By Bonnie Gangelhoff
Jim McVicker still remembers the opening of his first gallery show. After all, how could he forget such a total disaster? It was 1976, and he arrived at the much-anticipated occasion only to find a wobbly gallery owner being escorted out. In preparation for the event, it seems, the gallerist had mixed up a potent batch of vodka punch and then proceeded to drink the entire brew before his first guests even stepped over the threshold. If a drunken gallery owner wasn’t ominous enough, McVicker says that only a few of his friends managed to show up, and he didn’t sell a single painting.
Today, 34 years later, he laughs about the fiasco and his baptism by fire into the art world. Fortunately, his career has gone uphill from its inauspicious start. As this story was going to press, he had just received the news that two of his paintings were juried into the California Art Club’s 99th annual Gold Medal Exhibition, which takes place at the Pasadena Museum of California Art this month. He was also immersed in completing a series of paintings for a two-person still-life show in July at Peterson-Cody Gallery in Santa Fe, NM, as well as pieces for a group show in September at Fairmont Gallery in Sonoma, CA.
To best understand McVicker’s art these days, it helps to know that the painter inhabits two separate studios—one indoors and the other outdoors in nature. When creating a still life, he’s likely to be found in the airy studio next to his home—both structures perched on a scenic hillside in the coastal town of Loleta, CA. If he is in this space, it’s likely to be a gray day outside. One of the first things a visitor may notice is the cool jazz of Miles Davis permeating the studio. The second thing that grabs a visitor’s attention is an easel set up under one of four ceiling skylights. A glance through a nearby window reveals a sprawling garden bright with irises, poppies, hollyhocks, and roses. These are some the subjects that regularly show up in McVicker’s contemporary tableaux. But the artist is quick to point out that the flower viewers are most likely to see in his still lifes is the amaryllis.
Something about the large blossoms, the tall stalks, and sometimes brilliant colors of these flowers attract him like no others. In fact, this is where McVicker says his still-life paintings often begin. He simply places a potted amaryllis on a table in his studio and gradually adds other elements—a Turkish rug, a Mexican terra cotta pot, or some shiny red apples from his orchard. “Harmony is important to me, and so is seeing a connection between each object in the painting,” says the artist.
The most common observation about McVicker’s still lifes is that he has a knack for evoking the atmosphere both inside and out—capturing the mood of the room as well as the landscape in the background. He is fond of setting up props on a table near a window and including the view outdoors, as in RED AMARYLLIS, OVERCAST DAY. “His still lifes are really extensions of his landscapes. In Jim’s mind, they are ‘still lifescapes,’” says Manette Fairmont, an artist and owner of Fairmont Gallery in Sonoma, CA, which has represented McVicker for four years. “His still lifes are also about the negative space between the objects. He almost sees negative space first, and that’s how the objects find their home. There is a lot of sky and space in both his still lifes and his landscapes.”
While McVicker’s still lifes may be carefully designed and composed, it is interesting to note that his career in art came about in quite the opposite way—spontaneously. As a youngster and later in his teens, he never considered a life in art. He preferred hiking in the mountains near his home in Southern California. When he was 21, his girlfriend at the time was enrolled in an art history class, and, intrigued by her textbooks, he began casually flipping through the pages. He recalls being struck by images of paintings by the French Impressionists and post-Impressionists like Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne. He borrowed some canvas paper from his girlfriend
kerning1and attempted to imitate what he saw in the books.
McVicker supported himself with day jobs painting houses and working in a steel mill, but in his spare time he painted, sometimes traveling to Laguna Beach to capture the rocky coastline. He remembers that when he and his roommates threw parties, he would sit off in a corner and paint dozens of abstract landscapes from his imagination. After taking a few drawing and painting classes at a local community college and creating a boatload of paintings, he decided it was time to take a leap of faith. “I knew I had a passion for painting, and I knew this was what I was going to do full time. If so, I needed to work at it full time.”
In 1975, at 24, he loaded his pickup truck and moved to Santa Cruz, where he continued to paint and managed to survive that disastrous first gallery show. After a visit to a friend in Northern California, he decided the small town of Eureka felt like home to him. He was attracted by the low rents and mild winters as well as the magnificent scenery and the thriving university and artistic communities. In 1977, he packed up his pickup truck again.
This move would prove inspired, and it was also a turning point in his career, he says. It was in Eureka that McVicker began painting every day for three years with a cadre of artists that included James B. Moore, George Van Hook, and Curtis Otto. In the beginning they painted scenes of downtown Eureka as well as its harbors, dockyards, and abandoned railroad yards. They then fanned out to paint the forests and rivers found throughout Humboldt County. “This is where I took huge leaps forward. Painting with them was the biggest influence on me and my work,” McVicker says.
Today he is more likely to paint solo, heading out his back door to capture the magic and mystery of nearby scenes in the Loleta Valley. A perfectionist, he says completing some landscapes may take him as many as 15 separate trips. “It can be very frustrating with unpredictable changes in light and weather conditions, but in the end the process is stimulating and makes my work what it is,” he explains.
Gallery owner Manette Fairmont comments that McVicker’s dedication to authenticity while on location has always impressed her. “His whole life is picking the right lighting conditions. He won’t just finish a painting to finish it,” she says. “His landscapes take quite a bit of time. He will put a painting aside for months until the atmosphere and light are right and the painting is true to the vision before him.”
McVicker says his intent in such dedication is to convey the visual beauty that life presents to people. “I don’t necessarily want to make things look more beautiful, but I do wish more people took the time to be amazed at what is around us,” he says.
These days, McVicker divides his time equally between his two studios—painting still lifes indoors and painting landscapes in the open air. Each has its appeal, but painting en plein air speaks to his artistic soul in a special way that harks back to childhood when he loved to hike through the mountains. “Nothing is more stimulating than looking at trees or mountains or seeing a hawk fly by, and then trying to get it all down on canvas,” he explains. “By the time I was in seventh grade, I knew I would have to have a job outdoors; I just never considered it would be as an artist.”
As for the future, McVicker welcomes the idea of a museum show. While he has been in a group landscape show at the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, CA, and has had a solo show at the Morris Graves Museum of Art in Eureka, he relishes the idea of a broader audience for his work. But in general he prefers to think about the future in terms of one painting at a time. “I only want to keep painting and hopefully never settle into a comfort zone,” he says.
Fairmont Gallery, Sonoma, CA; George Stern Fine Arts, West Hollywood and Carmel, CA; Panache Gallery, Mendocino, CA; Peterson-Cody Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; www.jimmcvickerpaints.com.
California Art Club’s Gold Medal Juried Exhibition, Pasadena Museum of California Art, Pasadena, CA, June 13-July 3.
Two-person show, Peterson-Cody Gallery, July 2-31.
Group show, Fairmont Gallery, September 18-October 30.
Featured in June 2010