A painter imitates Michelangelo by painting a ceiling...in a bar!
Pen and brush drawings are spread across the billiard table at The Last Outpost bar and memorabilia museum in Forbestown. CA. Jack Thodt, formerly known by the nickname "Hippie Jack," displays his art and a selection of posters he has designed, advertising music performances at the establishment.
Looking up, one discovers a fresh white acoustical ceiling covered with Thodt's major, current work. Great flowing brush drawings reflect historical and contemporary events the life of the North Yuba region. The flavor of gold prospecting, its fever and beauty; the origin, value and dispensation of the metal, and its impact upon the affairs of Northern California residents are chronicled in broad strokes and simple forms. A Lumber industry portion celebrates the danger, toil and initiations of loggers who survived to become legends.
The artist gazes upward. "I've logged with a saw like that. I know people who've gone through all of this. The ceiling is an expression of my love and admiration for all the people in this area. I substantiate my feelings in sections, according to subjects."
Thodt has recently returned from a five-year residency at Wenatchee, Wash., on invitation from the Allied Arts Council of North Central Washington. "Doing there? Really nothing. The director said he knew of nobody doing this kind of art with ink and brush. My experience of the officialdom of Art with the capital A has always been ephemeral or a disappointment. I'm an active kind of a person. They took some of my stuff but never did anything with it. My serious work. I took it back and left."
An example of Thodt's serious work is The Protectors, black and white, pen and brush, it shows people moving together toward the foreground; not all people, some are apes, but all carry burdens of their personal civilizations on their backs; car, television set, husband. Dominant is a haunted girl holding a baby, reminiscent of Kathe Kollwitz drawings from World War I. Another observer mentions Honore Daumier, the 19th century French caricaturist. Satire is abundant in the drawing, and sorrow, but Thodt's characters lack bitterness. "It's the evacuation of the Left Bank," the artist explains. "All that stuff going on in Jerusalem."
The ape is a frequent subject of Thodt drawings. "Let the apes beat the apes," says Thodt of his editorial cartooning. "The group that's being protected is the apes, that are protecting, are carrying the apes. (The burdens) represent not only achievements of civilization but also civilization's failings."
Thodt speaks of one of his heroes, Henry David Thoreau. "All you really need is what's in your pocket." Other heroes are Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Albert Einstein, Andrew Wyeth. "Einstein knows the nitty gritty of art. He makes the same statement as Picasso."
To "Bud" Wright, proprietor of The Last Outpost and sponsor of the ceiling in progress, Jack Thodt is a hero. "Jack is the best. Artwork, man, he can do anything. I love Jack. Man, that's why he's painting the ceiling--coming here for practically nothing because he wants to do it. Jack put this place together. Friendship, man, that's where it's at." Wright introduces Thodt's daughter, Staysi, age 15. "Jack won't brag, but he took care of this girl by himself, and she's a peach."
"Talk to her about the importance of formal education," Thodt suggests. "She has also a natural drawing ability."
Staysi Thodt responds. "Dad's the best artist in the world. He only thinks I can draw because he never sees the millions of rejects I don't show him. I'm going to take care of Dad." She refers to her father's recurring back problem of uncertain diagnosis, one which periodically halts progress on the ceiling. "I mean to be a fashion designer," the girl adds. "He took care of me--raised me since I was two years old."
"Maybe a drawing master," Thodt concedes. "Not a great artist. In this, I'm more like a craftsman. I'm writing books, too. "What's an artist? What happens happens. As human beings, we can cause things to happen and we react rationally or irrationally--but it happens, that's all. My work is like a tree. It just grows. Art school of life."
Thodt acknowledges no formal art training except for one period with an exceptional teacher in high school. "Only libraries, bookstores, whatever galleries and museums I can find." The de Young Museum in San Francisco is a favorite. "Always something different, every month. Being informally trained, all I could do was become opinionless about modern art. It seems to me to be only the underpainting, an unfinished art. When I begin a painting, I splash a streak to get the feeling and that's the beginning. But only the beginning. For modern art, that's all."
A patron of the Outpost joins the growing crowd beneath the ceiling, looking up, surrounding the artist. "Say, you must be the one did that big vulture." He describes walking along New York Flat Road, "where the Indian rocks are. I looked up. Way up. There's this huge vulture, about four, five feet high looking down at me. Just hanging up there, perfectly still. "I couldn't believe it. Never saw such a thing. There it was. Somebody must have painted it on Masonite or something. No way to get it up there. It stayed for a long long time, then for a couple of years it hung upside-down by its claws. Finally it disappeared. I wonder whatever happened."
Thodt considers for a moment. "I don't think so. I don't remember painting anything like that." "Soon as you get through painting the ceiling, I'm going to send you to art school," says the proprietor. Thodt continues without pause, "I've been at times way up the mountains where I haven't seen people for weeks on end. Go to a highway--find TV antennae, designer jeans, autos--I feel, here's the circus again. If TVs and autos were all that good, why would they make more of them every year? Last year's not good? "Technology is fine if you use it. If it uses you it's worthless. As a taskmaster, I can't use it. . . unless, if one of my old friends gets rich, says, 'Here's 40 grand, sit down and do your books,' I'd start making prints. Get a multilithograph machine."
"I have three books ready now, more than just outlines; from beat, through hip to escape to the mountains. I just want to be out of the circus, be let alone to get my work done." The Last Outpost does not qualify as a circus? "Here, once I get up on the platform and reach for a brush everybody leaves me. I am completely alone up there."
Asked to reflect upon his predecessor in the ceiling-painting business, Michelangelo: "When I was young I had three rogue uncles. They built houses. Plumbed, electrified, the whole works, in Cleveland, Ohio. Let's just do it, they would say, then talk about it later.
"If they were still around. . . . Yeah, we could tear this place down and build a chapel, get the pope in here." Serious again, Thodt recognizes the divinity of all people; his patron, himself, the clientele of the roadside dive and apes included. "God is not definable. I am definable, but God is not. Still, He is in me. If He speaks through my fingers, that is all I want."
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