How long have you been creating art?
“I started out to be a movie star. I’m the only known person born in a movie studio. I was born in the Charlie Chaplin Studios. My dad worked there, so I decided I was going to be a movie star. A contract at Universal paid $75 a week, big money in the late 50s. In those days, Universal was screen testing two guys and two girls every day. There was another young guy — we could’ve been twins — but he was a little bit better looking than I. I learned that he got the contract (for $75 a week). They changed his name (Merle Johnson, Jr.) to Troy Donahue and he went on to be quite a big star of the period. So I thought maybe I should give up trying to be a movie star. A friend of mine gave me a copy of a Grandma Moses coffee table book. She was a great folk artist. Because I was born into a film area where there were a lot of famous people, my first paintings were copies from Grandma Moses. I loved doing it but I hated the results, so I started painting on my own. I had a friend who has a very chic shop on Sunset Strip and he liked my work and put it in there. Celebrities began to buy my work and that started my career as an artist. I have been painting ever since the late 50s.”
When did you move to Astoria?
“I moved to Astoria in 1990, almost 30 years ago. I lived there most of that time, but now I live in a condominium in Warrenton that has a perfect loft and studio area for me. I’m still very local.”
How would you describe your approach to art?
“I paint for one person in this world and that’s me. I want to have fun. My work is so detailed that one painting may take three or four months of painting every day. This is what my art is about.
“I have friends who ask, ‘Why don’t you paint the Goonies House?’ One reason was I didn’t like the movie. However if you look at my latest piece, I have a section on Astoria and I put the Goonies logo in. If you study it, these are all real signs that were out in front of the Goonies House. I painted a piece of history that’s been on the front page of many newspapers around the world. I got my reference back to the Goonies but it just took time. You really have to study my work. If I’m going to be painting all those hours, I have to be interested. I know nothing about technique, what it means or how you would identify it. I define my work as ‘Americana.’ I paint things that please me. I don’t paint for anybody else but myself. I just feel blessed, but not in a religious way. I’m doing something I have to do because it brings me such enjoyment.”
Is there a particular piece that you’re most proud of?
“The first painting I ever painted. I come from a family that has birthdays all in February. I’m Feb. 21, my father was Feb. 22, my mother was Feb. 26 and my sister was Feb. 27. So I decided, in my new career as a painter, I was going to do an original painting for their birthdays. I did one called ‘Orange Juice Sky,’ and it hangs in my studio over in Warrenton and has for over the 50-60 years I’ve been painting.”
Is there anyone whose had a big influence on you as an artist?
“Grandma Moses. I look for the naïve artists when I travel through Europe, I love that. I could just listen to what people say art does to them, it creates an emotion. There’s a purity about it, trying to paint everything except that you see in your own mind.”
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned that’s helped you succeed as an artist?
“Be honest with yourself and what you’re painting. Don’t think about how it’s going sell. I wanted to bring whatever is inside of me out. My most unsuccessful piece in history was a portrait of my hands. I wanted to see if I could really paint, so I used this as a way to be honest — am I a painter or aren’t I? I still don’t know because I just sit and I do. I have no control except to bring it into fruition.”
How long have you participated in the Astoria Sunday Market?
“Almost from the very beginning, about 15 years. I was on the board of directors for a number of the early years.”
What role has the market played in your career as an artist?
“It’s amazing to see how your art has affected a community. Being at the market all these years, I remember the times that a young couple would come in with a little baby to get something for their room. Over the years, I’ve seen them come back and the son that they brought in their arms is now getting married. It’s just wonderful that your art has touched people in that way.”
What advice would you give new artists trying to establish a career?
“The most important thing is to be who you are because you will never be as good as the artist who most influences your work. It’s not important what your mom, dad, husband or wife think about your work, be honest to yourself. You have to face the fact that you’re probably not going to make much money.”