City drew winning hand with Wayne Thiebaud
By Cecily Hastings
Anyone who reaches 100 and is still active has mastered the art of aging. But to reach an advanced age and work every day, stay sharp, physically active and self-sufficient puts you in another category—what gerontologists call “super-agers.”
Sacramento artist Wayne Thiebaud is the ultimate super-ager of today’s art world. He’s famous around the world for creating colorful paintings and drawings of commonplace objects—pies, lipsticks, paint cans, ice cream cones, pastries and hot dogs—and for landscapes and figure paintings.
Thiebaud uses heavy pigment and exaggerated colors. His work features well-defined shadows characteristic of advertisement. Early on, he embraced freedom—the right to paint whatever he found interesting. It worked. This summer, his mesmerizingly austere 1962 painting, “Four Pinball Machines,” sold at Christie’s One auction for $20.1 million.
Thiebaud was born in Mesa, Ariz., but grew up and graduated high school in Long Beach. One summer he apprenticed at Walt Disney Studios for $14 a week, drawing “in-betweens” that allowed Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket and Goofy to move in animation. After studying at a Los Angeles trade school, he worked as a cartoonist and designer in California and New York. He came to know Sacramento when he served in U.S. Army Air Forces at Mather Field during World War II.
In 1949, he enrolled at San Jose State College and transferred to Sacramento State, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1951 and a master’s in 1952. He soon began teaching at Sac City College.
On a leave of absence during 1956–57, he spent time in New York City, where he became friends with abstract impressionists. He began to paint small images of foods displayed in windows. Returning to California, Thiebaud co-founded the local Artists Cooperative Gallery, now the Artists’ Collaborative Gallery, and other art cooperatives.
He was largely unknown in 1959 when the architectural firm Dreyfuss + Blackford selected Thiebaud to create a massive mural—the 250-foot “Water City” tile installation that wraps around SMUD headquarters in East Sacramento. An $83 million building update last year rejuvenated the mural, Thiebaud’s only large-scale public installation.
In 1960, he became an assistant professor at UC Davis and had his first solo show in San Francisco, along with gallery shows in New York. Acclaim was growing. But Thiebaud was mostly interested in teaching. He worked at UC Davis through 1991 and recently said he still sees himself as “just an old art teacher.”
Friendships were always important. In 1961, Thiebaud became friends with a New York art dealer named Allan Stone. Their friendship and professional relationship continued until Stone’s death in 2006. Stone summed it up:
“I have had the pleasure of friendship with a complex and talented man, a terrific teacher and cook, the best raconteur in the West with a spin serve, and a great painter whose magical touch is exceeded only by his genuine modesty and humility. Thiebaud’s dedication to painting and his pursuit of excellence inspire all who are lucky enough to come in contact with him. He is a very special man.”
In 1959, after a divorce from Patricia Patterson, Thiebaud married filmmaker Betty Jean Carr. A year later they had a son, Paul LeBaron Thiebaud, who became an art dealer. The couple bought a home and settled into Land Park, where Thiebaud lives and works today. Paul took over as his dad’s art dealer after Stone’s death. Paul died in 2010 at 49. Betty Jean passed away in 2015 at 86.
Thiebaud’s daughter-in-law Karen and her two children live nearby. His adopted son, Matt Bult—an accomplished artist—also lives in Land Park with his wife, Maria.
I met Thiebaud playing tennis at our club. He’s played his whole life and still plays several times a week. A few years ago I had the honor of working alongside him on an art selection panel that developer Phil Angelides set up to help choose public art for the McKinley Village development. I saw firsthand: Thiebaud is a very humble, soft-spoken, generous and thoughtful man. When he voiced an opinion, we all listened!
Still working every day, Thiebaud reflects a prestigious group of artistic super-agers around the world. Paul McCartney writes music and performs for several hours straight at 78. Mick Jagger energetically prances at 77. Roger Angell is a senior editor and staff writer at the New Yorker magazine. He turned 100 in September. Pablo Picasso created art until his death in 1973 at 92. So did Georgia O’Keefe, who died in 1986 at 98.
The most astounding super-ager ever was Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, who died in 1564 at 88 and practiced painting, architecture and sculpture until the end. He doubled the average life expectancy of his era and left one of the greatest bodies of personal artistic achievement in history.
Gerontologists study the secrets of super-agers. Why do some older people remain mentally nimble while others decline? Research has identified a key finding: Work hard at something. The critical brain regions increase in activity when people perform difficult tasks, whether the effort is physical or mental. You can help keep these regions thick and healthy through vigorous exercise and strenuous mental effort.
The road is difficult. These brain regions have an intriguing effect: When they increase in activity, you tend to feel bad—tired, stymied or frustrated. Super-agers seem to excel at pushing past temporary unpleasantness of intense effort. Studies suggest the result is a more youthful brain that helps maintain a sharper memory and greater ability to pay attention.
As people get older, research shows, they cultivate happiness by avoiding unpleasant situations. But if people consistently sidestep the discomfort of mental effort or physical exertion, the restraint can be detrimental to the brain. All brain tissue gets thinner from disuse. If you don’t use it, you lose it.
Wayne Thiebaud has suffered losses among family and friends. He has outlived his son, two wives, and dear friend and fellow tennis player Burnett Miller, who passed away in 2018 at 95.
But Thiebaud never wavered at working hard at his craft every day. His profession allows him to continue working. The art world and our local community are so much richer as a result.
Sometimes a city gets lucky when someone special chooses it as their home. That’s the story with Sacramento and Wayne Thiebaud.
The Crocker Art Museum’s “Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings,” a retrospective of Thiebaud’s achievements—coinciding with his 100th birthday—was scheduled for Oct. 11 to Jan. 3, 2021. Stay tuned for the reopening of the Crocker Art Museum.
The exhibition—the largest survey of Thiebaud’s work in more than 20 years—spans his career with 100 objects made between 1947 and 2019. The exhibition represents the artist’s achievements in all media, with pieces drawn from the Crocker’s holdings and Thiebaud family—many of which have never been shown publicly. For information, visit crockerart.org.
OUR COVERS THIS MONTH
We’ve been honored to present Wayne Thiebaud’s work on our covers in previous years. This month, we’ve been given permission to display artwork from his upcoming exhibition on all four of our covers.
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Cecily Hastings can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram: @insidesacramento.com.