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The Academic Artist: At 100, Wayne Thiebaud is Still Making Art, Teaching — and Influencing

By Catherine Bigelow

Wayen Thiebaud. GREGORY URQUIAGA / UC DAVIS

Before the art world’s hoopla last fall honoring the 100th birthday (November 15) of painter Wayne Thiebaud, the lionized artist was doing what he’s done every day for the last 70-plus years: wielding a paintbrush in his studio in midtown Sacramento.

Thiebaud had been commissioned by The New Yorker to create its August 17, 2020, cover. As an active practitioner of his craft, Thiebaud — whose works shatter auction results among living artists, though he brushes off honorifics such as “legendary” and “master” — reimagined a previous ice cream cone painting for his new work, Double Scoop.

“I made changes the original seemed to need,” says Thiebaud, in a recent phone interview. “Then added a second scoop, and cherry on top for a little celebration.”

It was his 10th New Yorker cover and second of the creamy, cold dessert — a staple among his food painting panoply of nostalgic cafeteria confections, including layer cakes, doughnuts and whipped-cream-laden pies.

Yet it was the magazine credit that spoke volumes about Thiebaud’s devotion to his other, less-heralded career: “Wayne Thiebaud is a professor emeritus of art at the University of California, Davis.”

That half-century teaching legacy is saluted this month on campus at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art in a new exhibition, Wayne Thiebaud Influencer: A New Generation.

Featured works in the Wayne Thiebaud Influencer: A New Generation exhibition at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis include Sun Fruit by Wayne Thiebaud.

Conceived by museum founding director Rachel Teagle and co-curated by Susie Kantor, the show features works by Thiebaud and contemporary artists that include Richard Crozier, Gene Cooper, Andrea Bowers, Alex Israel, Grace Munakata and Christoper Brown, some of whom also studied with Thiebaud. Their works, many of which are new, advance artistic conversations and explorations sparked by this treasured educator.

“Wayne is so humble, he often asks, ‘Why does the world need another Wayne Thiebaud exhibition?’” notes Teagle, with a laugh. “Of the endless awards Wayne has received, teaching is what really matters to him. He found his voice during a volatile era in the art world. Painting, as a medium and practice, was dead. But Wayne saw painting as a serious intellectual pursuit and championed a new path forward.”

Thiebaud assisted the curators in identifying former students for the exhibition. Teagle and Kantor also expanded its scope, including works by artists that Thiebaud had no idea he’d inspired. While he is grateful for the attention surrounding his centennial, Thiebaud is less than enthusiastic about the exhibition title.

 

Featured work in the Wayne Thiebaud Influencer: A New Generation exhibition at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis include Artistry and Reality (Happy Birthday) by Robert Colescott

“I’m uncomfortable being called an ‘influencer’ because I’m so influenced by my own heroes. But if I passed that on to my students, using art history to engage, evaluate and inspire your work, then I’m happy talking about how influences are crucial,” explains Thiebaud. “There’s a misconception that it’s a painter’s job to find his own world. That’s not true: You find your voice and feelings by interpreting the things which inspire your work.”

In 1960, as SFMOMA mounted Thiebaud’s inaugural solo show, he was hired away from his teaching post at Sacramento City College by Richard L. Nelson, UC Davis’ visionary chairman, who also enticed William T. Wiley, Manuel Neri and Roy De Forest to join the fledgling art department he’d founded.

“The university was already renowned for its agriculture, viticulture and veterinary science programs. So the art department wasn’t burdened by expectations. We were free to develop our curriculum — [in] some classes I’d read poetry. Richard shielded us from academic politics,” recalls Thiebaud. “Rather than us striving to achieve distinction for the department, it turned out to be a little miracle that just happened.”

Within Influencer are two artists who bookend Thiebaud’s university career: multimedia artist Bruce Nauman, Thiebaud’s first teaching assistant, and painter Vonn Cummings Sumner, the master’s final assistant, who is an art professor at Fullerton College.

Sumner, 45, a Palo Alto High School grad, grew up with a Thiebaud cityscape poster in his bedroom. Dominated by Stanford University, academics was a paramount topic in his town — and family. Eschewing the Ivy League striving of fellow classmates, Sumner, in 1994, pursued higher public education at UC Davis, from where Thiebaud had officially retired.

“But he was still teaching two classes a year, for free, because he loved teaching. However, lower-division students weren’t allowed to take his classes. So I decided to just sit in Thiebaud’s seminal course, Art 148,” recalls Sumner.

“Spotting Wayne on campus was a big thing. He was slightly elusive, as hordes were always tugging on his sleeve for attention. In the classroom, Wayne was fully accessible, generous and present with his students. But I never approached him outside of class.”

In Sumner’s sophomore year he was painting in the hallway of the art building, utilizing it as a studio, when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

“I was sort of annoyed as I was in deep concentration. I looked around and it was Wayne,” Sumner says, laughing. “He told me he appreciated how seriously I was taking my studies. Then disappeared into his office. After that, we developed a warm rapport.”

When Sumner stayed on at Davis for graduate school, Thiebaud appointed him as a teaching assistant. “We’d meet in his office before class to discuss our plan. But we’d end up just talking about life. I had to resist the urge to inundate him with questions,” recalls Sumner. “At the time, I was young and intimidated. Even after grad school, I couldn’t bring myself to call Wayne. But we grew closer by writing letters — it became one of the major relationships of my life.”

That conversation continues in Influencer, with Sumner’s paintings and sketches, many inspired by the Depression-era comic strip Krazy Kat, a lifelong favorite of Thiebaud’s.

“That class I wasn’t allowed to sit in changed my life. When Wayne put Krazy Kat on the screen and explained the intent of artist George Herriman, I was instantly in love,” enthuses Sumner. “If I didn’t become a painter, I probably would’ve been a history teacher because of Wayne’s deep understanding of the influences in Herriman’s creation.”

In January, Sumner traveled to Thiebaud’s studio, sharing his reimagined Krazy Kat series — imbued with 21st-century influences of surviving the Trump administration and COVID. Thiebaud had recently completed his acclaimed Clown series at 99.

Featured works in the Wayne Thiebaud Influencer: A New Generation exhibition at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis inlcude “Shopping” by Vonn Sumner, a former Thiebaud art undergrad and graduate student at UC Davis, who painted a serial homage of works based on the old “Krazy Kat” comic strip, which inspired both painters in their artistic explorations.

“Those clowns are a great burst of energy and artistic freedom. And my Krazy Kats are sort of a call to his response. It sounds corny but they’re sort of a love letter to Wayne,” Sumner explains. “That’s why we gush about him. The art world can be very cynical and kind of awful. For his students who’ve been fortunate to stay in touch, Wayne is a necessary counterbalance to [the] alienating business that is the art world.”

The indefatigable and perpetually curious Thiebaud still works privately with eight students at his studio.

“We talk about the work, art history and analytical criticism,” says Thiebaud. “And they criticize my work, which is very helpful. I treasure that — it gives me the opportunity to continue this mysterious thing called teaching.”

For his 100th birthday, Thiebaud celebrated quietly at home, in pajamas and bathrobe, talking on the phone with old friends. But one item was missing from his simple lunch menu: There was no elaborate, colorful dessert.

“I would’ve loved a lemon meringue pie,” Thiebaud chuckles. “That’s what Betty Jean [his late wife and muse] made when we were courting. But the next day, a friend came by the house with my favorite pie.”

Experience Wayne Thiebaud Influencer: A New Generation (through June 13) at manettishrem.org and find information on visits and timed ticket entry.

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