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MODERN BEAR’S INTERVIEW WITH PAINTER AUSTIN CALLOWAY began at dawn and felt more like a night out on the town then a morning of Q & A’s.
It went like this..
7:00 AM we met at Koffi, on Palm Canyon Drive, the fashionable ‘to see and be seen” hot spot of the coffee crowd. Austin was standing at the counter when I arrived, wearing his cowboy hat, worn ranch boots, jeans and an Allman Brothers tee-shirt. He sipped a cup of coffee, (he likes his black with a blueberry scone on the side.) and he gave a broad smile when he saw me walking his way. We sat outside gazing at the mountain, we talked about hiking, classic cars and growing up outside of California.
Coffee cups empty, we climbed into Austin’s truck and drove around Palm Springs pointing out our favorite mid-century architecture and each of us telling of our time and excitement over having the chance to walk through the Frank Sinatra house, a highlight as a part of living in Palm Springs.
With the sun warming, Austin turned the truck towards Indio and twenty minutes later, we wound up at Duke’s Bar, a dank dive with pink Christmas lights on a black wall, faded blue velvet chairs and pinball machines with the likes of Charlie’s Angles and Captain Fantastic.
“I come here to disappear,” Austin said, moving forward in the darkness. “No one ever finds me here.”
With a stack of quarters, we attacked the jukebox lining up a string of songs to play while we sat at the bar and drank ice cold beer and talked about music, our childhoods, favorite breeds of dogs (he likes German Shepard’s, Border Collies and Australian cattle dogs) we talked about many things, even the weather and so far, not one mention of art or painting. Then, half way through our breakfast beer, Austin pulled a stack of color sample papers from his shirt pocket, the kind you get at Home Depot and take home to see what color you want to paint your wall. He placed the cards on the table like a carefree fortune teller and said, “Pick one.”
I looked at him as he watched me. I looked back at the cards, yellow, red and brown, three shades of blue, and four shades of green, purple and grey. I selected a forest green color and sliding the card from the table, held it up. “This one.” I said.
A smile crossed Austin’s face as his eyes narrowed under a heavy brow. “A good choice.” He said, “Solid.”
He looked at me as if he suddenly knew a deep, dark secret that even I was not aware of.
“Let’s finish these beers,” he then said, “And go somewhere and have a drink.” And after another beer, we did just that. We left his obscure hideaway and headed back to Palm Springs, and then to El Tropical, where we slid into a booth. With no one around us and with Tanqueray martini’s and a warm, calming buzz, Austin removed his cowboy hat, laid it beside him and leaned back and then he finally said, “Let’s talk about art.”
So far, this had been my favorite interview. I opened my note pad, removed the cap from my pen and pushed ‘record’ on my tiny machine and I began.
“When did you first realize that you had artistic talent?” Was my first question and Austin didn’t hesitate with his response.
“My mom was concerned for a bit, when I was a boy… That I insisted on coloring outside of the lines. That I would draw over everything. She later realized that it was just me ‘creating’.
You are just a boy and teachers, people making a fuss over something you do. You think everyone is doing it and when you realize they are not, you take notice and look inside.
We had large farms in Iowa and Missouri and we moved around on these farms, switching schools. An art teacher in Missouri placed me in an independent art class my freshman year that set me on a course that followed me through all four years of high school. I would work along with the teacher at my own pace, but I sat in a class room filled with seniors. They would look at me and try to figure me out. In time I made friends I would not have made otherwise and this setting me apart affected not only how others treated me, but it focused my attention to the possibilities that I had something I might possibly want to pay attention to, my art.
We sipped our martini’s and I wrote out my next question. “What is your favorite medium of artistic expression?”
“Lately, I have been getting into wood,” we both grinned and drank.
“When I sleep, my dreams are often filled with bold shapes of colors and so I have been experimenting with that in my wood work. But overall it is paint. I love to feel the paint move. My favorite paintings are when I am lost in the passion of the moment and that energy comes across on the canvas.”
PASSION is a word Austin uses a great deal and it does come across in his work.
“I don’t care about capturing a perfect image of something, photography does that. For me it is about emotion and expressing that emotion is the only reason I paint.”
“Do you find that you go through phases with your art?”
“My work constantly evolves. It should, you are living, and breathing and your art should do the same. When I began selling in galleries in 1993, my paintings were contemporary cowboys and horses in vivid colors. The galleries that sold my work locked me into that format because it sold and they did not want to even see my other work or styles. I finally stopped painting those images, insisting on the freedom that I needed to create. You have to do what your soul calls you to do. Some collectors are confused by this and you lose them, others are fascinated and wait and want to see what you will do next.”
At this point, Austin moves his cowboy hat from his left to right side in the booth. He orders two more martinis from a passing waiter and I make a joke, asking him if he has a drinking problem.
“I wish.” He says, “This is a special day, can’t you feel it?” and he looks down at my notepad and recorder and so I ask my next question.
“If you could have the work of any artist to hang in your home, which would that artist be?”
“Van Gogh’s ‘White Roses‘ is a favorite painting of mine. What a beautiful work of art! I was offered a job years ago to work for Walter Annenberg , who owned that painting. It hung in their home throughout the season in Rancho Mirage and would be flown off season, to MOMA in New York City. I turned that job down but to have been his personal assistant and to spent each day in the same house as ‘White roses’ would have been exciting.
I love the paintings of Milton Avery, the feelings I get from his work and the American gothic paintings of Grant Wood. Growing up in Iowa, I was exposed to his work and I developed an admiration. All three of these men, I would be thrilled to own a painting by.
Our fresh martinis are set down in front of us and neither of us misses a beat.
“You have a wide range of styles. You could hang a number of your paintings side by side and you would not know that they were painted by the same artist.”
“I received a scholarship with what was at the time, Otis/Parsons Art Institute, in Los Angeles. They were joined for a time and I studied costume design for film, stage and television. It wasn’t until my second trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 93 that I returned to Palm Springs, went out one day and spent hundreds of dollars on paint, brushes and canvas. It was fate calling and I knew it. New Mexico has that power to connect you to your deeper self. It is the reason I had to move there, it called to me. Being a self-taught painter, you try many approaches and in doing so you are able to develop a variety of styles. Most artist lock into one, I haven’t done so, not yet anyway.
He takes a deep breath and I can see the cowboy in him growing restless.
“Just one more question,” I say, “What are you up to now?”
“Working on my next show.” He says. “I have so many ideas spinning in my head. I leave tomorrow for a summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts and I plan to work on new pieces there and I may place in a gallery. I am learning and looking into corporate sponsorship so that I may produce better shows and I have a museum concept show for a traveling exhibition that I dream of doing once I can raise the money. If you know of a corporation looking to sponsor, please send them my way. That has all been dreams and plans I keep in my head and I am surprised that I told them to you. We had better stop now before you ask the questions that I regret answering later.
“Perhaps I will ask those questions in our next interview.” I said with a smile.
“Perhaps. He replied.
As I closed my notepad and turned off my recorder, we stood to leave. Austin placed his cowboy hat back on his head and looked about the room.
“Now let me ask you a question.” He said, dangling his truck keys in his hand. “Are you okay to drive …. Or am I?”
Austin Calloway currently shows his paintings at DESIGN 849 and with the Woodman/Shimko Gallery in Palm Springs, California. Please stop in to see his work in person and on Facebook at: The ART of Austin Calloway .