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An Artist's Journey

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Chapter 3: Eating Natural And Working On A Movie Lot

 

In transition

After returning to Tucson in the fall of 1972, I was re-hired at Levy's. Charlie had retired, Bill Browne had been promoted to manager, and most of the staff I had previously worked with had moved on, replaced by other equally talented, whacky people. Anthony Monaco was still there working as an illustrator but at the same time developing other career options. There was no clear role for me in the department. I often found myself filing art and doing other busy work, and I grew restless for something else.

Anthony and Patricia Monaco introduced me to The Granary, a macrobiotic food distribution center and restaurant on Fourth Avenue, the hip, counter-culture hot spot of Tucson at that time. In exchange for food I did signs for the store and sometimes worked behind the counter. I also began painting again.

My first painting after returning to Tucson.

These were impressions of chickens and roosters in the yard outside my apartment..

This sculpture, "The Flying Whatever" was made from aluminum cans and sent in pieces along with illustrated assembly instructions to Nick and Livvy McMahill. As of this writing (2010) it still hangs from a tree in their yard.

flying whatever

Some of my sign work for the Granary

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In January, 1973, I enrolled in the University of Arizona graduate school under the heading "independent study". I took a figure drawing class with Jim Davis, a painter I admired. One of my pieces from that class, now lost, received the drawing award in a student exhibit that spring. I also had animation ideas to pursue, and found an advisor and access to 16mm film equipment in the Drama Department.

I created two short films in the tiny kitchen of my apartment. The first was a painting in motion titled, "Whew". The second, titled "The Bug Story", used moveable pieces of art on board and acetate for characters and backgrounds. My advisor appreciated those efforts—no one in the filmmaking classes was experimenting with animation. I showed the films to classmates and groups of friends over the next several years before I lost track of them.

Also that spring, two friends from Ft. Campbell, Wayne Finner and Ron Weeks, came to live with me after their release from the Army. My little backyard apartment became unbearably crowded, so we moved to a larger house. I introduced Wayne to the group of people at the Granary. He liked them and what they were doing and by the end of the summer he had moved into their communal house on Fourth Avenue. There he met a young woman, Annie, and they became a couple. Ron met my sister, Cindy, when she stopped by to visit. They soon bonded and moved in together at the end of the summer. Within a year both couples were married.

Old Tucson Studio

In the spring of 1973, I found a job ($2.15/hour to start) as sign painter at Old Tucson Studio west of Tucson. At that time it was in it's prime as a mecca for the production of western movies, western-themed television shows, and other commercial filming. It was also a popular amusement park and international tourist attraction. The lot was crowded with visitors from around the world every day. My job was to work with the art director, Ken Czerny, to create signs and help with set painting as needed. Ken had an incredible knack for dressing and ageing sets and signs to create the old west atmosphere the lot was famous for. He was also a master hat-shaper. He caressed and punched many a hat into form to match or create the personality wearing it. Needless to say, he was quite a character himself.

Ken Czerny, Old Tucson art director

Working on a movie lot every day was, on one level, like stepping into another era. Behind the scenes, however, it was dealing with co-workers and management with all the fun, tensions and politics of any business. The employees dressed in period outfits to blend in when working on the lot. To the tourists we appeared to be characters in an on-going film. I enjoyed my role as the only sign painter and pretty much the town artist. Everyone came to me if they needed any kind of sign or other artwork.

Me on the lot

Ken, on the right, and an assistant, Paul Newman (no, not the Paul Newman)

Typical work for the lot.

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The faux horizontal siding of the "Trading Post" area of this sign was painted with a 2:00 shadow to match the scheduled time of the shoot. The "Kellogg's Sugar Pops" letters were cut from wood.

Movie companies and ad agencies would regularly rent Old Tucson for their productions. ThIs was a big money-maker for the lot. At that time there was an extensive period wardrobe and prop collection that ta production company could choose from and rent along with a huge, well-equipped, air conditioned sound stage and whatever buildings their script called for. Sometimes a company would completely rebuild a section of town to suit their needs. If they didn't bring their own sign writer, as was often the case, Old Tucson would hire me out to them at several times my wage. Although there was no bonus pay for me, I had the opportunity to work with art directors and their crews from Hollywood and ad agencies.

Meanwhile..

By the fall of 1973 I had moved to a small house on Fairmont Street. My job at Old Tucson paid the rent and didn't take up all my time. I did other sign work and continued to paint.

I stayed in this tiny house for nearly two years. It was my favorite of the 8 places I lived in from the time I returned from the Army in the fall of 1972 until I moved to my current home in January,1979. My stay at the Fairmount house ended when the owner decided to remodel and sell it.

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My porch studio and paintings done there.

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I also attended open drawing studios provided by the Tucson Museum of Art. This was a way for artists to draw from models and share the expenses.

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I traded this sign work for a turquoise and silver ring made by the shop owner from a design I supplied. The ring has been lost.

These signs were for a group of six of us who rented a rustic store space to try to sell our artwork. It was a fun, short-lived and not very lucrative experience.

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A girlfriend of that time, Cindi Savage, came from Mendocino to work as a cook in the Granary. She moved in with me and we traveled to Northern California to retrieve her furniture and other stuff. It was an enchanting trip where I saw and stayed in rustic, hand-built homes nestled in redwood forests. The relationship was tumultuous and didn't last very long. The trip, along with my Old Tucson experience, influenced the form and feel of my future living spaces.

This is Cindi Savage and one of her dogs. I made the bench and table from slabs of redwood given to me by a Mendocino carpenter during our trip.

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After a year and a half or so as an employee at Old Tucson, I had gotten so much positive feedback from visiting production companies that I felt I could do much better as an independent contractor. It was time for another career shift.

 

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