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Obsession for Desert Comes Alive on Canvas : Lancaster Landscape Painter Focuses on Interplay of Land, Sky

August 04, 1989|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | Times Staff Writer

Doug Oliver relaxes in a well-furnished living room in a big house in a subdivision that could be anywhere--except for the paintings on the walls reflecting his obsession for the desert.

Oliver's paintings of high desert vistas have spread the name of the Antelope Valley as far as New York, where he says people can't get enough of Southwestern landscapes.

But neither Oliver nor his Lancaster house fit the image evoked by the term "desert artist," which suggests someone more rustic, an old prospector with a burro, a paintbrush and a drawl. Someone like Walt Lee, Oliver's former teacher and his predecessor as the artistic emissary of the Antelope Valley.

The works of Lee and Oliver are being featured through September at the Lancaster Museum and Art Gallery. The joint exhibit, titled "A Legacy and a Vision," celebrates the local artistic tradition embodied by Lee, who died in 1980 after a career as a newspaper cartoonist and Lancaster-based artist whose paintings of ghost towns, desert life and other Western scenes drew international acclaim.

The exhibit also showcases the success that Oliver has experienced since 1981, when he abandoned his job as a high school art teacher to paint full time. He has sold hundreds of paintings across the nation at prices of up to $9,000.

"There was a year and a half of slow times," said Oliver, whose work is found in galleries in New York state; Scottsdale and Sedona, Ariz.; Carmel, Calif., and Denver, as well as in the Los Angeles area. "But the growing popularity of the Southwestern style helped. I'm thrilled to be able to do what I do and make a living at it."

Oliver, 46, is exclusively a landscape painter. He works with acrylics--paints that can be mixed with water and dry faster than oil-based paints and are better for outdoor use. He roams California, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona searching for subjects for paintings that are usually devoid of human presence, concentrating instead on spectacular interplays of land and sky.

He also roams the Antelope Valley, where he has lived since his parents moved from Ohio when he was a boy in the 1950s.

About the same time, Lee retired from his job as an editorial cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times and moved to Lancaster to paint.

Lee was a judge in an art contest that Oliver entered when he was 12. Oliver didn't win, but Lee liked his work well enough that he offered to give the boy lessons.

Oliver became a sidekick on Lee's picturesque excursions into the desert, which also involved Lee's burro and a black felt hat given to Lee by the actor Harry Carey Sr. The hat is part of the museum exhibit.

In a 1955 Times article, Lee comes off as a crusty character reclined under a Joshua tree with his easel, scoffing at "that Toulouse Lay-trec fella" and declaring: "Mister, there's more art right here on this desert than in all the museums in the world."

Despite the image, Oliver said: "The cliche is that he was ornery, but he was actually a soft guy. He was very supportive."

Lee was more of an inspiration than an actual mentor for Oliver; they only studied together about a year. Oliver's stately landscapes differ considerably from Lee's more impressionistic and diverse work.

"His influence was minor as far as technique and style," Oliver said. "I credit him with getting me started."

Another formative influence was--and continues to be--music. Oliver studied piano as a youth and was a church organist. He says his development as a painter owed a great deal to the daily discipline that he gained studying music, a trait Oliver says he has found lacking in many peers and students.

Art critics have praised the musical quality that permeates Oliver's paintings such as "First Mesa Symphony," a majestic vision of clouds and Mojave Desert buttes and vegetation, with one critic calling Oliver a concertmaster of color and natural themes.

Oliver listens to classical music while he paints, particularly Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers.

"I can hear the color in a symphonic tone poem," he said. "Like music, painting has a firm theme; it ends where it starts. It has texture, it has temperature, light and dark, highs and lows."

Oliver studied at Chouinard Art Institute, which later became part of CalArts in Valencia, and at the University of Redlands, where he earned a master's degree in art education, then began a 15-year career as a teacher at Antelope Valley public high schools.

He grew to hate it.

"It was like a sponge," he said. "It drained me."

About eight years ago, Oliver's local reputation had grown to the point that almost half his income came from painting. He and his wife, Barbara, who owns a Lancaster art supply store and gallery, decided that it was time for him to take a risk.

Now that the risk has paid off, Oliver travels frequently in two- or three-week stints, then retreats to his studio to paint natural scenes from memory. He is methodical and prolific, producing as many as 20 paintings a month.

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