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  • by Dion Wright

How I Got This Way

Laguna Beach Patriot's Day Parade

This is an excerpt from the website, celebrating this year's Patriot's Day Parade honorees. Go to the link above to read about all of the honorees. I'm honored to be among them, and answered their request for a brief biography, however I believe I may not have been that brief:

The 2016 Laguna Beach Parade | Artist of the Year - Dion Wright

Editor’s Note: Art is at one level a highly individual undertaking. Dion Wright, our 2016 Artist of the Year, not only paints and sculpts, but is also a vivid and insightful writer about the mind of an artist. In many ways, the year 1967 was pivotal in Laguna Beach: the Vietnam War divided the nation, the first Patriots Day Parade took place, and a local artistic counter-cultural movement led to the creation of the Sawdust Festival. Now a much-loved institution, Dion was a leader in its formation in its early days, as he recounts in his autobiography, "Tempus Fugitive; Art, Beatniks, Sex, Hippies, Art Festivals, Mind Expansion, and Immortality".

We have decided to let him explain in his own words:

How I Got This Way

An artist's brief autobiographical sketch, by Dion Wright

In 1937 the Golden Gate Bridge went up, Boulder Dam started holding water, the Hindenburg went down, and I was born on the winter solstice. Also, Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, relocated in Hollywood, as far from Hitler as he could get.

My earliest memory is of Rembrandt's self-portrait with the warm brown eyes and wearing the brown velvet cap. My Mother was ecstatic about the Metropolitan Museum of Art in general and Rembrandt in particular, starting to take me in to NYC to visit him when I was about four. The memory is clear, through repetition, and the influence of Mom's unfeigned ecstasy in the presence of the Master. She was a businesswoman who knew next to nothing about child-rearing. It seemed reasonable to her that she should share her favorite artist with me at four. After all, I could talk (a blue streak) couldn't I?

I could read by then, too. Mom was a busy woman who read to me every night because she knew she should. She didn't want to be bored by Wee Willie Winkie, though, so she read me books she could tolerate, like ones by Booth Tarkington, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Mark Twain and Albert Payson Terhune. After a while, sometime between the ages of three and four, she made a deal with me: I should learn to read to her, and THEN she would read to me. I had been following her words across the pages, and was already getting the hang of reading, so I quickly achieved reading to her. When she saw that I could, she unloaded a couple of crates of books in my vicinity, leaving me to my own devices, and I've been reading ever since.

My Old Man was of a different persuasion about Art, which interested him but mildly. An odd thing, since he was an operatic tenor; a graduate of the Eastman School in Rochester, so one might have assumed he'd like the Met too, but the Met he favored was the Metropolitan Opera, which we listened to weekly on radio, hosted by Milton Cross. Regarding physical collections, HE liked the American Museum of Natural History, with the gigantic statue of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback at the entrance, which monument set me early a high bar of sculptural possibility. My Old Man took me mostly into the dinosaur wing and into the armor collection. Both areas were inducive of sculptural enlightenment. The dinosaurs paced, arrested, in their internal skeletal forms, while the suits of armor were all surface, sombre, sinister and existentially dangerous, even without anybody inside of them. The thing dinosaurs and Medieval knights had in common was that they were lethally dangerous. Nobody ever thought that about Rembrandt. My sculptural intentions were set early by the contrast and balance of the internal with the external, and informed by mythology, both classical and personal.

I also have riveting memories of World War II; not Pearl Harbor, but D-Day, and wondering what it meant, with everybody so buzzing about it, but not so agitated as when FDR died. I'd never seen a lot of grown-ups shedding tears, and it impressed me. My kindly Grandmother took me into Manhattan to see the contrasting realities of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at Radio City, and the hole in the side of the Empire State Building, where a bomber lost in fog had plowed into it. I had expected to see the tail sticking out. When I heard on the radio that the Red Army was advancing, I colored the soldiers in my coloring book red. Then we moved to California, my Old man going ahead, and then the rest of the family following via the Chief, at the end of the coast-to-coast streamliner era. I kept my nose pressed to the window all the way, and received a sense of how big our country is. We arrived into the bedlam of LA's Union Station in 1945, and then saw the blue Pacific Ocean appearing at the end of Santa Monica Boulevard. I had my 8th birthday in Santa Barbara, where my mother cried out, "Come listen to the atom bomb!” That was an irreversible moment.

Changing coasts was a paradigm-shift that was conditionally good for me, but which shift of bearings threw my parents into deep psychological waters in which they struggled evermore. The horizons opened for me. From one of our homes on Point Fermin in San Pedro we watched Howard Hughes lift off the Spruce Goose on a sparkling blue day at LA Harbor, the giant plane a precise miniature in the distance, but loud. How could we know it would never fly again, and that Hughes would recede into his self-administered disgrace?

Our family commenced a peripatetic series of domicile relocations which came to rest in San Clemente, population then 1200. I had a series of teachers who saw value in Art, and encouraged my fledgling efforts, especially Mr. Douglas Hammond, the Renaissance Man who was the bright light at old Capistrano High. He talked Aldous Huxley with me, and told me I was too young for Ayn Rand. As a social outsider, my young life was spent in nature. I learned the entire ecology of south Orange County, from the top of Saddleback Mountain to the roots of the kelp forest. All of it was grist for the mill of emerging artistic operations. In the cultural world, TV replaced radio, and imagination suffered for it.

At UCSB I came under the influence of Mr. Howard Warshaw, the most brilliant thinker and best artist I ever had the privilege to know. His disciples became passionate advocates of his traditional view of Art as existing on an unbroken continuum from the ancient caves into the problematic future. He cleaved to the timeless principle that Art served a social transaction within the ancient equation of Artist-Art-Observer. Howard Warshaw was troubled by contemporary philosophical revisionism which elevates the artist so far that the observer becomes irrelevant. I have never deviated from advancing and expressing his view, and worked during the next fifty five years to attempt to find meaning in an increasingly fragmented and psychotic world.

Individual Art works are no more than the physical detritus of a spiritual quest. Within the accelerating coalescence of global culture, new and holistic modes of expression will have to emerge, given the by-no-means certainty of our survival. Assuming that we do survive, the nature of Art will continue, at bedrock, to be revelation, and the communication of it.

Dion Wright

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