Portrait of an Artist: Willard Dixon

Mike / Willard Dixon / Oil on canvas, 2010 / Collection of the artist
Mike / Willard Dixon / Oil on canvas, 2010 / Collection of the artist

Q: Where are you from, where do you live now?

A: I was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1942. I now reside in San Rafael, California.

Q: What medium(s) do you work with?

A: Oil on canvas; charcoal or pastel on paper.

Q: Tell us about your technique/creative process.

A: My landscapes and portraits are usually based on photos; the still-lifes I paint directly from setups in my studio. I look primarily for a subject that moves me emotionally in some way. In my mind’s eye, though not specific, I have a kind of vision of the finished painting. I am looking for possibilities that I sense in the subject, a certain resonance and open-endedness.. . . I like to work in series, the paintings feeding off one another as I progress.

Q: What is your background (education, career, etc.) and how does it contribute to your art?

A: I studied briefly at the Art Students League in New York City when I was a teenager, later attending the Brooklyn Museum School of Art. I have an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, where I received the bulk of my schooling.

The two main currents at that time were abstract expressionism and the California figurative movement, neither of which I seemed to connect with. I ended up doing a lot of collage and constructions with a surrealist bent. I felt a bit of an outsider at the time. Basically, I taught myself to paint realistically.

Q: Tell us about the piece that you submitted to the competition.

A: The piece I submitted to the competition is one of a series of portraits I did of friends—mostly artists— over a period of about three years. I think there is a relationship, perhaps oddly, between my starting the series and my increased involvement in music at the time. Being a long-time saxophone player, I organized a jazz group, and the increased social interaction that entailed made it more possible for me to get involved with other people artistically.

Bringing the particular contemplation of another person into my practice of painting was a new and most interesting experience; quite different I felt, from the usual solitary activity. The painting of Mike Henderson, a painter and musician, was inspired by the particularly striking pose he spontaneously assumed when I was photographing him in his studio. The blue gloves he is wearing are those he paints in, and the yellow background was suggested by the brightly painted walls in his house. I feel the scale of the painting and his pose convey the strong presence of the artist.

Q: Tell us about your larger body of work.

A: I have painted more landscapes during my career than I have still-lifes or portraits. I have also painted a number of large-scale landscape commissions, including one for the California Supreme Court and one for the Oakland Museum. I tend to do a body of work in one mode, then move on to another. Having the different avenues of expression keeps me interested in the process, and my discoveries in one area subtly influence the others.

Q: What are you currently working on?

A: I am currently working on a series of intimately scaled still-lifes involving groupings of small objects against a relatively neutral background. When I work in this way I sometimes feel that the resulting compositions reflect a musical sensibility.

Q: How has your work changed over time?

A: As my practice of painting moves into its sixth decade, I’ve learned to accept and enjoy the impossibility of having more than a momentary resting place before moving on to another attempt. I do appreciate more and more the way a painting, its spirit arising out of such humble materials, continues to rest silently on the wall, contemplating both itself and the viewer amidst the hurried buzz of our contemporary lives, offering a refuge and occasion for those desiring a deeper and more satisfying engagement of our attention.

Q: Who are your favorite artists?

A: Velásquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Ruisdael, Courbet, Manet, Sargent, Inness, Bonnard, Morandi, Magritte, Still, Freud, Conner, De Feo.

Q: If you could study with one artist, who would it be?

A: If one could sit at the feet of someone like Manet or Courbet, much would be learned to be sure, and to be in the milieu of Paris at that time fascinating.

Q: What are your favorite works?

A: The Unicorn Tapestries, Velásquez’s Las Meninas, Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio, Grünewald’s Crucifixion and Resurrection, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, and Vermeer’s A Lady Writing.

Q: What inspires you?

A: The possibility of embodying beauty, and the way unexpected avenues of expression open up and lead you forward or evolve as you work.