Listen to the Interview:
Featured Artist, Painter
By Jeremy Pollack, Forth Editor
Photos by Bootsy Holler
I met John Lithgow (pronounced “Lith-go” to my surprise) at Santa Monica Fine Art Studios one night during an open house. Among the many fine artists that hold space at the studio, John was showing his work publicly for the first time that evening in mid June. FORTH sponsored the event, and Sofiya—our Events Director—introduced me to the artist early in the night. Lithgow towered above me at 6’5” but tendered an easy, welcoming presence. After browsing the magazine, he cordially accepted the offer for FORTH to feature his artwork. He was obviously very shy and modest, despite his talented hand. This would be the first publication of his art anywhere, and I promised that we would present his paintings with taste and class. Usually, PR people handle this sort of thing, but John unassumingly gave me his personal email to schedule an interview.
Surprised once again, I heard back from John right away, and we scheduled to meet within a week. On June 21st, I returned midday to his studio at SMFAS with Bootsy, our photographer, for what would be a quick photo shoot and interview. Before starting, the artist wanted to finish a base layer in the painting he was working on—a portrait of his father, reproduced now in acrylic from a photo taken some time before his father’s passing. John allowed us to photograph him at work, still fully engaged in his world of re-creation, as if we weren’t there at all. It was perfect.
One must understand, this is not usual for celebrities. So I say with comparative integrity that John Lithgow is a gracious and genuine man, a soulful fellow, and a gentle though passionate spirit. I point this out because these qualities emanate at above-average levels from the painter. Intuitively, I felt he was genuine in character. He seemed humbled and sincere, grateful to be featured in our magazine. I, of course, expressed my gratitude at competing levels. He wanted to make sure we were featuring his work not because of his face or name, but rather due to the merit of his artistry. I assured him, as I do our readers, that my interests and intentions are transparent.
During my time with John, I remembered the original vision of FORTH: This magazine is not only about art for art sake. It is also about the artists, about inspiring others by example, those who might relate and feel they’re not alone in the strange landscape of creation. And here was Lithgow—an actor, painter, writer, and singer—an artist who inspires, who believes, who has lived a life of passion and creativity, who has stayed imaginatively young in dreams and charm. At 63-years-old, the wonder in his eyes reminded me once again that one can be an artist…and find success at it, success in doing what one loves. This, I knew, was what this feature—indeed, what this magazine—is about. But of course, there is also the artwork itself.
Upon finishing the base layer on his father’s portrait, John rose and smiled into Bootsy’s lens. A thin, grey slice of hair sprouted into the air above his scalp. But we didn’t mind, and neither did he. “I’ve given up vanity a long time ago,” he smiled. And this became our cover.
After a few shots, John and I proceeded outside, sitting then beneath a small, old shed next to the studio to chat for a bit. He in his paint-trodden work-scrubs, used often for his studio time; the few strands of hair still rocketing into the sky in humble comfort. When the artist speaks, it is subtle though direct. And his energy is one I expect—or rather, hope for—in a recognizable talent: A mad scientist fused with a free-spirit and an intelligent, experienced craftsman.
J: All right. It’s June 21st, I’m with John Lithgow, artist, and I just wanted to say thanks for having us out to Santa Monica Art Studios here.
JL: Welcome, welcome to our studios.
J: Thank you. So when did you begin to paint? You said you started when you were a child?
JL: Well, I started out intending to be a painter, and then pretty much abandoned it when I became an actor which was around age 19, 20. And I was very serious about it back then. I grew up in a theater family, and being an actor was the last thing I wanted to do. But I got off to college and fell into the theater gang, and I realized I’d better go with the flow here.
J: Did you paint through college?
JL: It became more and more spotty. I did print making and drawing, you know, things that were easier to do, that didn’t require a studio.
J: And so have you been painting throughout the years?
JL: Off and on, but finally about two years ago when I got this studio I started painting fairly regularly. And before that it was more or less a hobby. When I was on movie locations for many, many months at a time, I would set up a studio in my hotel room with oils.
J: So you’ve become more serious about your art again in the last, what, five –
JL: Yeah in the last five years or so.
J: And did you receive any formal training in art?
JL: I did when I was young. I went to the Art Students League as a high school kid, Sunday mornings or Saturday mornings for drawing classes.
J: And that was it?
JL: Well, I always had high school art classes. I went to public schools in Ohio and back in the late 50s and 60s, they had fabulous art education. Pretty much a thing of the past I think. But in those days it was a very serious thing. As an elective, if you were interested in art, you could really study art in the public schools.
J: It’s not like that anymore.
JL: No, it’s not like that anymore.
J: It’s too bad. Hm… So you seem to paint a lot of people’s profiles, a lot of faces. What is it about faces that inspire you?
JL: Well, it’s easy to get faces, you know. It’s easy to get people to sit or work from photographs. And they are endlessly expressive. I mean, I’m an actor and I deal in characters, and I love the character in people’s faces.
J: Do you look for certain emotions in faces?
JL: Not really. Mainly I look for great faces and great life. I would love to move on to figurative painting, and I would love to paint more freely. I love – you know, Richard Diebenkorn is a favorite painter of mine who paints figuratively and representationally, but then he moved off into more and more abstract and exuberant color.
J: That’s where you think you’re going?
JL: Well, I wish I could go there. I don’t have the courage.
J: Are those faces the greatest inspirations for your paintings?
JL: Probably, faces and figures. I think my favorite painters tend to paint figuratively.
J: Who are your favorite painters?
JL: Oh, Lucian Freud, a contemporary painter. And I love, you know, American painters from eighty and a hundred years ago, John Singer Sargent and George Bellows and Akins, Winslow Homer.
J: Do you feel like they’ve influenced the way you paint?
JL: Yeah. I mean, I wish I could paint like them. I can’t.
J: I don’t know. You’re very humble.
JL: No, I still feel like it’s a hobby, but it’s a hobby that I take more seriously all the time. And I think hobbies are only useful if you take them seriously.
J: So do you use live models, or do you draw from pictures?
JL: I use live models sometimes, and I want to do more of that.
J: Mostly from pictures right now?
JL: Yeah, mostly from pictures, but I bring friends in to just sit for a while. And the trouble with painting your friends is that you’re too eager to please them.
J: You’re worried about their disappointment.
JL: You want to make them look good, and you’ve got to free yourself from that.
J: So take us into your studio when you’re painting. Take us in to the mood. Do you have certain music playing, certain lighting?
JL: Well, you know, we’re here at the Santa Monica Fine Arts Studio where you can hear everything that goes on in the other studios. So it’s a kind of a matter of courtesy that it’s quiet. And that’s fine with me. I work very quietly and in a kind of fueled state.
J: Any certain times of day?
JL: Midday. Weekends here nobody’s around and it’s wonderfully peaceful. And I’ll work for about three or four hours. I can’t work much longer than that. It’s very exhausting.
J: And there was classical music coming from another one of the studios. You like classical music?
JL: It’s nice to have classical music playing.
J: Now, has painting ever sort of crossed over into your preparation for acting?
JL: Not really. I do concerts for children, and I play a fabulous game with the kids to keep them absolutely captivated, to keep their attention. I have an enormous easel. And if I sing songs about an animal, I’ll play this game, Guess the Animals, with them. Or I’ll start drawing on these huge panels like an elephant or a manatee or something or a rooster. And they will scream out what it is I’m drawing. And I’ll say: “It’s what? It’s what?” You know, I think that’s the one actual practical use I put art to. But it’s fabulous. It works like a dream. It’s just like a kid’s game.
J: So do you sing or do other music or any other art forms other than acting and painting?
JL: Yeah, I sing for kids. And I’ve done albums for kids. And I’ve written children’s books for kids.
J: Oh really? You’re a children’s writer? So there’re a lot of different creative outlets.
JL: That’s another sideline.
J: When you’re preparing – when you’re writing or when you’re painting or when you’re acting – do you feel that the head space you’re in to prepare for those things is very different for each? Or is it similar?
JL: Well, acting is very social and very informal and relaxed, and you know, a rehearsal room is a wonderfully creative and active place – and collaborative. It’s extremely collaborative. All the acting, all the forms of acting are working with lots and lots of other people. I’m currently doing a one man show, but even there I perform for an audience. So there’s a lot of us here. Painting is completely solitary and you’re lost in your thoughts. And it’s a wonderful gear shift. You’re just in a different world when you go in there and paint.
J: Do you have an opinion on the shift in importance? I mean, do you think art is as important as it has always been? Or do you think fine art has gone down in comparison to the mainstream arts like film and music?
JL: I have no idea. It seems to me it’s always active. There’s always furious interest when a great painter emerges or a great exhibition comes out, where everybody suddenly has to crush into the Met museum to see an exhibition.
J: Do you think art is still important in our society?
JL: Art’s always important. People can’t do without art. They literally can’t do without it. I mean, they may dismiss the fine arts, but God knows they have to listen to Country music or they have to watch sitcoms on TV. They’re all forms of expression. They’re all participation. You know, there’s always that kind of interaction between expressive people, you know, storytellers.
J: Through your arts or your painting, are you trying to tell any stories or messages? Or is it more personal for you?
JL: No, it’s very personal. I don’t know why I do it even. I love to do it and I’m very excited when it turns out well, and I’m very upset when it doesn’t. And secretly I am very eager for other people to look at it and like it.
J: So do you have a plan? Do you want to be selling art?
JL: No. I have no particular interest in selling it, no. I’m not a professional artist, and I revere fine artists too much to even call myself one. I still consider myself a hobbyist. I’m very flattered that you would even interview me on this subject. But it is a hobby that I just take more seriously all the time. Forty years ago when I was making this decision—be an artist or be an actor—if I’d taken that other fork, I would have taken it just as seriously as I take acting. And then I would make a living at it. But you know, I’m always astonished when people even mention the possibility of even buying anything I paint. Again, I give them away. I give them to friends and relatives.
J: It’s hard to part with them, though, I’m sure.
JL: Yeah, I don’t like parting with them. That’s the other difference between me and professional artists. They want to move their stuff.
J: You could sell prints, I guess. Or you could do prints.
JL: I used to have a little cottage Christmas card industry when I was a college student, yeah. That was a long time ago.
J: So do you have any sort of words of wisdom for struggling artists – or any kinds of artists – that are trying to find success.
JL: Well, to actors I say, develop something that’s all your own. Young actors ask me for advice, and I say, find something in your life that’s more important to you than acting, and something that doesn’t depend on anybody else hiring you. And art is a perfect thing. I mean, there’s an actress in here who’s a very serious artist, and it’s a huge relief for her to have a place to go where she can feel like a creative person, where she’s not waiting around for somebody to call her. Because otherwise you’re just enslaved by the acting business.
J: So develop your creative process and really hone it, whatever it may be.
JL: Yeah. And if it isn’t acting, then tap dancing lessons or write something. Write fiction, write plays, write a monologue for yourself. If there’s a play you want to be in, then produce it.
J: If you’re passionate about something, just do it.
JL: Yeah, and the chances are you’ll never get to complete the project, somebody will hire you to act. But in the meantime, you’ve explored your own avenues of creativity and expression. And it keeps you from getting depressed. I mean, the acting business is just ruthless. You live with rejection all the time.
J: And the art business has got to be –
JL: The art business is just as terrible. It’s a toss up [as to] which is the harder life. I suspect being an artist is harder than being an actor. But I don’t – I don’t recommend either of them. (laughs)
J: All right, well thank you so much for having me out, John.
JL: Oh, that’s great. Thank you, Jeremy. It’s a pleasure. That was easy.