The last days of Wilfred Sarr
He set out 61 years ago hoping to be Van Gogh with a sense of humor. He succeeded.
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 in an interview in 2010. “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 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 upbringing working on farms in California.
Then the rain came. For seven weeks, 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, [the people there] 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, by 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 remembered 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 a genuine 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 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 depicted a caveman somewhat quizzically examining his own 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 — to explore the universe, by paint and brush, powered by an exuberant imagination and an inexhaustible capacity for the work itself. Over the course of the next 60 years, until his health began failing in the last year, Sarr produced nearly 6,000 works of art. His work ranged wildly, from pointillist portraits to impressionist landscapes to rough-hewn dancers to mandalas, from silly cartoons to Picasso-like abstractions to Matisse-like exercises in simplicity, grace and color. But over and over again, he drew perhaps the most daunting comparison in all of art.
As longtime art collector and Hermosa Beach resident Maggie Moir said in 2010, at the time of Sarr’s career retrospective, Fifty Years and a Day, at Cannery Row Studios in Redondo Beach, “Wilfred is truly our Van Gogh.”
This was not by accident. Sarr wrestled with Van Gogh for half a century. He admitted, at the time of his retrospective, that his early aspiration had indeed been to become a painter like Van Gogh. But after a lifetime of spiritual and artistic exploration, Sarr came to realize that he’d happily departed from that path.
“I kind of wonder what Van Gogh would have painted if he had had a sense of humor,” Sarr said. “See, I would like to be Van Gogh with a sense of humor. That is what I’d like to be.”
Last week, at the age of 86, Sarr died. He had achieved his goal. Until the very end, he was a laughing Van Gogh.
“He accomplished it,” said Addie Jenkins, a long ago girlfriend of Sarr’s who remained a good friend for the last 50 years. “Some of his work is really magical, inspired, and gorgeous. Some of it was…agh. He did his life his way and was a kind person. He always saw life as a mystery and something to take delight in.”
Michelle Love, a fellow artist and friend, described Sarr’s artistic legacy with a Zen koan-like phrase he might have uttered himself.
“I think he is insignificantly significant,” Love said. “He’s quite something.”
Sarr certainly shared this much with Van Gogh: he did not paint with the current market in mind. He made very little money, just enough to keep producing art.
Richard Stephens, who curated Sarr’s retrospective at Cannery Row, said at the time that the comparison to Van Gogh was valid.
“He is determined to do it his way, and I think that was the same with Van Gogh,” Stephens said. “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 100 years, they will know who he is.”
Sarr suggested perhaps another reason why Van Gogh kept 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?’”
His cause of death will likely be listed as heart failure. But years earlier, after turning 80, in one of his many notebook scribblings that were part philosophical, part jest, somewhat poetic and entirely playful, he mused about his approaching death. He arrived at his own diagnosis, which quite naturally was also accompanied with his gleeful urge to explore.
“Is death by astonishment somewhat like drop-kicking yourself through the yawning back-door-to-nowhere?” Sarr wrote. “Let’s find out!”
South Bay days
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 councilman Mike Bigo (owner 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,” Sarr later said.
Hermosa Beach in the 1960s was 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 artists.
Sarr 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 in 2010. “I was going to be the artist laureate of Hermosa Beach. It didn’t happen.”
He was known as Bart Sarr back then. Other artists recognized the unruly talent that arrived in their midst. He 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 robust, 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, who passed away a year ago, in an interview in 2010 recalled a 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. 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 back yard 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. Yet he didn’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 later recalled. “What we are dealing with is fear. Oh gosh, until 1968, my life was dominated by fear…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, an art studio 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.
He was beginning to see more than fleeting glimpses of beauty, but patterns. And then in 1969, Sarr met the man who would become his spiritual teacher. He was known as The Monk.
The Monk knew that Sarr was drawn to Van Gogh, but he didn’t think he understood him. Van Gogh, The Monk said, was fundamentally a religious person – he’d walked away from the material things of the world to live more honestly. Picasso, The Monk said, served himself; Van Gogh served the people. And beauty.
“The Monk told me, ‘Never forget you are a servant of the people.’ An artist is a servant. You have to drag yourself beyond conventional experience and somehow have the skill to take someone else there,” Sarr said. “That’s where Van Gogh goes way beyond Picasso. Picasso got involved in self-promotion. Van Gogh realized he was not important at all. He was a nobody, a servant of the people.”
Sarr’s own ambition became more spiritual in nature. He did not drink for the next 31 years. He spent two years in Santa Cruz, then returned and lived in a box on the roof of the old Beach Cities Newspapers building (where the Beach House hotel is now) and painted in an old printing press room down below. He paid $50 a month and lived there the next 11 years. He finally became Hermosa’s artist laureate in a way he himself may not even have recognized. Eventually, in 2001, Sarr moved to Northern California for good. He mostly lived the rest of his life in Santa Cruz, but at one point spent 18 months living backcountry, on a mountaintop marijuana farm near Big Sur.
‘Sixteen miles of dirt forestry ruts put me on the top of a ridge in Big Sur,” Sarr wrote in his notebook. “That was ‘top-of-the-world.’ Some one and a half years there gave me renewed appreciation and love for nature. Also, while ruminating undistractedly, I noticed not one original thought. It had all been done before. How liberating!”
Stephens, in a recent interview, remembered visiting Sarr in his mountain hideaway. One day, Sarr wasn’t feeling well, and asked him to drive.
“I’ve never been on this road in my life, and this hill comes and that little road goes down 1,000 feet,” he said. “Another time he was driving and I looked out the window and it was just air, right on the edge. ‘Wilfred, can you move over just a little bit?’ We had fun there. Then one day a fire came along and burned the place to the ground.”
It was all in keeping with what served as a mirthful mantra for Sarr for the last 20 years of his life. “Well,” he would say, eyes gleaming with mischief. “This could get very interesting!” Another such saying, which served as the title of a later show, was simply, “Welcome surprises.”
Few people have been better prepared for death. Sarr had spent much of his life contemplating it, almost as a spiritual practice, even before becoming a Buddhist. Around the time he turned 80 he had a show filled with paintings of tombstones, each adorned with an epitaph. “Gratitude is heaven,” said one. “Do-de-do. Here I ain’t!” said another. “Git down!“ said another.
He also had a brush with death in 2019. Michelle Love, with whom he often stayed while visiting the South Bay, noticed he had a jaundice-like pallor. He was loath to go to a doctor so she convinced him to go to her chiropractor to get chiropractic treatment. As he laid down at the chiropractor’s office, Sarr said he was dizzy. The chiropractor checked his pulse.
“Take him to the emergency room right now,” he told Love. “The man has no pulse.”
Sarr, a committed vegetarian, had both iron deficiency issues and a 15 year old pacemaker with a 10 year shelf life. The doctors said that they were surprised he was still alive. Later that year, he gave his final show, in San Pedro. Its theme was flowers.
Part of what teachers like Buddha had to say about flowers is that they don’t ever really die. They represent continuation. A flower faints to the earth and becomes part of the soil; the blossom, created by both soil and sun, has found the earth for the sky. One day a new flower blooms from that soil. Hence the dance goes on, a flower a celebratory sign of life and its inherent exuberance.
Sarr believed flowers and the human face possessed the same deep beauty. “I’ve thought about this over and over for the last 50 years — the reason we paint flowers, and portraits,” said Sarr.
And so Sarr continued to gaze at flowers and somehow defy all odds. He giggled more in his eighth decade, he said, than he did in his first three decades combined.
“Every once in a while I wake up and I feel young,” Sarr said. “I’m still having a lot of fun. All I want to do is walk and think.”
He had a mini-stroke earlier this year. Many of his friends and family gathered. Addie Jenkins, his long ago girlfriend, was among them, as was his son Sean. Jenkins said Sarr had always been “a pied piper” who brought people together. It turned out this was his final trick.
“A lot of people showed up for him,” Jenkins said. “It was lovely. Then we saw him get a lot better, and everyone thought he would pull out of it again, like 2019.”
Then, last Wednesday, at home in hospice care, Sarr peacefully slipped away.
“It’s terribly sad,” said his old friend John Weldon, who first met Wilfred in 1967 and was part of a group of artistic-minded folks who hung together through the decades. “My parting words would be that I loved him like a brother. We spent a lot of time together over the years, walking on the Strand, smoking pot, talking about everything…A lot of us are gone.”
“Kindness and compassion are what he was always talking about,” Love said. “Laughing, and trying to be honest.”
His production of art had no filter because of this honesty, as well as his refusal to take himself seriously, and was thus wildly uneven, perhaps obscuring the outright brilliance of his best work. Love said the mandalas, large circular paintings inspired by his Buddhist studies which, if seen from the right distance, begin swimming dizzyingly in a viewer’s field of vision, were a testament to Sarr’s virtuosity.
“The technical skill required to get the exact proportion in order to make a mandala vibrate is great, then the sense of color to make it pleasing enough to want to look at it for that long,” Love said.
Sarr was a prodigious note-taker. He liked to wear a safari vest for its many pockets, in which he could stuff paint brushes while working and little pieces of paper or notebooks while not painting. Because he was always doing the real work of an artist — hungrily, joyfully, observing.
That note he wrote at 80 said that he’d drawn his first dancer at 15. Now he saw a different dancer coming.
“Ah yes, the ‘dance of death’ angel seems soon arriving,” Sarr wrote. “What shall we ask of it? Glib angel, what’s next? How to inject into this brave new world a crack of levity?”
“Considering all the truly gifted folk on-planet, if you feel compelled to hold me in memory, for any reason, for God’s sake, let it be laughter.” ER