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San Clemente Journal

Paul Gavin – The Pioneer Artist

Apr 29, 2007 09:46PM ● By Don Kindred
by Bill Thomas

Paul painting “Plein Air” in Ojai.The story of Paul Gavin’s art career to date is one of sacrifice and dedication, of the nurturing and fruition of ever-increasing skill in visual art media. Joined in his creative career pursuit by his artist wife, Kimberleigh, Gavin shares his philosophical view of their mutual efforts as follows: “Our art is the result of an entire life’s work, and that life is a dream come true. Everything about our work and our lives is authentic; it is the real deal. We have both been artists since birth and have had no other careers. Our lives are the natural fulfillment of our basic beings, our God given talents, and our work expresses that fulfillment. The images we create are inspiration-based. We have been lucky enough to sell them. The scenes painted are from our lives’ experiences since childhood - feelings, ideas, places and visions stored for years – allowed in through that stuck open valve – that “art valve” with a skill that is finally capable but still being developed.”

Artist Paul Gavin, a seventh generation Californian, first lived with his family in Sacramento, spending enjoyable summers and holidays with one set of grandparents at their ranch in Santa Paula and the other set nearby at Solimar Beach in Ventura County. Experiencing ranch life through the years, Gavin learned to ride horses at a young age, helped with cattle round-ups, drove tractors, built and repaired fences, cleaned stalls and corrals, and tended an enormous garden. Much of his labor was with adults who, early on, served as positive, hard-working role models: cow hands from Arkansas; WWII combat veterans and locals of Mexican descent. 

In sharing information about his early life, Gavin admitted, “They gave me formative impressions, my earliest natural inspirations, and visual and sonic input…and stimulating phenomena.” 
Growing up in Sacramento also provided experiences that showed in his later art work: watching steam locomotives, diesel switchers and drawbridges, and drawing details of trains and airplanes. His father, a hospital supply salesman and licensed pilot, traveled by plane, train and car throughout his Northern California and Nevada territory, so travel was a part of Gavin’s conceptual growth. Additionally, he has mentally retained images from the sights around Solimar Beach, the western art and old New Mexican furniture at his grandparents’ ranch, as well as the special paintings and etchings he viewed. 

In 1957, his family moved to Orange County on Irvine Ranch’s edge. Orange groves, MCAS Tustin Blimp Hangars, MCAS El Toro and the busy Santa Fe Railroad became prime local inspirations for early art subjects. 

Paul began sketching in nursery school, following that interest in his junior and senior high school years boarding at Thacher School in Ojai. He entered Villanova University, also his father’s college, starting as a pre-med student but switching to art before leaving after two years. Returning to California, he worked on his grandfather’s ranch and began studies as a biology major at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Sampling the medical field as a potential career, he left school to work in a bio lab making heart valves.

Paul & wife Kimberleigh in Hawaii.Career wise, he eventually made a life changing decision, moving in 1975 to a studio in Huntington Beach to try his hand as a professional artist. Over the next several years, Gavin completed a bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Irvine, in studio art. He opened an art studio in downtown Santa Ana and, along with his private work, became involved in “street art,” drawing what he saw daily on Santa Ana street corners. He soon began exhibiting at the Laguna Art Festival. His first display booth of oils was converted into a beach scene complete with sand on the ground, volleyball net, beach chair – all surrounded by seascapes and coastal landscapes. 

Before long he moved his studio to Huntington Beach to begin a productive period as “a roving artist,” choosing his subjects along the coast, or from the Irvine Ranch, Ojai, Santa Paula and Sierra. He painted from the bed of the much-admired 1951 pickup truck he had purchased from his grandparents. 

Paul’s patience, talent, and versatility began to pay off. In 1982, he had his first art show entitled “Portrait Balboa: Goodbye Fun Zone,” displaying 15 watercolor paintings of the downtown arcades and landmarks at a local Balboa boutique, all of which were sold on the spot. His oils and water colors and limited print editions included original images of the Huntington Beach Pier, Main Beach Laguna, the Tustin Blimp Hangars and Old Town Irvine. 

Always searching for new, unique ways, and places to show his work, Gavin began displaying his art at the Dana Harbor Wharf in 1988. In a typical “starving artist” role, he carried a portrait of Dana Point Harbor to local businesses and residents, door-to-door, in an effort to increase print sales of the painting. The positive response encouraged him to focus his work on South County beaches and landscapes. 

Huntington Beach 1982 OP Pro. Eighteen years ago, he moved his studio and gallery to San Clemente, perhaps the first local working artist to do so. By this time, Gavin had developed his now-popular “Premier Coastal Series,” which, by 1992, included Dana Dreams: An Endless Summer (1988), Vista Romantic: The San Clemente Pier (1989), San Onofre: Surfers’ Paradise (1990), and Land’s End: Cabo San Lucas (1991), and Avalon Spring: 26 Miles Across the Sea, (begun in 1992). When he tried to secure a business license to display art in the lobby and patio of the San Clemente Hotel on Avenida Del Mar, it was denied. At that time, it was illegal to display art outdoors in San Clemente except by special permit permitting two exhibits per year, ordinarily in conjunction with the San Clemente Fiesta or the Ocean Festival. 

To survive as an artist, obviously, one must be creative. However, creativity not only applies artistic media, technique and methodology, but is also involved in subjects selected, unique marketing avenues and attracting a clientele. Gavin began painting live-and-in-person at various beach-oriented events, a new cycle that translated into “beach art.” He started with the 1982 Huntington Beach OP Pro Surfing Championships from the Huntington Beach Pier, then moved into capturing the excitement and athleticism of the Laguna and Manhattan Beach volleyball tournaments. To this day, Gavin continues this beach event tradition typified by his well-received San Clemente Ocean Festival painting (2002) and his weekend appearances on the patio of Fisherman’s Restaurant in San Clemente’s Pier Bowl.

Still another artistic focus has been Gavin’s “military art.” Growing up in Orange County, many of his boyhood friends and classmates represented military families. He especially harbored great respect for the history, traditions and pride of the Marine Corps. Painting scenes of a Marine airbase for its former commanding officer, Gavin found a new direction. He began producing artwork for military air shows, including the MCAS Tustin Open House and El Toro air shows. He and Kimberleigh continue to create new images of “military art” for over thirteen military events each year, including the United States Department of Defense Open House at Andrews Air Force Base; Fair Saint Louis; the Chicago Air and Water Show; San Francisco, San Diego and New York City Fleet Weeks; and the MCAS Miramar Air Show in San Diego. Gavin was invited to celebrate his artistry in Normandy, France, for the 40th and 50th Anniversaries of D-Day. On one of his trips, he painted an historic reproduction of Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis flying over the French coast. 

In our interview for this article, Gavin highlighted three major influences guiding the direction of his inventive career: his pick-up truck, his heroes and his wife. The pick-up truck first came into his life at his grandfather’s Santa Paula ranch. He purchased it in 1978, but it failed restoration in 1984. Sadly, but fondly, Gavin retained many of its most important parts. The pickup was reborn in 1996, a substitute version complete with those rescued auto parts. Today, you can see Gavin proudly driving around town in his brightly painted traveling billboard. He still uses it as a traveling studio to capture new images in the Sierras and Yosemite. 

Paul Gavin’s painting of Notre Dame, Paris.Gavin admits to being a pioneer as an artist. Accordingly, he credits several long admired heroes who pioneered in their own arenas as motivators. They include Charles Lindbergh, who, Gavin said, “…fought through established beliefs and powerful organizations to accomplish his mission;” his grandfather, Paul Grafe, an accomplished civil engineer and dam builder who recognized Gavin’s early interest in art; his grandmother, the original owner of his pick-up and his most vocal supporter; his parents who willingly accepted his choice of career; and artists from the visual and musical worlds who devoted their own lives to their respective crafts: Claude Debussy, Carlos Santana, Aaron Copeland, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Maurice Ravel, Charles Ives, and John Steinbeck. 

But, more than anyone, Gavin credits his wife Kimberleigh as his main source of encouragement. Kimberleigh concentrates on graphic design; her husband contends she is a far better artist and critic than he is. Gavin wrote, “…she shares my life, my artistic pursuits, and my enthusiasm.” First meeting in 1981, they went their separate ways before re-uniting and marrying 11 years later. They reconnected into another stage of Gavin’s art career, a unified “art life” that Gavin claims “…is continually developing, never secure, but always full. We are alive. Our art represents and continues as steps in the fruit of our life containing the energy of its rich experience. My paintings are footprints left while following a dream. Each one is an original idea, a passion or feeling made into an object for others to see, to share, to feel. While copying a successful style or popular images may bring sales and security, it is more important for me as an artist to be original, to stand apart and create work different from other artists. It is also important for collectors, as the original inspired works will hold their lives and values far after the imitations fade. While being original, we have also been successful. Kimberleigh provides inspiration as well as, and maybe even more importantly, the opportunity, support and blessing for my continued trek up the art mountain. I have been and continue to be very lucky,” Gavin added.

Paul Gavin’s work can be seen at the Beach Fire Bar and Grill, Fast Frame of Dana Point, on the website, and at the Fisherman’s Restaurant every weekend. b