Artist Joe Fay Talks About Life, Art, Montana and Beagles

Artist Joe Fay, who is having his first solo show in Los Angeles in 24 years has "not missed a beat," according to David Pagel of the L.A. Times. Since moving from Los Angeles to Montana in 1993, Fay's art has continued to thrive and in his exhibition at the Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica he is exhibiting nine brightly-hued acrylic paintings that represent his semi-abstract take on the birds that he sees around his home in Livingston.

I recently interviewed Joe Fay and asked him about his life and career and about his beloved beagles.

John Seed Interviews Joe Fay

Joe Fay: Photo by Elsa Flores Almaraz

Where did you grow up? Were you always artistic? 

I grew up moving from one Navy base to another every three years. My father served in the Navy for 20 years. Originally my family was from Newport, RI. Growing up I lived on both coasts and in Hawaii twice. My father retired from the Navy in San Diego, where I attended grades 6-12 in Chula Vista, a suburb of San Diego near the U.S. Mexico Border. After graduating from high school we relocated to Newport, RI where I attended some classes at R.I.S.D. for a semester. One year after that my family moved back to San Diego and I attended Southwestern College and then went on to San Diego State University. I graduated from SDSU with a BA in Art.

From sixth grade through college I embraced the Southern California culture as a surfer and anything outdoors. I was always artistic and would draw cartoons all the time; loved comic books, music, and film. I liked to read books about cowboys and anything that was about adventure! I had people who encouraged my artistic abilities at an early age. After graduating from SDSU I worked as a display artist for the Navy Exchange retail system on North Island Naval Air Base in Coronado. Then I got a job at Seder-Creigh Gallery also in Coronado. I met my wife in Coronado around the same time and after being together for a period of time we were married.

The job working at the gallery brought me in contact with artists from Los Angeles; Laddie John Dill, Chuck Arnoldi, Ned Evans, Billy Al Bengston, Joe Goode, and Ron Davis. Meeting the LA artists changed my life in a very big way and we moved to Los Angeles.

King Bird, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 30 x 24 inches

Did you have any important mentors during your years in school? 

I don't feel like I had any real mentors while I was attending college. My mentors became the artists who I met and worked for when my wife and I moved to Venice Beach. I had famous artists that I admired like Warhol, Rauschenberg, de Kooning, Pollock while I was going to school. My first mentors were Laddie John Dill and Charles Arnoldi. I worked for both of them and learned a lot about making art, setting up and organizing a studio, working with materials.

Being exposed to the social aspect of art was something I also learned going to openings, parties, and interacting with other artists. Laddie and Chuck were the first artists I met and they encouraged me to move to Venice. I worked for both of them and other Venice artists for several years. It was through my association with them and their support I was able to establish myself as an artist in Los Angeles.

Kingfisher, 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 20 x 17 inches

Am I right that you started your career living in Venice, and that you knew all the other artists? 

After moving to Venice, Laddie Dill got us our first small studio on top of the building his studio was in. The other artists who had studios in the building were Ann Thornycroft, Tom Wudl, Bryan Hunt and Lynda Benglis. Within a couple of blocks there were many artist's studios. My interactions with them and their support led to meeting curators and I started to be included in group shows with many of them. One show I curated myself was at Southwestern College in Chula Vista: it included many of my neighbors and friends such as Laddie Dill, Chuck Arnoldi, Lynda Benglis, Ann Thornycroft and Tom Wudl.

My wife and I had very little money during this time and she was pregnant with our first child when we first moved to Venice. My support system was the local Venice artists and also their art dealers and collectors who I would work for to support my wife and I. Being in Venice at that time, I also met and interacted with many of the New York artists passing thru or visiting other artists.

 There were great openings and after-parties at the Grinstein's house in Brentwood that was like seeing every artist popular at the time I'd been reading about in art magazines. I was happy and very much inspired by all the artists, dealers, writers, movie starts, musicians, collectors, curators I met during that time. They were all very supportive of me and my artwork. It was the best of times in so many ways.

Very Crows Friends, 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 30 x 25 inches

So after Venice, you were downtown for awhile, right? 

After the building sold where we were living--on Wavecrest and Oceanfront--we were evicted by the new owner and we moved to downtown to Traction Avenue. I had some friends that had already located an commercial building space that was only three cents per square foot! The building was a old coffee and tea warehouse and had out lived it's usefulness as a warehouse because it was old un-reinforced brick and had no modern updates. It was like many of the buildings east of Alameda between 2nd and 3rd streets at that time in the early 80s.

Along with two other artists I signed a 20 year lease and started building walls and roughed in plumbing and divided the floors into studio spaces. Once again we had very little money and to bring in some cash we rented out the other spaces to artists Margret Nielson, Bruce James, Bob Ackerman and Don Suggs as well as others who moved in later. Eventually LAICA (The Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art) rented the whole ground floor for the CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training) Project and for exhibition space. 

In the late 70s downtown LA was nothing like it is today: It was raw, seedy, and it could be dangerous especially at night when cars were broken into on a regular basis. I had 3,500 sq feet that Vicky and I lived in part of with our daughter and then also our second child who was born downtown. My studio was a second floor space that we renovated and turned the loading dock and a small patch of dirt into a garden area with a swing set for my kids. It was shared by everyone in the building.

We were still very poor and my only truck was stolen right after we got our studio livable. I was showing with Molly Barnes--my first dealer--and started to sell my paintings: things were starting to happen for my art. At that time only adventurous collectors and thrill-seekers came downtown to visit artist studios and galleries started to pop up. The "new" art scene was getting a lot of media attention and many of the artists like Roger Herman, Pierre Picot, Gary Lang, Mary Jones, Marion Estes, Gary Lloyd and Constance Mallinson were "The Young Turks" getting their art shown. There was also my good friend Woods Davy, who was recently instrumental in my coming back to LA and showing at Craig Krull.

Our only entertainment was each other, Al's Bar and the Punk Music scene in Chinatown. There was a sense of community then though we all were pretty much underground and poor at that time. Moving to DTLA was a good for me because of my association with the Venice artists and like I said DTLA and the raw new art scene was getting attention. I got my first teaching job at Otis from fellow artist Scott Grieger in Als Bar one night, then another teaching job at USC from my artist friend Jud Fine. The teaching jobs were great for supporting my family and gave me the freedom to make big paintings and sculptures in my huge studio. Then I changed galleries and went with Roy Boyd and started to show in LA and Chicago. It was a great time to be in DTLA; scary and exciting. We didn't know it be use we were all just trying to survive and didn't have time to think about it. As I look back at that time of my life I feel lucky to have been there.

Raven Commons, 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 36 x 30 inches

How has your work developed over time? 

My work has gone thru some changes stylistically but mostly in using different kinds of materials and mediums. I started out with paintings on canvas and drawings on paper. In the early 80's I started painting on polyurethane foam and created large scale relief paintings that actually came off the wall up to two feet. Then with my drawing style I started to do portraits of people. Almost all of which were commissioned works. I drew musicians, collector, politicians, and movie stars. This particular direction was inspired by my very good friend Joan Quinn, who said I should do her portrait in my style of drawing.

Next came working in the monoprint medium when I was invited by Hunk and Moo Anderson of Atherton, CA to do some monoprints at their 3EP Press in Palo Alto. Putter Pence, their daughter, referred me. Then I started to do wood and aluminum sculptures of my cut out shapes of animals, cowboys, horses, etc. Some of them were private commissions but most were Percent for Art Program public sculptures. Most of the outdoor public sculptures were made out of plate aluminum that I brushed and ground into the surface. One was made out of plate brass that was etched with the words from a Chicano poet, Gary Soto, for the Poets Walk in downtown Los Angeles. Another piece was 100 animals native to California for the Ronald Reagan State Office Building in downtown LA.

I have indoor and outdoor public artworks in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and Burbank. Currently I have returned to painting on canvas with thick acrylic paint. I'm also making painted wall reliefs again out of polystyrene that's been cut with a hot wire, wrapped with canvas, gessoed, and then painted with acrylic paint. So I guess you could say that my work has developed by using better materials and always experimenting and finding new ways to make things better and more interesting. I'm still drawing and painting using a zig zag pattern done with small brushes. I'm still pouring and pulling wet paint into wet paint; though I have learned thru experience to draw more recognizable, detailed, images with my style of drawing and painting.

Happy Swallow House, 2015, Mixed media, 17 x 9 x 12 inches

When and how did you decide to make the move to Montana, and how has it worked out? 

In the late 80's I got the opportunity to do an Artist in Residence in Yellowstone National Park while still living in LA. I did this for several summers. It was during this time the events in my life all led me to make a decision to move to Montana. While I was doing an artist in residence in Yellowstone National Park my Japanese art agent asked me to do some site specific art for his new solar house on his ranch in Montana. Through doing a project there for Ralph Lauren, where I painted a jeans jacket for a photo shoot by fashion photographer Bruce Weber, Joan Quinn sent his assistant to my studio to bring the jacket to paint. The assistant was from Livingston, Montana, where we now live. She suggested I show at a gallery run by a friend of hers in Livingston.

These three events, and my love of fly fishing and the outdoors, brought me to make the decision to move to Montana in 1993. I figured if it didn't work out we could always move back to Los Angeles. We bought a 100 year old house I restored. I found a studio in an old school for real cheap. I could go fly fishing whenever I wanted. The air was clean, as well as the water, in the small town we moved to. It was exactly the opposite of living in the city. I loved it and so did my family.

I was getting lots of commissioned works from my agent in Japan and in the U.S. I started out working as an interpretive ranger in YNP until they cut my budget and position. I worked as a ranch caretaker, truck driver, laborer, painting contractor, and in a dental lab on and off to support our family as well. There is always a tradeoff, so I stated to drift away from the LA art scene and my contacts there; my gallery closed (Jan Baum). I've always kept in touch with some of my artist friends in Venice and the ones I knew from DTLA. My website was my only connection with the art world. I lived my new life and loved it.

So now I've been showing little by little in LA over the past five years. Lots of my artist friends kept telling me to come back more so I have. Though the support of my very oldest artist friends, and the support of my family, I am now re-emerging. Has it worked out? YES!

Western Tanager, 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 20 x 18 inches

Tell me about the work that is on view at Craig Krull...

The new work at Craig Krull reflects works I have created over the last several years. It started with just simple wild bird drawings on paper that I exhibited at Channel Islands College Gallery several years ago. I have been focusing on wild birds of Montana and the Northwest. I see them all the time when I'm fly fishing, hiking, and backpacking; and love watching them. The way the bird images are composed within the paintings are meant to be like seeing them thru a small opening in the dense forest vegetation.

Some of the bird images are painted with a zig zag pattern style I have been drawing with for years. Then some of the older and more recent paintings are painted with my poured and pulled style of paining. The newest works in the exhibit are only a month or two old: Stellar's Jay, Raven Commons, Very Crows Friends, Kingfisher, and Western Tanager. I've been creating extreme contrasts with the central images and the color field that they float on. More recently I've been isolating some of the abstract shapes that float on the more pastel color grounds. The most recent piece, Stellar's Jay, was kind of a breakthrough I wanted to happen with the bird head sitting on the bottom of the painting as if you are looking or he is looking at you outside a window. The abstract shapes around the large head are meant to give reference to atmosphere or leaves or organic shapes.

Stellar's Jay, 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 36 x 30 inches

The way I am composing the images and the colors I use have a deep seated reference in shrines, altars, and statues I've seen in Asian, Mexican, Native American, and Pop cultures. The paintings are always evolving in terms of what I want to see and happen within them. They are getting more detailed and I want to keep pushing and experimenting with colors and compositions. I don't want to always do the same thing. Being isolated away from the mainstream art scene has given me a lot of freedom to do what I want without being affected by mainstream art. The wall reliefs are another direction I'm working in. There is only one in the exhibit but more than several in the gallery's backroom. As with the paintings, I like the craft of making things. I don't want to be restricted to one way of creating artworks. I think artists should always challenge themselves and always try new things. In some ways I consider myself an outsider artist now. I like that!

Beagles at Joe's front door

How many beagles do you have and how long have you loved this breed? 

The Beagles! Ha! They are something else.

 We have always had dogs. After our old mixed breed died we decided to get a beagle because we have always liked the breed. My wife had just been diagnosed with cancer and I wanted a dog to keep her company, be a watch dog, and have a friendly disposition. The beagle breed is all of that. Then I got a second one to keep the first one company because they are pack animals and like to be with other beagles. The third was a beagle I rescued and was going to foster but ended up keeping her. They are funny and keep our bed warm on cold Montana winter nights. I finally understand the meaning of "three dog night!"

Joe Fay: Wild Heart
July 18 - August 29, 2015
Craig Krull Gallery
Bergamot Station
2525 Michigan Avenue, Building B-3
Santa Monica, California 90404