I probably met Bill around 1991. I had just framed a number of large pieces for Kathy Bertrand. They were large pastels of elephants, probably around 3 feet and 4 feet after they were framed, and about 8 of them. It was my first challenging job on my own. Bill had a rental gallery where artists could show their work by paying a reasonable fee. It was called Dancing Man Studios. He also did PhotoStats and Image Capture for graphic art work and artists creating their portfolios. PhotoStats are completely archaic now. But in order to reproduce artwork in most magazines, newspapers etc. one needed a Photostat, basically a positive picture which was then used to make a negative which was then used to create a printing plate. Image Capture is still needed for artists who require a record of their artwork for their portfolios, however now it is done with digital cameras and at high enough resolutions to be reproduction quality. Bill never made the step to a digital camera.
Kathy had an opening in his gallery there on Maple St.. I think it was my first art opening. I was as uncomfortable as ever, but I do remember some details about it. I remember Kathy, she was beautiful and a multi-talented artist. Her pastels were huge, vibrant and well executed. I could feel her love for elephants in them (she must have seen them up close). Apparently she was also an accomplished jazz singer. She was in her 40’s, a confident age for people, where we start to have enough back story to feel more at ease with life, but still healthy enough not to be fighting our physical decay. Kathy’s boyfriend showed up a little bit late. Bill made his appearance from “behind the curtain” he had a kind of back room where he worked and kicked back in. My first impression of him was that he possessed a bit of knowledge unknown to the average person, it kept him at ease, calmly ready for the next thing life might bring him. He was tall; about 6′ 2”, handsome, mostly quiet but able to say the right thing at the right moment. A kinder gentler version of Clint Eastwood. He didn’t have that survival attitude (kind of an underlying sense of desperation), that I have seen from most people who own their own business, including myself.
Kathy didn’t have any sales of her paintings that evening, but later she got word from Bill that someone wanted to purchase one. After talking with the potential buyer she learned that Bill had told him that she was asking “four”. They buyer took that to mean four hundred not the four thousand she wanted. I used this incident to help knock Bill down a few notches in my own mind. “He was too casual, too easy-going” I told myself. But really I was envious.
I imagined Bill as a casual painter. This piece seems to bare that out. I’m guessing it is a scene that he wants to remember and refer to often. It looks like a nearby coastal scene, on the back he has written “Opal Cliffs 1976”. The Opal Cliffs are on the east side of Santa Cruz near where Bill lived. Coastal cliffs can be very distinctive. When I first saw his painting I mistook them for the ocean along West Cliff drive, they are very similar. Other nearby coastal scenes have would looked very different; these cliffs are not jagged and protruding from the water like they do in the Big Sur/Monterey area, they are very unlike the dunes and long foggy stretches of sand just south of Santa Cruz, and the cliffs near the Davenport area are fragmented and crumbling with a different shape and color, and the trees don’t usually don’t grow so close to the edge of the cliffs.
There is a thick layer of fog hanging out over the water and what looks like a sunset happening behind it. I’ve seen this same scene many times myself, standing on the West Cliff pathway and looking out. But his vantage point in this picture is lower as though he is in the water himself, just paddling around on a surf board with no waves in sight. He might have painted this piece while sitting on the beach in front of his small house. There is not the sense from this piece that he has painted enough to develop his own style or that his style is particularly refined. It just looks like something he might have done as a kind of therapy. I’m guessing he did not use any reference picture for this painting, he probably painted “en pleine aire” while he was sitting down looking at it.
Bill used to live in a house right on the beach, the one right in front of Schwan’s Lagoon. Some of his friends referred to that place as the “Peanut Shell”. He invited me out there one day and we shared a glass of wine. I always wanted to talk business with him, I felt like our business models were so similar that we could work out a project together. But that was not Bill, he knew how to enjoy the time he spent here on Earth. We sat out on his porch looking out over the beach and at the waves. Not too many people on the beach that day, though it was a pleasant one: late fall, early winter, before the rainy season. It is when the fog stays out over the water and the sun is not too hot.
His place was tiny, but he had everything he needed. I recognized a lot of the unfinished redwood, He had also constructed a number of things out of it at his shop Downtown; tables and shelves mainly. Here, everything was redwood, the walls, his kitchen cabinets and counter, which was just a couple feet from his bed. Unfinished redwood has a way of showing where it has been touched frequently. The oil from your skin creates a kind of finish and the friction smooths out the wood in certain spots. The grime can be wiped away but those spots where the wood has been touched frequently are darker and polished. As you live with it those spots become a record of use, reminding you where to place your hands. It makes you feel comfortable and shows you a record of where things have been touched. It was a kind of trademark with Bill, he even made his own picture frames out of unfinished redwood. I noticed a number of spots with many years of wear in Bill’s Peanut Shell house. It told me where he spent his time; in the kitchen, near his bed (there was an TV facing his bed) and by a table looking out a large window over the beach and the Monterey Bay. He had a couple pairs of binoculars placed near a small table in front of that window and I sensed he used them frequently. I tried them out, looking out at the waves, it was too foggy to see the Moss Landing Power Plant but I knew it was there across the Bay. There were very few people on the beach on that day but I guessed Bill would use these for people watching, I would have. People make fascinating subjects when viewed from afar. The kids playing in the sand and the waves, the teens and young adults doing their mating ritual, showing off skin and nicely shaped bodies, tossing Frisbees, football, playing smashball, laying out on beach towels working on their tans. The older adults watching, reading, eating and drinking, occasionally worried about the kids in the water. I felt two things on that visit; the first being what an ideal situation Bill had, and secondly what a lonely life he had.
Bill was mainly a photographer rather than an artist. I had seen a lot of his photography and thought it was similar to what I would have chosen myself. He did people and local scenes. He shot mostly in black and white. I remember one picture he left behind after moving out of his shop Downtown when I moved in. It was a nude of a young woman, none of his other pictures were of nudes or even women. But this woman was posed on his bed in his Peanut Shell house, clearly someone he had been intimate with. She was in her twenties, attractive and very big breasted, you could tell it was her pose not his, because it was a proud natural pose. Bill was not a people-manipulator, he liked to capture the natural moment. The story the picture told me was of someone he had spent a short time with, perhaps a short term lover. He wanted the photo to hold on to that brief moment in time. A particularly fantastical moment for a man who must have been in his mid-fifties to spend intimate time with a women in her twenties. Again, a brief fantastical moment washed over by waves of loneliness. Bill had a saying about photography and its limitations. He called it, “frozen time”, but he said it in such a way that it was inferior to other kinds of art. Other kinds of art we can rewrite and pour our wishes and dreams into. I can see Bill’s dreams in this seascape of his; the water, the cliffs, the sea, the fog and the sunset. I can see he just wants to be there watching them play off each other. Bill told me a couple times about how he wanted to die. Sometimes during the winter storms the waves would come up and smash onto the rocks, right below his Peanut House. He said that is how he wanted to go, with some massive storm taking away his little house and him with it.