Oct 15, 2007

An Interview with Charles L. Heald

An Interview with Charles L. Heald,
Cover Artist for Another Roadside Attraction.

My son recently gave me a signed first edition of Another Roadside Attraction for my birthday. I had seen the cover art of the jacket of that edition once before in the early 1970's and it had stuck with me, almost hauntingly. Now that I own the book and the art, I decided to find out about the artist. Thus I have came to Larry Heald's website and found haunting images aplenty. What a wonderful collection! I wanted to know more about this artist and his connection with the work of Tom Robbins and he kindly consented to the following email interview. --Dale Kirby

Was there something about the Northwest that drew you as an artist to move out there for your education?

Yes. That would be my brother, Paul. I was going to a small college, with a very small art department, back in Michigan, working summers in Yellowstone. I'd noticed that the further west I traveled, the better I liked it. The people, like the landscape, opened up and let me in, and I followed Horace Greely's suggestion. Paul was in Seattle starting his grad work at UW, and spoke of it's beauty. I hopped a train in Livingston, Montana, and got to Seattle in time for fall quarter, 1960.

When did you get to know or know about Tom Robbins? Was it as an art
critic or a novelist?

I think it was around 1962. Paul had a show of his paintings at one of the handful of galleries that existed in Seattle at the time, and Tom, the new critic in town, had written a rather unflattering review of his work. Paul figured Tom had missed the point, and invited him over to his place for dinner. They became good friends and Tom was then introduced to a bunch of young artists, including myself, and, being the open creative person he is, became one of the gang. As I remember it, the tone of his reviews changed from rather harsh (but clever) slam dunks that would keep people from even going to the gallery to more in depth observations that enticed the public to go have a look for themselves.

Skagit Valley seems to be a magnet for artists from Morris Graves onward. Was there an art movement in Skagit Valley when you lived there?

There certainly were a bunch of artists around, and they were all active, but there was no activity as a cohesive group. The show at the Seattle Art Museum in 1974, was perhaps the first time we looked at ourselves as a group, but even then, we were just a bunch of artists and urban escapees living in the same beautiful area.

Who were some of the people in the Skagit Valley artists group?

Guy Anderson was the patriarch, a legend in his time. None of us flocked around him as some sort of guru, however. We just loved him, and he loved us. He was old enough to be the grandfather of most of us, and yet he had a youthful spirit no one could resist. A lifetime of creativity does that to a person it seems. Larry Beck and his wife, Gertrude Pacific, lived and worked in the Conway Bank. Clayton James was in LaConner, Paul Havas was on Fir Island along with Art Jorgenson, Rick Dekker up in Blanchard, Richard Gilkey and R. Allen Jensen down in Stanwood, Charlie Krafft and Robert Sund out at Fishtown. Max Benjamin and Phil McCracken lived out on the islands, so we didn't see much of them. There were a few others, but these were the folks I associated with most.

How did you come to do the cover art for Another Roadside Attraction?

Tom wrote me a letter while he was living in South Bend, WA and I was living in Inverness, CA, telling me he was writing a novel and asking if, providing he could find a publisher, I'd be interested in doing illustrations. When the publisher was found, it became the dust jacket. That was in 1969.

Did you read the book before you did the art?

No. I had no idea what the book was about, just the elements Tom mentioned. However I did know Tom, which was quite enough, and knowing a book can't be judged by its cover, I didn't worry about it. Tom wrote and told me to include the following: A Weenie Man (whatever that is) pointing a cane at a young gypsy-type woman holding the mummified body of Christ in a carnival tent, with a Skagit type landscape and including butterflies and mushrooms. Of course I had no idea what the book was about with those directions, but I could tell I was going to like it. Had I read the book first, and been given a "free hand", there's no telling what it would have looked like!

Was there a human model for the picture of Amanda?

No. However looking at it now, it does resemble my first wife a bit.

Have you had much contact with TR since you left the Skagit Valley? Have you followed his work and/or he followed yours?

I usually get up to Seattle and the Skagit once or twice a year, to deliver paintings, and visit my brother and other artist friends, including Tom, when he's not gallivanting about the globe doing research on his next novel. I've read all Tom's books and occasionally catch other stuff in periodicals. I doubt that he's seen much of my work for the last several years, due to its relative unavailability. Most of it is right here in my storeroom.

What are your influences--both artistically and philosophically--in your art?

I get asked this, or a variation of, this question from time to time and it always throws me for a loop. I should have a standardized answer prepared for convenience, but I'm generally not willing to think about it to the extent it would take to come up with anything worth passing along. To the question as you put it, I'd say: other artists, past and present, and philosophers, past and present, which includes everyone I know. Throw in the mysteries of the universe, the marvels of this planet we live on, the miracle of nature and life, and the baffling behavior of the human critter.

Your paintings are natural and supranatural at the same time. What are your theories on painting?

I really can't think of any. I just love to paint and then to see what happens. In a sense, I guess you might say I create my own reality, which in view of the confusing answer to the last question, makes a certain amount of sense.

I found the section fascinating where you showed pictures you had done some time before, and how they changed as you reworked them. Do you do a lot of "revising" as you work?

Right from the very beginning, I'm revising. Nothing is ever finished. At some point I quit, but that never means that a few days, weeks or years later I won't completely repaint the thing. Sometimes I start with a preconception, but never have I ended up with that concept. Often the paintings have nothing to do with the original idea. Something like life itself, perhaps.

One of your paintings in particular stirred my soul. It was the one of the mountain cabin with the crescent moon in the window. What was the inspiration for that image?

"Unfinished Painting VII" is the seventh of a sub series that's been going for quite awhile. In fact the first was done in 1971 and was included in the Skagit Valley Artists show at the Seattle Art Museum in 1974. And in fact it's now in their collection, unless they tossed it out. The idea of the whole series is a play on the title "Unfinished Painting" that art historians stick on paintings they find in the studios of dead artists, and which appear to have never been resolved. As I recall, they all contain a bucket of spilled paint and the suggestion that an accident has occured while the painter is transforming an interior-exterior space with a new sky color. I think there are some others on the site, if you can find them.

Have you illustrated any other books or done other cover art?

Only my own book which is entitled, "Homestead Fire Prevention and Supression", a book on fighting wildfires. Not exactly an artistic endeavor. However I did three album covers for some musician friends, The Youngbloods. "Elephant Mountain", "High on a Ridgetop", and "Country Home".

What's your favorite work of yours?

I have some favorites from every period over the last 40 years of painting. Some of them were of the genre in which I was working, but often they were the ones that were instrumental in breaking me free from it. It's been suggested that the current series based on the Pacific Coast are my best ever. I like that idea. That's how it should be.

Any last thoughts?

These questions have stirred up all sorts of memories. The sixties and early seventies were a sweet time for artists, writers, musicians and other creative folk. Things went sour for many, but the spirit lives on in some. We obviously didn't change the world, although we thought we were at the time. It appeared as if we had something to look forward to. Like all things these days (worthwhile and otherwise), it became commercialized, popularized, commonplace and reduced to its dollar value. To the prez who says, "It's the economy, stupid", I'd like to say, "It's the stupid economy!", and besides that, buster! @#%^&*, etc.

:-) Thanks so much, Larry.