Fifty years and a day
Wilfred Sarr’s life in art
Editor’s note: a show featuring work of Wilfred Sarr from the collection of John LeMarr launches Thursday night at The Loft in San Pedro with an artist’s reception on Sept. 22. The following is an excerpt from a story originally published in 2010.
by Mark McDermott
In September of 1960, a very unlikely GI went on leave.
Wilfred Sarr was 24. He’d been drafted the previous year, unceremoniously yanked from Compton College, where he studied psychology for one very good reason.
“Well, I knew that I was crazy, no doubt about that,” Sarr said. “I looked at the way my mind worked and played tricks on me – I had so many automobile accidents, just little things to let me know there was a mechanism in me somewhere that was at odds with my progress.”
Army life was surprisingly pleasant. Even basic training was no problem. Sarr had been working in a clown diving act, so he was plenty fit. He was then trained as a medic and sent to Germany.
“Of all the things I could have gotten into, to be a medic was wonderful,” Sarr said. “If I had been in a light outfit, I would have cracked up and gotten killed by my own men.”
He was stationed in a beautiful German village called Birkenfeld, a pristine little farm community that had somehow avoided the destruction of WWII and still had cottages made out of mud and wattle. Sarr would frequently wander the fields and admire the old farm implements, which reminded him of his own upbringing working on farms in California.
Then the rain came. For seven weeks and one day, it poured. Sarr went in search of the sun. He and a buddy drove south, towards Barcelona. But as they passed through the villages of Germany and then France, something was happening.
“When you don’t see the sun for 50 days, they say screw it and go inside the cellars and bring out the wine and everybody gets shitfaced,” Sarr recalled. “It was funny. Every little town we came to, we’d stop and somebody would hand a bottle in one side and you’d take a long slug and then pass it along and out the other side, over and over. After going through about 30 little villages, at about 5 o’clock, we were really drunk.”
Finally, they made it to Barcelona. It was 105 degrees and sunny and there seemed to be art everywhere – drawings, painting, sculptures – and Sarr remembers thinking, “I could do that.”
The thought percolated as he began to drive back north a few days later. The forests, the villages, the skies: everything seemed aglow. As he crossed into France he had an epiphany.
“The vineyards, the blue sky, the puffy clouds, it was just this special beauty,” Sarr said. “I was driving through, and I thought, ‘Yeah. This is what I want to do.’ I had been thinking about medicine and psychology and that kind of thing. It was the last day in September of 1960, and I said, ‘Goddamn it, I am going to be an artist.”
He returned to Germany and began painting and drawing and within a few months had a show at the local service club that was well attended by the doctors and medical staff at the general hospital where he worked. One of his first drawings shows a caveman looking somewhat quizzically at his hands.
“He is looking… ‘These are pretty cool. Wonder what they are for?’ Little caveman,” Sarr said. “That is where the questions started.”
Sarr knew exactly what his hands were for. Fifty years and one day later, Sarr returns this Friday to Cannery Row Studios in Redondo Beach to show the fruits of a prodigiously productive lifetime in art. The show is a retrospective titled 50+1 (what was the question?).
He has produced more than 5,000 works of art and become — over the course of four decades, before leaving for Santa Cruz in 2001 – the man who more than any other painted this town. His work has ranged exuberantly, from pointillist portraits to impressionist landscapes to dancers to mandalas, from Picasso-like abstractions to Matisse-like exercises in simplicity, grace and color. But over, and over again, he has drawn perhaps the most daunting comparison in all of art.
As longtime art collector and Hermosa Beach resident Maggie Moir said, “Wilfred is truly our Van Gogh.”
Sarr has certainly shared this much with Van Gogh: he has not painted with the current market in mind. His ambitions have been less material and more spiritual. He has made very little money.
“He is determined to do it his way, and I think that was the same with Van Gogh,” said Richard Stephens, a painter, and curator at Cannery Row Studios. “He saw things differently, and just did it because that is all he knew how to do. Wilfred is the same way – he sees things differently, and he paints it the way he sees it. He never tries to fit in with anything. That is how you become an independent artist, and a leader.”
“I think Wilfred will be one of those people, in a hundred years, they will know who he is,” Stephens said.
Sarr suggests perhaps another reason why Van Gogh keeps coming up.
“Maybe because I’m apeshit crazy,” he said. “Over the last 50 years, I bet 30 people have come up to me and asked, ‘What’s up? Why do you still have both ears?’ It’s amazing. People in my racket are supposed to be crazy.” Nebraska to Hermosa
Sarr never received a day of formal artistic training in his life. But his whole life he was an artist.
He was born in Iowa and moved to Nebraska as a very young child. His memories are spare but intensely visual.
“I remember it was flat, and in winter, black and white and flat,” he said. “I remember we lived on a pig farm, way out of town, and there was a windmill, and if you got up on the windmill, man, it was just flat as far as you could see. That was Nebraska.”
A kindergarten teacher named Miss Coolin noticed a few unusual things about young Wilfred. First of all, every piece of paper that got within his grasp would be filled with drawings. It was a habit that would persist all his childhood.
“I was always drawing on every piece of paper I’d turn in to any teacher,” Sarr recalled. “She would have to look around to find the writing because there was always drawing.”
Miss Coolin quickly realized that these weren’t like other kids’ drawings. Wilfred had an intuitive understanding of perspective, for one thing – the faraway man would be small, the nearby cow, big – and his buildings were solidly two-dimensional.
“In kindergarten, everyone else was drawing houses with three sides,” Sarr said. “I knew damn well you couldn’t see any more than two at any one time.”
His family moved to Arizona when he was eight and then to the Sierra foothills town of Lindsay, California a year later. Sarr felt like he’d been plunked down in the Garden of Eden.
“I realized I had arrived,” he said. “It was spectacular – all flowers, rocky hills, big boulders the size of semi-trucks. It was just fantastic.”
In grade school in California, the other students started to notice Wilfred’s unusual abilities. Kids would gather around his desk for an hour at a time and watch him draw. But back home, his parents, Charles and Opal, didn’t see much use in his burgeoning talents.
“To be an artist was like, what are you talking about?” he said. “You think you are going to be an artist, great. One in a million, playing the lottery, that was the message I got…Of course, you learn to pick cotton, pick beans, pick tomatoes, pick squash, do dishes. That is real.”
By high school, he’d largely put away any artistic notions, although one time, as a sophomore, a teacher named Mr. Shipman noticed a portrait Wilfred had just idly drawn of him. He asked for it, and Wilfred gave it to him.
“That was my first portrait,” he said.
He would barely think about such things again until his epiphany in the military. After the military, he would barely think about anything else.
When Sarr arrived in Hermosa Beach in February of 1962, by his count, he was one of three bearded men in town. One was former mayor Mike Bigo (also the founder of the Pitcher House). The other was artist Willie Maloney, who did the original Tim Kelly surf sculpture and eventually left in a drugged haze with Sarr’s first wife, Sandra.
“I’ve had a respectable number of failed marriages, collapsing under the weight of art and drugs…enough to be respectable in any art market in the world. Forget the fucking formal education,” Sarr said.
Hermosa Beach in the 1960s was arguably one of the most vibrant artistic communities anywhere. The Lighthouse Café was blowing hot with some of the finest jazz musicians of the era; poets and philosophers wafted in and out of the Either/Or Bookstore just up the street, and the short-lived but long-remembered Insomniac Café was home to every assortment of artist.
Insomniac owner Bob Hare – who also operated an avant-garde gallery called the Argo – argues that Hermosa at that point was the epicenter of the LA art scene.
“There were a lot of artists in the South Bay,” Hare said. “So many of them, in fact, that what really ought to be explored is how the LA art style was really generated in many ways from Hermosa Beach….And it was something Hermosa ate with a spoon, baby. It was truly an artist’s colony, and all those wonderful people came out and supported it. And it grew like a wildfire.”
Sarr had moved into a little house on the corner of Manhattan Avenue and Eighth Street in Hermosa. He had ambitions.
“I had envisioned really taking over the town,” he said. “I was going to be the artist laureate of Hermosa Beach. It didn’t happen.”
Painting the town
He was known as Bart Sarr back then. Other artists recognized the unruly talent that arrived in their midst.
Painter Sari Staggs had seen these striking ballpoint pen drawings of male nudes that were done with no models. They were unlike anything she’d seen.
“They were from his imagination,” she said. “He didn’t have models, so the anatomy was kind of strange, but they were so good….I just went, ‘Who is this guy?’”
Pretty much all she knew about Sarr is that he wore a long beard, he had a high-ceilinged studio along the old Redondo waterfront, and there was something utterly compelling about his art. A little while later, Staggs was visiting a friend when a statuesque, disheveled blonde woman came striding towards them.
“She came barreling across the street, this gorgeous, big blonde woman, the most beautiful woman you could ever meet,” Staggs said.
They talked. The woman’s name was Sandra Sarr. Staggs asked if she was related to the painter.
“He’s my husband,” she said, not particularly pleased with the notion.
Finally one day Staggs was teaching a class at a studio in downtown Hermosa – the Way Up Gallery, on the corner of Pier on Hermosa, above where Rok Sushi is now – when she noticed a man intensely hunched over a canvas. It was Sarr.
“He turned around,” she remembered. “I had never seen him before but I’d seen his art for four or five years. ‘Oh my God,’ I said. ‘Are you the guy?’”
Sarr was a fury of artistic creation. At one point he had a house on Guadalupe Street in Redondo Beach that was infamous for its revelry. “My house was where everybody went and did all the shit they wouldn’t do in their own neighborhood,” Sarr said.
He was a big, muscular man, and he caroused with an even bigger, more muscular guy named Robi Hutas, a Hungarian painter and photographer known as Bull who had Popeye arms and a voice that could be heard a town away. They shared an utter commitment to art. But even Hutas was occasionally stunned by the intensity of his friend’s focus.
Hutas remembers one time when Sarr was away for three days on an industrial paint job at an airplane hangar and everybody decided to throw him a surprise party when he returned. Of course, Sarr hadn’t slept in three days.
“We are all waiting for him at his home, all hiding, he walks in and we are all yelling,” Hutas said. “I look at his eyes and they are completely covered with little tiny specks of paint. I said, ‘Bart, how can you look out of those eyes?’ He goes into the kitchen, gets a bowl of soup, goes to the backyard to this little shack he had with broken down steps. He had this tall three-legged stool and he’s sitting there balancing it eating soup…And he starts painting! I said, ‘Jesus Christ, Bart, aren’t you tired?’” He was just laughing at me. I will never forget that. It was unbelievable. It was past being human.”
The women and the parties came and went – he drank heavily and was eventually married and divorced three times – but no matter what, he kept painting. He doesn’t remember the 1960s as a happy time. He’d become an artist, but he wasn’t yet free.
“I had little unctions, little bubbles of light, but it was pretty dismal,” Sarr recalled. “What we are dealing with is fear. Oh gosh, until 1968, my life was dominated by fear. Everybody was so ugly, and I wanted to prove it. Then I began to have these really wonderful experiences that were so overwhelming I just gave myself over to them. I can’t imagine how I could have gotten out of this cast iron jail of my intellect. It was really badly constructed. It was horrible.”
Something shifted inside Sarr that year. The world came fully alive. He was living at the Way Up with a perfect perch on Pier Avenue. He sometimes stayed awake 24 hours at a time, staring out the window and marveling at the unfolding cycle of life: the pre-dawn “hide and seek” between cops and speed freaks, the surfers heading to the ocean at first light, the mid-morning bikini parade, the bustling arrival of the lunch crowd, the human market of the Strand, the first pangs of the night people at dusk, the midnight limousines disembarking jazz musicians outside the Lighthouse, and the beginning of the hide and seek game all over again.
He was beginning to see more than fleeting glimpses of beauty. His work was beginning.
Wilfred Sarr will show at the Loft (401 S. Mesa St., San Pedro) beginning tonight from 6 to 9. See the complete version of this story at easyreadernews.com.