Known for breaking boundaries with his work in mixed media, oils, collage, and integrations, Taos artist Gary Paul has produced, exhibited, and sold countless pieces across North America and Europe over four decades, receiving numerous honors and awards along the way. His education in the arts has taken him around the world, but he traces his origin as an artist to one grade-school incident in his childhood home of Indiana.
“I can tell you exactly when I became an artist,” he said. “In the fourth or fifth grade, I used to go to a very small Lutheran school. I don’t know why, I lost track of where my teacher was, and I drew his picture. It looked just like him, I think. All of a sudden, there was this arm that reached over my shoulder and grabbed the picture, then (the teacher) poked me in the back of the head with a pencil. That’s when I knew I was an artist.”
After a stint in the Air Force in the 1960s, during which he evaded retribution for painting an unauthorized starburst mural on the barracks wall, he decided to go to school. He reached out to Kenneth Nack, then chair of the art department at Santa Barbara City College. Nack, a celebrated American artist popular in the United States and Europe, became Paul’s mentor.
“I wanted to be an art teacher,” Paul said. “(Nack) hired me to clean out the lockers and set up for the kids to come in and paint.”
Paul received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1972 and then set out to broaden his education by exploring the arts across Australia, Europe, and Asia over the next 30 years. Each unique cultural experience introduced new influences and materials into his work, resulting in his signature style of dynamic fluidity.
Locally, Paul’s work can be found at the Taos Artist Collective gallery and by appointment at his home studio. A sampling is available on his website at thecanvasandeye.com, where visitors are invited to explore the multifaceted reaches of the artist’s vision.
“You have to look at it for a while and you’ll see things,” he said.
Visual arts critics have both applauded him for and accused him of pushing limits. He embraces his identity as somewhat of a rogue. He has an unconventional approach to aesthetics and, notably, size.
“I prefer to paint large,” he said, indicating his “Black Mesa,” a 48”x72” oil on canvas dominating a dining room wall in his home. A hulking 96”x144” diptych waits in his studio for the right exhibition space to accommodate it.
Paul is perfectly capable of producing smaller pieces, and he does so prolifically, but big is something he loves to do. He has been known to eschew tubes of acrylic paint in favor of cans of house paint to take on mammoth projects.
“I’d go to the hardware store and buy the ‘oops paints’ for five dollars a gallon,” he said, referring to acrylic house paints returned to the store by customers who realized after they bought them that they’d had something else in mind. “I bought like 50 brushes. I had a studio in Denver that was 3,200 square feet. I’d go in and put all these canvases on the floor, spread out the paint that I wanted to use that day, and do a pot of coffee and paint.”
A printmaker in his past, Paul moved to Taos from Denver in 2018 planning to live off his inventory, but a boiler in his new studio blew out, destroying much of his work.
“There were three inches of water in my studio,” he said. “My eyes leaked. Every time I’d take one to tear it up I could remember who I did this with, when I did it, what my frame of mind was at the time.”
Paul is drawn to western art, naming the Georgia O’Keeffe connection as part of the Taos area’s allure, and though his latest creations tend to be inspired by his New Mexico environment, he doesn’t consider his own work to fall into that category.
Since moving to Taos, he has been primarily a painter, focusing lately on what he calls “my plein air.”
“I don’t go out and do plein air. I go out and come back and paint it. The Japanese artists will go sit on a mountain for six months and look at the scenery, then they go back home and paint it. They can paint the scenery multiple times without ever having to look at it again.”
He continues to explore new frontiers, often making it up as he goes along.
“I’m trying to learn another style,” he said, waving toward several unfinished canvases. “That. I don’t have a name for it.”