|Artist Tom Everhart at his studio with Surfing with Franz and Willem from Waves of Influence|
At Everhart Studio
Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice
“I’ve been here on Abbot Kinney for 18 years, and it’s been like sitting in a time machine, watching everything around you change,” says artist Tom Everhart. “Even in the past few months, it’s been on such a roll. It’s amazing.”
As the only fine artist authorized to paint Peanuts comic strip characters, Tom is mostly known for his Charles Schulz-influenced paintings, which decorate the walls of his studio located on bustling Abbot Kinney Boulevard. He discusses Schulz, his upcoming exhibit at Mouche Gallery of Beverly Hills and the constant evolution of his Venice Beach neighborhood after taking me on a tour of his home base.
Tom incorporates media like acrylic paint and varnish on canvas and paper, but he also utilizes raw wood, medium-density fiber panels, plastic cups and polyester pom-pom balls to create the visually stunning Chop Chop Chop, Performance Art and Medal of Free Dumb pieces that line the main showroom of his studio space. While he’s widely known for these brightly colored works, it’s his black-and-white Schulz-influenced pieces from the past 13 years – as well as 15 exclusive new works – that are being featured in Raw: Black and White Works From 1998-2016 at Mouche Gallery from Feb. 27 through March 16.
“There are about 50 different reasons why it’s titled Raw,” he explains. “The moment when it’s black and white on that rack being drawn – that’s raw right there. In that raw state there’s a whole other beauty to it than there is with all the color that’s even sometimes more meaningful because the original approach doesn’t get lost.”
|Chop Chop Chop hanging in Everhart Studio|
Appreciating the black-and-white rawness of a drawing is something Tom has done since his childhood in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.
“I always had coloring books, but sometimes I didn’t even color in them. I would just carry the black-and-white pages around because I thought they were strong enough without the crayons,” he shares. “That’s how the black-and-white work happens now. I start everything in black and white, and if I think it stands up strong by itself – which is rare, it happens a few times a year – then I keep it. It’s almost the same as with the coloring books where I felt there were certain things that just didn’t need color.”
In his downstairs workroom, where he normally works on small paper drawings and paintings, a beautiful black-and-white painting on raw wood and a massive plastic-cup sculpture that have been retrieved from other locations for the Mouche Gallery show fill the area. Tom instructs me to look at the sculpture from a certain angle to see how it resembles a piano, and I wonder how much time the artist has spent staring at work of his own as well as others over the course of his life.
“When I was a little kid, I spent a lot of time in art museums. I saw so much art, all these different movements, especially in Washington where my grandparents lived,” he recalls. “There was everything from the oldest of American art to the newest of contemporary art in those museums.”
Young Tom eventually studied art and architecture at Yale University, performance independent study under Earl Hofmann at St. Mary’s College and did post-graduate work at Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. He began exploring artistic anatomy, doing muscle and skeleton paintings, and as he was finishing school in the early 1980s, the art world was taking a turn.
“At that point in time, most of the art world had declared painting dead for many reasons: conceptualism, minimalism, photography, the list goes on and on of why painting couldn’t go forward anymore because everything had been done. The group of people that I was playing, partying and painting with in East Village refused to believe it. We had conversations constantly about what we could do to save it before it was buried and came up with all these painting constructions that were slightly offensive and completely uncomfortable for most people in the art world. We thought that was the only way to get the art world to take painting back as a living thing was to make them uncomfortable with painting because it would make them stop and look at it,” he remembers. “Keith Haring was doing multiple paintings of penises everywhere, and I did some with him in the subways. There were paintings about racism – all sorts of subject matter. I was heading in the direction of doing a whole body of work of skeletons as religious people.”
Then Tom met Charles M. Schulz.
|The main showroom of Everhart Studio|
“I was trying to draw his stuff for a project, and I couldn’t get it. I just didn’t understand the language, the cartooning to it. It was so abbreviated compared to the kind of drawings that I was used to doing that I couldn’t get past it – until I put his drawing in a projector, blew it up on a huge wall and saw the lines as paintbrush strokes. I went, ‘Oh my god, this looks just like the abstract paintings in black and white that I studied in school,’” he says. “I was expecting to meet a cartoonist, but because I got to know him as an artist, I got to know him in a completely different way. How does a cartoon strip get published every single day for 50 years and not have something else to it than just cartoon strip with cute characters? There’s got to be something much deeper in it, and that’s what I saw in his work when I was studying it.
“From that first meeting on, he and I became friends and had lots of discussions over the next 20 years about pictorial problems simplified in black and white. Thats what we talked about for 20 years. As we got to know each other, he started telling me all these things: ‘I use this line to represent this,’ ‘If you draw three lines together they never look the same because each line is seen at a different time,’” Tom continues. “One of Schulz’s quotes hangs in his museum: ‘A cartoonist’s job is doing the same thing every day without repeating themselves.’ It’s got to be the familiar done in an unfamiliar angle for it to be art. To me, that wasn’t like a cartoonist at all. That’s a complete painter’s way of looking at the world. That caught me. It was so raw, and I was completely innocent, visually open and ready to be changed.”
After a couple of years, Tom could draw Schulz’ line just like him – not copying him but drawing an object the way he would draw it – and began creating authentic Schulz-style drawings for magazines such as Time and Good Housekeeping, in art for the White House and the majority of the MetLife campaign. Knowing Tom could draw his line exactly like he would draw it in these marketing pieces allowed Schulz to continue dedicating himself completely to the comic strip.
Simultaneously, Tom’s discussions with Schulz were influencing him so much that his skeleton paintings were becoming a bit boring to him, but after eight years of these talks he wasn’t ready to take the plunge and incorporate these techniques and theories into pieces of his own.
“I knew I could somehow work in his visual subject matter but didn’t know how without just doing Peanuts paintings because neither of us wanted that. It couldn’t be a painterly version of what he did, it had to be something that came from me, with a direction that came from me,” he says.
“In 1988 I got sick and was told I had two years to live. I was able to break through mentally and start working like he influenced me to do on paintings. This was my one chance to do it. I had to get back to the studio and do as much as I could as fast as I could. That’s what happened, and I just kept living.”
It took death staring him in the face as a cancer patient to give Tom the epiphany he needed to incorporate Schulz’s characters into his own work but never in a literal way.
“It wasn’t like we ever sat down, and he said, ‘This is how you draw Snoopy.’ We would just be drawing, and he would say, ‘Look at this line. Doesn’t that express a sad feeling to you? Here’s why: It starts thin and then gets very heavy – almost like an opera would.’ He had this encyclopedic range of human emotions in his lines and that caught my eye intensely. It was never his storyline that caught my eye, it was his line,” Tom tells. “A lot of times people mistake my paintings as paintings about Peanuts when – this sounds very odd people have a hard time with it at first – they really have very little to do with the Peanuts comic strip. They have a whole lot to do with the line construction of Charles Schulz the way he breaks down line and express emotion with line. They have nothing to do with character development. I don’t follow any character relationships, I don’t pick the character because they’re the character. They always represent something else. It’s another way of seeing the world in the way he saw it but with using the influence of the visual subject matter that I learned from him.”
He made sure that the work upheld Schulz’s idea of the familiar done in an unfamiliar way, as well as infusing life into each piece as much as possible.
“It’s a line that’s gone from drawing to painting – fused it into one thing,” he describes. “The work is influenced by my relationship and the things that I’ve learned from Charles Schulz from that 20-year period, but what makes it happen, what pushes it to happen is being alive. That came from almost dying and realizing that the world only could be about being alive, and it’s been about that ever since. Every piece is about being alive and not taking it for granted.”
This principle is certainly felt when viewing Tom’s latest group of paintings, entitled Waves of Influence, which he’s working on in the upstairs area of his studio. As I examine, the black-and-white piece for the Raw exhibition, Surfing with Franz and Willem – as in Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning – Tom explains that not only is the tiny Snoopy in the painting influenced by Schulz but so is the giant wave.
“The wave came from a Peanuts strip published on April 21, 1991 that I think Schulz did from when he was playing golf at Pebble Beach. I cut that wave out in ’91 and said, ‘One day I have to do something with it,’ and this is it,” he says. “The initial visual articulation of the wave came from that strip, but since then I’ve been spending the last two weeks at the Venice Pier just watching the breaks going out for a good hour each day, and of course in Tahiti I’m always watching. It is a combination of the rhythms in Tahiti and the rhythms of the waves here in Venice put together. That’s what I mean by being alive: I’m taking things from life that I’ve experienced, that have made differences in my life and putting them into these waves, so it still feels like it’s something alive.”
After having lived in D.C., San Francisco, Paris, New York, Baltimore and London, Tom and his wife, Jennifer, decided to make Venice their home. The couple also spends part of the year on the island of Taha’a, Tahiti. Tom says he fell in love with Venice Beach at first sight.
“The first time I ever saw Venice was in 1982 when I came with my neighbor and friend, Jean Basquiat, who was getting ready to have a show with Gagosian Gallery. He had a studio on Market Street, between Pacific and Speedway. There were one or two other studios and a hip restaurant [72 Market Street Oyster Bar and Grill]. The area was deadly with heroin addicts and gangs, but we loved that. We were from the East Village in New York and thought this was cool because you could see the violence here. In our neighborhood guys were hiding under and in between cars to hit you over the head, but out here you could see them coming for you,” Tom laughs. “I fell in love with it instantly and always had a part-time place here from that mid-‘80s period until 1997 when we moved here full time. I was just dying to move here for the weather, the not-New-York feeling. There was an art community, but it wasn’t like the one in New York where it was so amped up and on full time. Here you could just hide in your studio. Ed Ruscha had a studio right across the street up until a year or two ago, Sam Francis had a place around the corner. This felt like a sanctuary to me.”
“For every single reason possible to love L.A., I love it. I’ve always liked to be by the water. I love the rhythm out there on the bike path. I ride from here to the Palisades and back – that rhythm of the bike, the wind that goes with you, the blank peaceful water on one side and the thrusting cliffs on the other side when you’re on PCH in between those two forces,” he continues. “Even more than inspiration, it’s a key that opens a door because you’re no longer hung up on the things you get hung up on in daily life. It’s a blank canvas, and you’re in the middle of it. I do most of my effective thinking work out there.”
It’s obvious why Tom has kept Eberhart Studios in the same location for almost 20 years, even through all the ups and downs the area has experienced.
“I watched that bar across the way go from a serious biker bar where you could watch some fights at 2 a.m. to a cool hipster-like bar [The Brig]. There was a guy camped out in the middle of the parking lot, bathing himself as everyone was parking, dressed all nice going to Gjelina – we still have a balance. That’s why when people start yelling about regentrification, I say come over, spend some time at my place and watch,” he laughs. “I love it having all this new stuff grow like this, it makes the street feel alive. How can you ask an artist to be upset about growth and change because that’s what we’re supposed to do, we’re supposed to see things in a different way all the time, continuously growing and changin. That’s what Schulz and I talked about: The work had to keep feeling like it was growing. If it wasn’t growing, it wouldn’t feel alive.”