The Naked Eye

(page 3 of 7)

Ramos grabs a regular-sized cigar and one of his many lighters featuring an earlier buxom beauty, Marilyn Monroe, and takes a seat on the small outdoor deck. His hair is frizzy and his eyes intense. Age has slimmed him down, reduced his once ample musculature. He speaks of his Sacramento childhood. “I used to look forward to the so-called Holy Ghost celebration. I got to carry the Portuguese flonce. It was very heavy. I have fond memories of those events.” He refers to the cultural activities of the local Portuguese community, into which he was born in 1935. Then as now, Catholic Portuguese life in Sacramento centered around Saint Elizabeth Church at 12th and S streets. It was a short walk from his boyhood home, near 5th and T.

He spent his Sacramento childhood waiting for Dad to return safely from World War II (which he did), and later assisted his parents when they operated a lunch counter in a produce market near Sacramento’s New Helvetia Housing Project, where the family eventually relocated after an interim stint in Natomas. The neighborhood, just south of Broadway, bounded by Muir Way, Muir Park and Marsh Street, is now under consideration by the state for recognition as the New Helvetia Historic District.Mel on the McClatchy High School baseball team (he  played catcher) in 1951. (Photo courtesy of Mel Ramos)

High school, where he would first witness the benefits of a life in art, was a couple miles farther away. He attended C.K. McClatchy. “When I was 14, I saw the work of Salvador Dali,” he says. “That experience made me want to be an artist. And my ambition has been growing ever since.” And it was there that he took his first class in art. (His family didn’t particularly support his interest: “My father encouraged me to play baseball.”) As it turned out, Ramos had a knack for drawing. “The teacher liked my cartoons,” he explains. “She said if I do the posters for the football games, I don’t have to do any class assignments. So, right away: perks! I painted posters all the time—‘McClatchy versus Modesto Bulldogs.’ ” He notes that an image he drew of a little lion leaning against the letter M adorned the school newspaper’s sports section for many years after he graduated.

Ramos first noticed his future wife, Leta, at McClatchy, where she was a cheerleader one year ahead of him and “going with the biggest superstar in the school,” he says. Suffice to say, his description of his first sight of her, walking the school corridors, involves a tight cashmere sweater and is best left to the reader’s imagination.

But he wouldn’t actually meet Leta until a trip to Lake Tahoe in the summer of 1954 when they were going to different colleges. (Leta, for her part, fondly remembers taking note of Ramos’ strong legs.) He had woken up hungover on the beach one morning and saw that a friend of his was asking Leta out for the next night. Ramos seized the moment. “I just arrogantly said, ‘No, no. You can’t have her for the night after, because she’s going to be with me.’ She accepted, and we were married a year later.”Mel, Leta and Betty Jean Thiebaud in 1963 during a road trip from Sacramento to New York (Wayne Thiebaud took the picture). (Photo courtesy of Mel Ramos)

As it turns out, Ramos made another lifelong connection in the ’50s, when the high school senior first met Wayne Thiebaud. The occasion was a career fair. Thiebaud, who is a decade and a half

Ramos’ senior, was then teaching at Sacramento Junior College (today known as Sacramento City College), and had dropped by to speak to interested students, Ramos among them. What struck Ramos initially was how Thiebaud looked: “In walks Wayne, and he had on a pair of kelly green corduroy pants and a maroon jacket, and his ears stuck out.” In Ramos’ mind, Thiebaud looked like an artist was supposed to. “He talked about working for Walt Disney, and I was really, really impressed by the way this guy was talking—really sharp guy.”

Once Ramos found himself at Sacramento City College, he took a class from Thiebaud, but says he recalls very little of what was taught. “The only thing I remember about it was the first question on our test: ‘SpeMel with Thiebaud (far left) and Thiebaud’s sons Matt Bult and Paul Thiebaud in the early ’90s (Photo courtesy of Mel Ramos)ll Cézanne,’ ” he says. “Most people left off the accent.” Later the two men were colleagues, when both began to attend a “painters’ critique” at Sacramento State. “People brought [their] work and discussed it from different points of view,” says Ramos.

Also in regular attendance was artist Robert Else, for whom a gallery at Sacramento State is now named.

“I’ve always considered Wayne my mentor,” says Ramos. “He instilled in me the desire to make [my work] better. He has such a lucid mind. He’s so articulate and clear thinking. I have been referred to as Wayne’s student, and I have no problem with that. I consider myself very fortunate to be one of those students.”