Artist Dennis McGonagle, his easel, chair and quiver of paint brushes always in hand, has become a celebrity of sorts in Whittier. Like the town criers of old, McGonagle spreads a message--except that he uses acrylic paints to tell Whittier's story.
On a given day, McGonagle, 33, may be seen sketching on a street corner in Uptown Village or sitting at sunset in the yard of one of Whittier's stately homes, committing a scene to canvas with bold strokes. The folksy artisan, who was laid off as a bus driver three years ago, has become the city's unofficial artist. It is a role he relishes.
"There's an elegant, quiet quality to this town that you don't find elsewhere in the area," said McGonagle, a Whittier resident for eight years who was drawn to the hillside community by its history, older neighborhoods and people. "Visually, this town is very pleasing to the eye. Every day I'm caught up in the challenge of recording its charm."
For the bespectacled McGonagle, painting full time was a long-sought reprieve from driving passenger buses. With little seniority, he was one of the first Greyhound drivers laid off in October, 1982, when declining ridership forced the nationwide bus carrier to trim its operations.
His First Love
At first, the prospect of providing for his wife and two small children troubled the Norwalk-born McGonagle. Then he realized that unemployment was not a blow, but a boon to his art work. For the first time since he began drawing 15 years ago, he could channel all his energy into painting, his first love.
While driving for Greyhound, he had paused long enough to paint some of America's most majestic settings, from the rugged plateau country of northern Arizona to the Rockies in Colorado.
"But it was always on the run. There was never enough time to really develop my work," said McGonagle, who now spends up to five hours a day either scouting and sketching new locations or painting. Besides, he grew tired of being away from his wife Terry, son Casey, 7, and daughter Mary, 5.
"I'm now the happiest unemployed bus driver around," he said.
And with good reason. Since his layoff, he has completed more than 100 works of Whittier buildings, homes and scenes, many of which have been on display at the Whittier Museum at Newlin Avenue and Philadelphia Street.
McGonagle also has been commissioned by several residents and city groups to paint specific landmarks in the century-old city.
One recent assignment found McGonagle in a vacant office on the sixth floor of the Bank of America building in Uptown Village. He was painting an overview of the city's central shopping district, looking north along Greenleaf Avenue toward the foothills.
It is on the street, however, where McGonagle is most comfortable. When possible, he paints on location, sitting on the edge of his canvas chair, his eyes bouncing between subject and easel. His favorite time to work is late afternoon, when the light softens and shadows lengthen to give his paintings depth. The trademark of a McGonagle painting is the bright, vivid colors he uses to portray street scenes.
"Working on the street is where you get a real sense of the neighborhood," said McGonagle, who first studied art seriously at Rio Hondo College in the early 1970s with his mentor, Prof. Jerry Romotsky. "On the street, you hear the music, the cars and the people who stop and visit," McGonagle said. "It adds a certain dimension to my work that you can't capture tucked away in a tiny studio."
Teacher of Children
Although his paintings are beginning to sell, McGonagle has turned to teaching to make ends meet. This year he taught art to first graders at Lou Henry Hoover Elementary School in the Whittier City School District. He hopes to expand the program next year, teaching drawing, painting and collage at several schools in the district.
Although McGonagle concedes that he is a long way from fame, he has built a following in, of all places, a Mexican cafe in London. Hanging on a wall in Cafe Pacifico is a 25-foot-long mural of Latino graffiti. Tom Estes, a former Whittier teacher who moved to Europe to open a chain of the Mexican restaurants, asked McGonagle to produce the mural.
Working with other artists familiar with Latino art and gangs, McGonagle spent eight hours painting the mural in his backyard. Once finished, McGonagle and his partners used felt-tipped markers, pens and high-gloss paints to highlight the graffiti symbols.
"From what I hear it's a big hit, particularly with London's punk rockers who hang out in the cafe," McGonagle said. "Someday, I'd like to see it. But for now, I'm real content painting Whittier."