2019 Homestead Magazine

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Joie De Vivre

Townsend painting in his L.A. studio


Story By
KATY NINER
Photos By
SERENA CREATIVE

GALLERY
ALTAMIRA FINE ART
ALTAMIRAART.COM

Robert Townsend has always set his sights on scale of the type Georgia O’Keeffe described: the scale that makes beauty arresting. Ever since his early days painting murals in Southern California, he has witnessed the way enlarged images can elicit inescapable emotions. Years of painting style-rich still lifes prepared him for a discovery that shifted his trajectory from objects to people. While scouring marketplaces, he stumbled upon a treasure trove: an archive of slides taken by a Midwestern pair who embraced life with Kodachrome wonder. Something about their panache and personality— particularly hers—spoke to Townsend of optimism transcending time and place.

“Dominoes of luck” ensued: finding a slide with their names, Helen and Roy; contacting their heirs—nieces Cheryl and Candace—and becoming friends with them; teaming up with film crew Serena Creative; and producing a documentary, My Indiana Muse, which was credited with many awards. Townsend’s discovery of Helen and Roy’s world has come to define his own as an artist. From their 3,000 slides, he has identified 75 scenes he plans to aggrandize on canvas, a project that will take decades to complete.

His recent work—all ambitious in size—finds Helen in the company of relatives and other compadres projecting mod joie de vivre. Townsend often finds the charismatic couple in iconic contexts such as roadside attractions, however several new works transcend conventionality to find them equally captivating in mundane conditions—the dynamic coursing through a new painting of Helen and Roy cavorting in their cluttered basement.

“These are two people simply and obviously enjoying each other’s company,” Townsend says. “It’s beautiful and contagious.”

For the artist, the couple’s allure is underscored by the banality of the setting. “We traditionally expect standard poses in conventionally idyllic settings,” he says. “We simply don’t see images of people in basements with knickknacks. But why not? Helen and Roy are obviously having a grand time in the comfort of their own space. What’s more beautiful than that? To me, the context is the whole painting—the humdrum setting is the relief, the counterpoint to their charisma.”

One Fine Day
Oil
55.5 x 84 inches

To Townsend, Helen’s beauty in this painting comes from her celebration of life as she exuberantly embraces the good, the bad and the ugly. “I love going to places that seem unconventional, that change what the word ‘pretty’ means,” he says. “Redefining beauty may be my biggest interest in art.”

Dinner for Two
Oil on canvas
60 x 45.75 inches

Beauty comes from that texture and contrast, the foil found in the basement painting, as it also does in a recent work featuring Roy by himself—a first for Townsend. It’s another unorthodox composition: mostly sky with a couple of wispy clouds, a sliver of water, some heads bobbing in the waves, and a tiny slice of sand, with Roy’s torso tucked into the bottom corner.

“Such unconventionality makes the composition feel so contemporary,” Townsend says.

For him, Helen and Roy are more than muses: They represent the apotheosis of his oeuvre, and telescoping out, the glory and grace inherent in lives lived well. Without pretension or sheen, they embody all that was right about postwar America as they roamed the country in their matching Mercuries and posed for snapshots. They lived and they loved. They are gratitude incarnate. From Townsend’s towering canvases, they remind us to celebrate each and every day, the air we breathe, the sights we see, the people we meet and the roads we wander.