our second son, and I could not put my family through what the price of life in New York would cost.
I have always painted, sometimes more than others, sometimes, in spite of the uncertainty that plagues all artists, finding encouragement at the time I most needed it. One such time was at an Ikebana Society show where author/playwright William Saroyan left me a note describing my work as “heroic”. My one-artist shows include a 35-painting, full-gallery show in the Fresno Art Museum in 1979. My bio contains many fractures, full-out breaks, and a couple of miraculous reparations. After Jo Ann’s sudden death, I turned to reading to stay breathing, and then to writing to stay alive.
And I’ve been lucky. I’m a father, a grandfather, a great grandfather. I have a few great friends. I have my sister Regina and my brother in law Tom Ashley. And I have my wife Bonnie Hearn Hill, who took me into her adult student writing class about sixteen years ago.
I believe a painting (story) must have an initial dramatic impact and at second glance should include tantalizing nuances of drawing (plotting) and gestures (conflict) to stay alive. I’ve been around a long time and have given much thought to today’s art market. I agree with art critic Kenneth Baker’s assessment of a recent show called, “The Passionate Gesture” at the Hackett-Freedman gallery in San Francisco, featuring first- and second-wave Abstract Expressionists. Baker says, “To this day the art scene still seeks our notion of explosive, unrehearsed paintings more aggressively than ever.” He goes on to reflect on how we action painters have achieved a “certain coherence against all odds that just won’t go away.”