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Still life (or sparkling)

MATTERS OF TASTE

Painter Thomas Arvid has it made. His models are cooperative (they're bottles, after all) and his clients are passionate wine lovers.

August 06, 2003|David Shaw | Times Staff Writer

Thomas Arvid always wanted to paint. But he grew up in a blue-collar family in Detroit, "and when that happens," he says, "you always seem to get pushed into jobs that are more secure and more traditional."

So Arvid worked in a variety of such jobs until one day in 1991, he found himself in Europe with a new girlfriend, Vanessa. In city after city -- in Paris and Rome and London and Amsterdam -- he saw artists painting on the street and in cafes and alongside rivers.

"That's what I want to do," he said.

So he came home -- home by then being Atlanta, where Vanessa lived -- and he started painting, evenings and weekends at first and then full time.

"I knew I needed direction, a focus for my painting," he says, and for some reason, he settled on "red icons" as a subject.

He painted pictures of crushed Coke cans, Converse tennis shoes and Radio Flyer wagons -- all red, all in oil, all as realistic as photographs. Then one day in 1995 -- already married to Vanessa -- he decided to emulate some of those painters they'd seen in Paris. He started painting a still life of a bottle of red wine on a table in an Atlanta cafe.

"Someone bought it right off the easel, before I was even done," he says, awe still in his voice eight years later.

So he painted another one. It too sold immediately. That happened six times before Arvid realized he'd found his calling. He now paints wine bottles, wine glasses, wine corks and corkscrews almost exclusively -- and he sells the paintings for prices ranging from $10,000 to $40,000 apiece.

He completes about 30 paintings a year, he says, and demand has far outstripped supply. So he also offers digital, high-resolution, inkjet prints of his work in "limited editions": 100 copies of each of his first five paintings, 275 copies each of the next eight and 375 of each of his subsequent originals. The "limited edition" prints sell for $750 to $6,000 each.

The paintings range in size from 20 inches by 24 inches to 4 feet by 5 feet, and they can include a single bottle or as many as 10.

Arvid's paintings are now on display -- and on sale -- at the Coast Gallery, in both Laguna Beach and Long Beach. He's also had one-man shows in St. Louis, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and the Napa Valley.

Wineries now invite him to their release parties -- and ask him to paint their bottles while he's there. Wine lovers bring him their favorite bottles -- and ask him to paint them so they can have permanent memories, hung in their homes.

Why would anyone pay a lot of money for a photo-like painting of a wine bottle? For the same reason, I guess, that collectors have long paid a lot of money for photo-like paintings of bowls of fruit. Besides, bored rich people have to do something with their money -- and to be fair, some of Arvid's clients have an emotional connection to the particular bottle they ask him to paint.

"People ask me to paint bottles from their weddings or their children's birth years," he says. "I even had one couple bring me a bottle that cost only $9. They said it was their favorite wine."

How much did they pay for the painting?

For a minute, Arvid looks sheepish. Then he grins broadly.

"$15,000."

Arvid got his biggest commercial boost about five years ago, when he first visited the Napa Valley.

"Everywhere I went, I saw paintings of vineyards," he says. "I could understand that. They're beautiful. But no one was painting wine bottles or glasses of wine, and when I asked a gallery to exhibit my paintings, they were very skeptical. They took just six."

He laughs the laugh of vindication.

"They sold three that day and the other three the next day, and by the time I got back to Atlanta, they were calling for more."

Arvid likes to think he's doing more than just painting bottles and glasses, though.

"I'm trying to capture the casual elegance of the wine experience, the pleasure of consumption," he says. "I want to look past the bottle to the feeling of drinking with friends."

That's why most of his paintings show open bottles, glasses partially filled with wine, half-empty bottles that have been re-corked and corkscrews with wine-tinged corks still attached.

Arvid has emptied a few wine bottles at his own dinner table."I drank cheaper wine until I started painting and people started bringing me really good wine," he says. "The first two -- a Silver Oak Cabernet and a Stag's Leap Cask 23 Cabernet -- were, wow! Now I like several good California Cabernets -- those two plus Diamond Creek, Opus One, Heitz, Shafer Hillside Select."

Arvid seems terribly earnest for an artist, and at 39, his close-cropped hair and square-jawed countenance do not instantly remind one of the emotive still-life giants of centuries past. But his passion for both art and wine are readily apparent.

"I'm always painting," he told me when we had lunch together. "No matter where I am, I paint -- and if I don't have an easel, I'm sketching and drawing. It's who I am."

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