Four or five small pieces of white paper litter the walls of Wilfred Sarr’s one-bedroom apartment in Santa Cruz. Upon second glance, the words “welcome surprise” can be seen inscribed in Sarr’s usual slapdash scribble.
Some half-finished canvases sit, leaning against the wall near the easel that Sarr is standing over. Just three hours prior, he was staring at a blank canvas. Now, some ghostly monster trying to swallow the notorious Spanish hidalgo, Don Quixote, occupies the center of his painting.
“Somewhere I got the idea of Don Quixote going right down the mouth of some huge fantastic monster,” Sarr says. “I had some idea of what I wanted the mouth to look like, but just the way the eyes happened and the side of the nose and ears; I just liked how the whole thing happened. It was no struggle, just kind of came out. So I was happy with that one.”
Sarr’s “Don Quixote” is the perfect example of the notion the painter likes to call a “welcome surprise.” When Sarr finally takes a step back to look at his work, the surprise comes from the slightest brush stroke or curvature that he has done almost completely without thought.
“In this last year, several of these pieces will have a couple of things working and then I’ll add something, and add something else, and add something else, and that’s been really fun,” Sarr says. “Every once in a while I will look at what I’ve come up with and it’s totally different than what I started with. I’ve had some terrible surprises, but what’s really nice is when you look at it and all of a sudden you see something that you really like. A welcome surprise.”
Things do not always shine through with such ease for Sarr. He can spend days sketching and drawing, trying to slow the rush of circulating ideas in his head. Eventually, he’ll just snap out of it. Sarr’s most recent works catch him after his meditative exercise of sketching and at his most natural state of painting where he, even after fifty years, continues to surprise himself.
“I can sometimes overwork a piece and eventually paint right through it,” admits Sarr. “If the piece can get away from me, maybe it would take on a life of its own and have a chance. But truly, the stuff that surprised me the most I think are the better pieces in this collection. When I don’t get excited about a piece, it’s like a house with all the lights on but no one is home.”
Next Saturday, Sept. 15, marks the fateful return of Sarr to the South Bay, where he, along with fellow artists and longtime friends Robi Hutas and John Cantu, will come together for “It Seems Like Yesterday,” a show at 608 NORTH art gallery in Redondo Beach.
Hutas and Sarr are both 76 years old and have been creating art, searching for wildflowers, arguing, and, above all, laughing together for 50 years. Their annual shows, whether individually or together, have become highly anticipated events in the local art community. They have become part of the history of the South Bay; no pair of artists has created a comparable body of work spanning the last half-century. And Cantu, though only 45, has been welcomed into the kinship of his likewise laughing elders.
And though a sense of humor and human warmth pervades all three artist’s work, there is also a seriousness at its core: these are men who have persisted in living within and for art against the considerable odds the workaday world offers against any true artist.
“All three of these artists have soul and the passion towards freedom,” said Emiko Wake, the curator of the upcoming show. “Art is all about being able to be free. Why people respect an artist is because they put the most beautiful thing in their work, which is nature, and the things you see everyday. They catch a particular moment in time, and put it in a visual form. With each of these guys’ work you can see the most beautiful parts of nature shine through. It’s not just a beautiful sunset or something very provocative. It’s the simplicity of everyday things, the unexpected moments that come about.”