The magic of light on canvas
The artist at home in his studio.
A mere brushstroke past 50, Keith Wicks never pondered the concept of legacy. And then a friend asked what he thought his would be. Wicks and his wife, Terry, are family intense, so his first thoughts took the freeway to his kids: daughter Walker, senior homecoming queen and freshly minted college girl; and stepsons Spencer—music whiz—and Dash—entrepreneurial baker. It’s instinctive to want your kids to thrive, and then hope maybe it’s because you did something right.
His next mental off ramp was the obvious—his art. Wicks’ ability to capture light on canvas is legend. It pierces the heart, saturates the iris, and makes people clamor for the privilege of owning one of his works. Wicks’ paintings are widely collected and, nowadays, pretty pricey. In Sonoma circles, they even invoke lust. “Wow, you have a Wicks,” people say when one of his canvases is spotted on the wall of a collector savvy and lucky enough to have been the high bidder at a years-ago school auction. Now, a larger canvas might cost as much as a newish car.
But Wicks is a modest man and the concept of his art as a legacy is too bold, too self-absorbed. It’s a thought that’s just, well, so not him. “I’m a regular guy in Sonoma. I just do what I do and if I sell it, great. It’s second nature. It’s what I do. I’ve never thought of it as a legacy.”
Pride does bubble up, though, when he thinks about the Sonoma Plein Air art festival, the outdoor painting event that’s raised more than half a million dollars for Sonoma Valley youth art programs. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this October, a the fundraising idea was sparked when Walker complained that she only had art at school once a month. That bothered Wicks, who embraced art and athletics when he was a kid, and loved school because of those activities. Although gifted in the arts, Wicks is dyslexic, and says it would have been a sorry thing for him if school were all math and science. From early on, his art abilities were nurtured, ultimately leading to a meaningful career. He hated hearing that kids weren’t getting enough access to art, and set about starting Sonoma Plein Air.
Plein air is the practice of painting outdoors in natural light, and Wicks knew Sonoma’s varied beauty offered the perfect setting. From the beginning there was strong interest in the juried event from acclaimed artists nationwide. Local artists Dennis Ziemienski and Dick Cole participate, and others come from as far as Tennessee, Idaho, and Illinois. Wicks hustled up a hardworking board of directors, formed a foundation and harvested some financial backing from Valley philanthropists. The artists can be seen working at easels all around the Valley during the weeklong event, and the paintings they create are then sold at the festival—this year’s is October 6. The artists keep 60 percent of the sale price and 40 percent goes to the foundation. There is also a gala fundraising dinner, slated to be staged this year at the estate of Disney/Pixar mogul John Lasseter and his wife, Nancy, who are avid Wicks collectors. Each year the participating artists vote for the best painting of the week, and last year they chose Keith Wicks. His canvas was then live-auctioned at last year’s gala and is being used this year for the Plein Air publicity poster. Wicks believes art history books of the future will say the best plein air painters worked at Laguna Beach, Carmel, and Sonoma. “We are putting our little town on the map,” he says.
A native of Bakersfield, Wicks’ journey has taken him from the College of Design in Pasadena—where he earned an art degree—to Manhattan, where he traveled in artsy circles and honed his skills. Then he headed back to California. He designed interiors for several chic L.A. restaurants and worked his way north, venturing into commercial art and becoming much in demand with ad agencies and design firms. He drew storyboards for George Lucus’ Industrial Light and Magic. His paintings graced the American Heart Association’s promotional materials for several years, including posters and street banners that hung throughout San Francisco. His painting of a pickup truck was used by General Motors and now hangs in a hallowed location at their corporate headquarters. The walls of the Westin St. Francis and Renaissance hotels are likewise graced by the luminous paintings of Keith Wicks.
Wicks has a rare talent for capturing a sense of natural light, which makes viewers feel they are standing inside the scenes he paints. Working in oil, he uses intense, realistic color, yet his paintings have a softness that leaves viewers spellbound. He paints landscapes, but avoids vineyards, including them “only if they are in my way.” He is perhaps best known for his cityscapes and street scenes, having captured the facades of buildings and street-side cafés throughout Europe and Sonoma. He is also noted for his depictions of the beloved Sebastiani Theatre, which he guesses he’s painted about 30 times, “at least.”
Wicks has had a very long run at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, where he teaches painting and figurative drawing, his other area of expertise. But even while painting nudes, his emphasis is on light, with the subjects he paints awash in the ethereal glow of either lamplight or sun.
Living in an urban world but charmed by weekend escapes to Sonoma, Wicks and his wife started scouting property here. They found the perfect home on the perfect corner just as a collector bought several paintings in one fell swoop. Serendipity made their down payment. When they relocated in 1995, Wicks completely gave up his commercial business, determined to concentrate on painting. Though he is represented by several galleries in California and Hawaii, Wicks still teaches in the city. And his Plein Air festival requires attention year-round. He’s an integral part of the Telluride Plein Air event, and prints of his work can even be found at Costco. (Inexpensive copies of Wicks’ originals are available at allposters.com.)
Wicks and his wife are close friends with Sonoma heavyweight Darius Anderson and in 2006, Anderson asked his artistic friend what he would do if he could do anything he wanted. The answer led to an entire year spent painting, all expenses paid. Wicks traveled extensively that year, painting on location in France, Italy, New York, and Seattle. Anderson—his patron—often followed along, hosting elegant events in exotic locations. With a monthly allowance of $10,000 and the absence of pressure from a regular job, Wicks produced 100-plus paintings in 12 months. Those paintings were sold in one night at a show on Treasure Island, grossing $250,000, and his patrons’ capital was repaid with a handsome return.
These days, Wicks is reinventing himself. Art sales trend downward when the economy is weak, and he says that “everything dropped out” for him in 2011. “When you are a painter and you paint every day and don’t make sales, it’s discouraging.” He notes that oils, canvas, and framing are expensive, and it doesn’t seem worth the trouble when sales slow down.
But the muse is a persistent mistress, and the artist is often helpless against her demands. While traveling in Europe, Wicks came upon an off-the-beaten-path Parisian church. Inside this dark, blackened building a single ray of intense light shone through a glass dome, illuminating a crucifix and two carved angels. Mesmerized, Wicks took a photo. “I knew I had to paint it,” he recalls.
Wicks generally paints quickly, often spending just a day on a painting. But this massive new work consumed him. The world fell away and for weeks he just painted. “The painting tells me when it’s done, and it was three weeks until this one let me say, ‘It’s done.’” He says it’s his best work, and even though it’s his own creation, he seems amazed by the way “it actually glows.” He advertised it for sale for $65,000, and a diocese in California is currently fundraising to make the purchase.
One of Wicks favorite painters is the Italian Caravaggio, whose iconic 17th-century works can be found in churches all over Italy. Caravaggio is known for his dramatic use of light, much the way Wicks is. “To have your painting behind an altar, where people see it for hundreds of years, that’s the highest goal I could reach for.” He’s at his midpoint, halfway through his life’s timeline, and his newest masterpiece seems bound for the abbey. A hundred years hence, supplicants will marvel at the beautiful canvas that seems lit from within, and that, too, will be Keith Wicks’ legacy.
From the 2012 Fall issue of SONOMA