Wayne Thiebaud {The First 90 Years}

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The scope of his cultural impact draws into sharp focus with his induction into the California Hall of Fame on Dec. 14, when he joins Barbra Streisand, director James Cameron and tennis star Serena Williams in this year’s 14-member class. The tribute marks how much has changed for the “young painter” since his initial one-man exhibition—except in his own view. “It’s not that different than it was then,” says Thiebaud, who turns 90 on Nov. 15. “I’m still striving to make better paintings.” He rises by 6 a.m. most days to work, either in his midtown studio or upstairs in the Land Park home he shares with his wife, Betty Jean, the model in some of his best-known pieces, including the Crocker’s Betty Jean Thiebaud and Book. “It’s what I both love and hate doing because you’re always in trouble, always trying to solve problems.”

From top: "River Lake" (2008) and "River Sides" (2007), two paintings from Thiebaud’s Delta series. “He gives us our [sense of place] like no one else does,” says Elaine O’Brien, a Sacramento State professor of modern and contemporary art. (Copyright by Wayne Thiebaud, licensed by Vaga, NY.)But notwithstanding the constancy of the Man-vs.-Canvas struggle and his modesty, Thiebaud has transformed the area’s visual arts culture. More than any one person, he has attracted the art world’s attention to the region through his painting, the quiet support of fellow artists and decades of teaching at Sacramento City College and UC Davis. (Two notable past students: Sacramento native Mel Ramos, renowned for his paintings of pinup models, and Bruce Nauman, regarded as one of the world’s most important multimedia artists.) In return, living in Sacramento has buffered Thiebaud from the rank commercialism that breeds self-imitation and trend chasing in the art market, freeing him to experiment.

“He’s reinvented himself over and over again,” says Sacramento painter Fred Dalkey, a longtime friend and the subject of a Crocker retrospective in 2002. “He’s shocked a lot of people. They think they know who he is and then all of a sudden— bang!—he’s working in some new area.” More explicitly, the region inspires the Delta landscapes in which he melds elements as disparate as Cubism and Chinese art, producing what The New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik has called “fantastically rich, almost psychedelically colored” images that brand Sacramento as Thiebaud country.

“His work is something that will bring people from around the world,” says Scott Shields, the Crocker’s chief curator, who collaborated with the painter on this fall’s retrospective. “It’s always been my belief that you go to Spain to see Goya, you go to Iowa to see Grant Wood and you come to Sacramento to see Thiebaud.”

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Painting may have saved Wayne Thiebaud from an early death. His company of the U.S. Army Air Force, stationed at what was then Mather Army Air Field in Sacramento, received orders in late 1944 to ship overseas. World War II had entered its final year and the Allied powers needed hundreds of thousands of troops to repel a German offensive in the Belgian mountains. Five weeks of combat in the so-called Battle of the Bulge would claim the lives of 19,000 American soldiers, making it the war’s single deadliest engagement for the United States. A transport truck stood outside Corporal Thiebaud’s barracks, ready to ferry soldiers to the airstrip for their flight.

The military had sent him to Mather soon after he enlisted in 1942, four years removed from graduating high school in Long Beach. His parents, Alice and Morton, moved there within a year of his birth in 1920 in Mesa, Ariz., and apart from a two-year stretch in the early ’30s when the family lived in Utah, Wayne and his younger sister Marjory grew up in Southern California. As the Thiebauds spent time in Long Beach and Los Angeles, Alice tended to the household while Morton, a bishop of the ward in the Mormon Church, held an array of jobs through the years: mechanic for Ford, foreman with Gold Medal Creamery, traffic safety supervisor, real estate agent.

Thiebaud at his New York debut inside the Allan Stone Gallery in 1962. (Photo by Patrick Dullanty, courtesy of the Thiebaud family)The family weathered the Great Depression and, by his own account, Thiebaud enjoyed a carefree childhood, other than breaking a bone in his back in a gym class mishap; he picked up his high school diploma wearing a neck-to-waist cast. He worked for food stands on the Long Beach boardwalk, washing dishes and hawking hamburgers, hot dogs and ice cream, and signed up as a stagehand for school plays. His paintings decades later made evident the influence of his early exposure to food preparation and theater lighting techniques. His luscious cakes and pies, fringed with ethereal halos of blue or red or yellow, “glow with a brilliance so peculiar and unreal,” as Kimmelman once wrote, “that it looks as if it must be from either the light of heaven or the glare of an operating theater.”

Thiebaud’s interest in art, nurtured by an uncle who drew cartoons for him and Marjory, budded in his early teens. He remembers a friend’s father taking him on a day trip to Palm Springs to paint landscapes. After stopping somewhere in the desert, the man set up his easel and started working from the top of the canvas downward “like he was pulling a shade. I’ve never seen anyone paint like that since. It was magic—from nothing to a little piece of the world. I never got over that.”

During high school Thiebaud landed a summer apprenticeship in the animation department of Walt Disney as an “in-betweener,” drawing fill-in frames of Goofy and Pinocchio that connected the primary scenes handled by studio animators. Upon graduating in 1938, he scrounged freelance work as a sign painter and movie poster illustrator, but uncertain of art’s career prospects with the country at war, he joined the military to become a pilot.

Before learning to fly, he had to attend mechanics school, waking at 4:30 a.m. every day to inspect planes. Walking over to Mather’s hangars on a morning “colder than hell,” he passed a Quonset hut and noticed soldiers sitting at drawing tables. Thiebaud stopped in and discovered they designed promotional materials for the Special Services Department. He received a transfer that day, and during the next two years he illustrated posters, taught drawing classes and created a comic strip, Aleck, for the base newspaper.