Newport Beach artist Scott Kennedy began sailing at 8 and painting at 13. By the time he was 21, he had fused the hobbies into an itinerant life style that would take him to Europe. There he spent 10 years living aboard an old wooden sailboat and sketching his way through the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the inland canals.
"We had said we'd be back in six months," Kennedy says, recalling how he and his wife, Karen, as newlyweds in 1973, purchased an old sailboat in Denmark to live aboard.
"Pretty soon, it's 4 1/2 years later and I am already speaking one dialect of Danish and learning another. We ended up spending 10 years there," says Kennedy, who returned to Newport Beach in 1983 and opened an art gallery specializing in nautical paintings and pen-and-ink drawings.
During his time in Europe, Kennedy became--out of necessity--a boat builder and--out of love--a self-taught marine artist whose work gained recognition in Denmark and in his hometown of Newport Beach. Learning the skills of a wooden-boat builder was essential if the Kennedys were going to turn the old work boat into a floating home, snug enough to survive the brutal Scandinavian winters.
Kennedy says that his boat-building skills helped him become a better artist.
"If I am drawing a boat, I think I should know a boat inside and out," he says.
Living on the water and entering every town by boat also offered him a different perspective, says Kennedy, who paints nearly 90% of his work on location. "I became a chronicler of the area. I had an exhibit in Denmark and people really liked my pen and ink drawings. Pretty soon I began to get commissions from maritime museums, banks and other organizations."
He estimates that during his 10 years in Europe, he completed "a few thousand drawings" and produced half a million prints.
Some of that work can be seen at the Scott Kennedy Maritime Gallery, 507B 29th St. in Newport Beach, along with more recent paintings. Beginning Jan. 22 and continuing through Feb. 22, the gallery will feature a collection of Kennedy's America's Cup paintings, many of which were completed on location during the races in Australia in 1987.
Although Kennedy's Newport Beach Gallery now serves as home base, he has not stopped traveling.
"Traveling and painting (are) so fascinating I have kept it as a life style," says Kennedy, who journeys frequently to paint in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii.
As an "on-location" artist, Kennedy has spent a lot of time painting on the rolling decks of ships, in tiny, unstable paddle boats and from precarious dockside perches. One of the most challenging assignments was to paint a 120-foot steamship while it was underway in the North Sea, he says.
"It was freezing cold and suddenly it would be hailing," he recalls. To stay warm, Kennedy would duck inside the boiler room and then return to the open deck to resume his work.
More recently, Kennedy spent hundreds of hours over a two-year period in a paddle boat off Santa Catalina Island, creating three mixed-media works depicting a panoramic view of Avalon Harbor. He finished the first of the works, combining watercolors with pen and ink, in April, 1988, and the final one last May.
A few times Kennedy traveled to Catalina only to find that the seas were too rough for painting.
"Being an on-location artist involves so many facets of trying to make everything work," he says. "I felt that if I did the first one successfully, I could do the others. Each one is a picture unto itself, but combined they form a nice painting. I was always looking for the perfect synchronicity of light and weather."
When the project was completed, Kennedy printed a limited edition of 200 lithographs, priced at $350 each. He donated 20 sets to the Catalina Conservancy, a private, nonprofit corporation that owns 86% of Santa Catalina Island and works to preserve the island in its natural state. Last fall he was honored by the organization for his donation.
Kennedy is currently working on a painting for the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn., sponsors of the Ensenada Yacht Race. The painting will be on the cover of the race program.
Much of his current work is done from the cockpit of the sailboat that served as his floating home and studio during the years he spent in Europe. The boat, now moored near Kennedy's gallery, is still one of the artist's favorite places to work. Kennedy and his wife had the boat shipped to California from Europe in 1983.
The vessel holds many memories for the Kennedys, now parents of a 5-year-old daughter, Keeley.
Kennedy recalls the winter spent at anchor in Flensburg, West Germany, where it got so cold that the harbor froze and he would go ashore by skidding a dinghy across the ice.
"On shore, people died from the cold because the generating plant failed," Kennedy says. "Everyone there still talks about that catastrophic winter."
But the Kennedys, who had a coal-burning stove aboard their boat, were safe and warm. "We went through about 50 pounds of coal every 24 hours," he says. "And everyday we had to chop the ice around the boat to keep it from damaging the hull."
Many of the people the Kennedys met in Europe didn't understand what a Californian was doing there, Kennedy recalls, especially when it was sunny and warm back home. "I didn't understand it myself," he said.
Would he do it again?
Scott Kennedy doesn't hesitate with his answer. "No," he says, stretching the word out emphatically and shaking his head in disbelief at the question.
Shearlean Duke is a regular contributor to Orange County Life. On the Waterfront appears each Saturday, covering boating life styles as well as ocean-related activities along the county's 42-mile coastline.