By Bonnie Gangelhoff
California figurative painter Tony Pro is having a terrific year on the show circuit
When Tony Pro arrived at the Oil Painters of America awards ceremony held in May in Chicago, IL, he wasn’t expecting any prizes. After all, this was the first year that he was juried into the competition. But there were rumblings. His friend, painter Aaron Westerberg, said that someone had mysteriously moved Pro’s impressionistic painting mother’s love from a back corner to a front position in the show for no apparent reason.
As Pro chewed over that tidbit, his infant son Ian, whom he had brought to the event along with his wife, Elizabeth, suddenly began to wail. The baby’s cries wafted through the gathered crowd, and soon Elizabeth retreated from the ballroom to the lobby with the baby in her arms. Meanwhile, the show’s judge, well-known painter Dan Gerhartz, began ticking off the names of the award winners, moving from the honorable mentions to the top awards. Third. Second. First. Pro remembers thinking his friend Aaron had been dead wrong. About then mother’s love popped up on a huge screen and he heard Gerhartz announce that he had won the Best of Show award. “I remember walking up to the podium and thinking, ‘Don’t cry,’” Pro recalls. “It was a very emotional moment.”
But if his emotions had run amok, his sense of humor was intact. When he reached the podium, he quipped to the audience, “The baby in the painting was the one making all the noise in the room.” Laughter rippled through the crowd. The award, which came with a $12,000 cash prize, has special meaning for Pro because the painting brought together his three greatest passions in life—his wife, his son, and his art.
“It’s been such a big year for me. Everything is happening so fast,” says Pro, who was included in Southwest Art’s “21 Under 31” feature last year.
Indeed, it has been a good year for the Southern Californian in his early 30s. The week after accepting the OPA honors, Pro flew to Washington, DC, to accept another national award as one of 10 finalists in the prestigious annual Portrait Society of America competition. This year’s show was juried by esteemed portrait artist Raymond Kinstler. Pro’s award-winning painting, girl with a rose, is a classically painted portrait of a young woman holding a pale yellow rose, a piece that evokes the chiaroscuro moodiness of the Dutch masters.
A few months before, Pro had won a first-place award at the annual Portrait Society of Atlanta show in Georgia for yet another portrait. For this event, Pro brought his father, Julio, a semi-retired physician and wildlife painter, to the ceremonies. It was another emotional moment because, he points out, it was his father who first introduced him to the world of art.
Pro was born in Northridge, CA, in 1973. He grew up in the Los Angeles area, and from his earliest memories he was surrounded by paintings and discussions about art. His parents collected western and Native American art, and as a boy he met painting legends such as Frank McCarthy. For vacations, his parents regularly packed up the family and traveled to see the studios of such renowned artists as E. Irving Couse and Nicolai Fechin in Taos, NM.
As a youngster, Pro also got introduced to various western shows, including the annual Cowboy Artists of America event held in Scottsdale, AZ, and the Western Art Show and Sale at the Phippen Museum in Prescott, AZ. “I was the youngest of four children, and my dad dragged me around the country to art shows,” he recalls. Pro didn’t have much interest in pursuing art formally, but he loved to draw, particularly airplanes and military aircraft. From age 8 on, he often set up a table next to his father’s display of paintings at the Phippen and sold his colored pencil depictions of military aircraft for $1 each.
In high school he took a few art classes but was mostly interested in sports. At 6 feet 4 inches tall, he was a natural for the basketball team. The coaches wanted him to play football, too, but he declined. “I didn’t want to break any bones,” Pro says.
When it came time for college he enrolled at California State University, Northridge, to study for a degree in business. Case studies and economic theories, however, failed to engage him. “My notebooks were filled with drawings, but there were no notes,” Pro recalls. “I did terribly in my classes, and I really tried.”
The turning point came one day after he had studied even harder than usual for an exam in a last-ditch effort to turn around his dismal performances. “I got a D—and it was my second time taking the course,” he admits. “I walked out of the class and told my advisor, ‘I want out of the business school and into graphic design classes.’” The relief was enormous; the epiphany, life-changing.
While completing his degree in graphic design, he also began to take classes at the California Art Institute, where he studied with the famed illustrator Glen Orbik. From Orbik he learned the value of figure and head drawing and how to apply strict study principles to his artistic life. But it was at the now-defunct Fleischer Museum in Scottsdale, AZ, where he saw works by the Russian Impressionists that, he says, “knocked my socks off.” The artists, who painted battle scenes and were considered social realists, combined bold brush strokes with a keen knowledge of anatomy. They captured Pro’s imagination in the same way that epic Hollywood films such as Spartacus and Ben Hur still do. “I love the grand story,” Pro says. “And I try to go for the emotions in each piece.”
Although he grew up surrounded by paintings that often portrayed Native Americans and cowboys in the Old West, Pro found that he was drawn instead to painting his contemporaries—people who are a part of his everyday life. For example, in cheers, mate! he captures his friend Martin Kilner enjoying a mug of beer at a favorite pub. Pro explains that his usual Saturday ritual includes plein-air painting with Kilner and then stopping off to share a beer. Although Pro isn’t a plein-air painter, the excursions offer him time to relax and relish the landscapes of perpetually sunny California. In john allan andross, he portrays a family friend—a Las Vegas banker who is his godfather and mentor. In the piece, Andross puffs on a cigar. Pro notes that he and Andross enjoy smoking cigars when they get together.
Over the years, Pro has grown accustomed to studying the faces of family and friends, and those observations often result in lovingly rendered portraits. He can’t imagine getting the same satisfaction from another genre such as landscape or still-life work. “Painting figures connects me with people,” Pro reasons. “Art is such a secluded thing to do. It can turn you into a hermit.”
For the last decade, Pro has pursued three careers—working in graphic arts, teaching, and painting in his studio at home. They all came together a few years ago when he happened to watch a video about how to paint the landscape by renowned artist Richard Schmid. “I was frustrated watching it because he was mixing two colors on his palette, and I knew the color didn’t look as good as it could because of the bad quality of VHS,” Pro says. He contacted Schmid and offered his services to produce a better product on DVD. Schmid agreed, and Pro flew to Vermont to consult with the famed artist, eventually producing an updated edition of Schmid’s landscape video. “He had given me so much through his videos, I just wanted to give him something back,” Pro says. “I introduced him to the 21st century.”
In return, Pro says, Schmid gave him advice that changed the way he thinks about his art. “He told me that everything I paint is a self-portrait,” Pro recounts. “He really made me think about what I want to do and say.”
These days, Pro keeps a photo of Schmid in his studio for inspiration—a studio, incidentally, that he is about to expand, thanks to his OPA prize money. And he has no regrets about leaving a business career behind. “It was so boring,” Pro says. “For me art is about freedom to do what I want and express my ideas on canvas. It’s great to have people so moved by my work that they want to hang it on their walls. And it’s amazing to be able to take some sticks with hairs on them to create something and convey a vision.”
Pro is represented by Susan Powell Fine Art, Madison, CT, and www.tonypro-fineart.com.
Featured in September 2005