Friday, December 28, 2007

Valfred Thëlin ~ 1934-1991

Valfred Thëlin, the day I met him. February 1980.

As stated in the December 16 entry, it is my intention on this blog to devote some space to artists who have impressed and influenced me. The most logical person to start this off with is the late, great Valfred Thëlin - my #1 mentor, a cherished friend, and the person who got me truly excited about painting.

A long, long time ago in a place called Sarasota, Florida, I started messing around with watercolor. My roommate Rick brought home a cheap plastic paint set that we used to dabble with to augment episodes of altered consciousness. Eventually I graduated to a student set of tube watercolors and brushes. My work was somewhere between what I had drawn my whole life (drawing was my "thing" growing up), and what could be described as the school of Bad Roger Dean. My employment and most of my spare time was devoted to the guitar, and through that I made the acquaintance of a gentleman who was an old-time Sarasotan - the kind who remembered the days well before it became a tourist mecca. Floyd lived in a large Spanish-style building downtown that was formerly the Mira Mar Hotel. He shared this eccentric, rambling abode with a German artist named Flo Singer. Flo was a watercolorist. By and by, I was invited to visit, and went over with my guitar. The walls were covered with art - lots of watercolors including Flo's unique work (influenced by Egon Schiele), but I remember most vividly the instant I spied a small vertical landscape. Probably no more than 8"x10," it depicted a building on a hillside with a wild foreground and sky. I was stunned, and wasn't even sure it was a watercolor until Flo confirmed it; I had never seen a watercolor like that. It was signed, somewhat enigmatically, "Valfred." I enquired about the artist, and she told me he was fabulous, and that I was in luck: he would be doing a demonstration that Sunday night at the Hilton Leech Studio, at the time a nationally-known venue for visiting artists.

I showed up to a packed house, paid my $3 (!) and had to sit in the back. Valfred Thëlin was introduced by Katherine Rowland to lots of applause, dressed in a black velvet tunic and a pince-nez dangling from his neck. He certainly looked like an artist - longish hair swept back, and the proverbial artist's vandyke. He immediately engaged the audience and titillated us with a combination of art world anecdotes, Down East humor, borderline ribaldry, and personal reflection. He whipped out a 30"x40" watercolor board, quickly taped the edges, and continuing the patter without missing a beat, wielded a 3" brush making enormous slashes across it in cadmium yellow, orange, and red. I had no idea what he was doing. He then tossed that aside, and in about 15 minutes painted a startling sunset scene in his patented technique (and one which I made liberal use of for some time afterward). He sold it on the spot, and then went back to the big piece. The audience gasped as he squeezed an entire large tube of W&N phthalo blue onto the center of the picture. I knew then he was either a genius or a lunatic...maybe both. He covered most of the board, including the cadmium areas, until it looked almost black; it appeared ruined and I couldn't have imagined what was to happen next: while it was wet, he took a razor blade and palette knife and proceeded to carve out a mindbending depiction of Times Square at midnight - a cacophony of buildings, marquees, signs, people, taxis, the works. It was electric! I was totally blown away - I had never seen watercolor painted so boldly and aggressively. He ripped off the masking tape revealing the white border, and remains to this day the most dramatic watercolor demonstration I've ever seen. I was hooked. I wanted to do that. I signed up for the workshop right then and there, and that marked the real beginning of my watercolor journey.

Val was an encyclopedia of watercolor methods, many of which ironically evolved through his years as an oil painter (allergies caused him to switch to watercolor). He was a master of them all: tissue paper paintings, drip/pour paintings, acrylic watercolor, unusual gesso techniques, ink, airbrush, mixing oil with watercolor, razorblade sketching and painting, spattering, etc. - things I never saw anyone else do. He painted all subject matter and was equally adept in realistic and abstract work. He used a huge antique butcher's tray as a palette, which appeared to be a disaster area, but it was actually quite organized and he knew precisely where every color was. The delightful demonstrations were always punctuated with stories about his mother and family (he was a third-generation artist), his travels, personalities in the art world, and colorful experiences such as the time Errol Flynn saved the adolescent Valfred from drowning. There was never a dull moment.

He referred to himself as an "abstract realist."

"Painting may be abstract or realistic, depending on personal interpretation. I have no inhibitions about moving from what is called realistic to what is considered abstract, for I find relevance in both pertaining to the interpretation the individual may give a particular expression. What is real in my paintings is the image itself, which fuses with my ideas as I begin to paint. The painting seems to create itself during this process. Forms tinged with personal feelings remembered or hidden in my unconscious spring into being, and the painting unfolds into a world of light and depth with its own consciousness."

"The Creator and the Crater"
Award-winning photograph by Shirley Hummel of Val
in Costa Rica.

Val doing one of this famous razorblade sketches at Hilton Head.
Photograph by Shirley Hummel.

I took the workshop the next few years, everytime he came to town, and we became good friends. Val encouraged me quite a bit, and got me interested in artists I knew nothing about - Sargent, for one. I was able to stimulate him with my music. I signed up for a trip to Maine and Nova Scotia that he was leading with photographer Pete Carmichael - one of the "Two Arts" tours. He met the group at the Portland airport in a lobster costume, and that pretty much set the tone. We had a blast...the whole group (about 20) painted and shot pictures of that dramatic coastline, hitting most all of the famous places like Peggy's Cove, Monhegan Island, the lighthouses, etc along the way. I was already a decent draftsman, but it was on that trip that Val taught me how to really sketch on location. He did this everywhere we went, and at night entertained us in the local pubs, or the two of us went out exploring. He printed up a book of the trip containing his sketches, a number of which featured me. The late photographer Margarette Mead was also on that trip, and he did a sketch of Margaret and himself carrying me down the street after twisting my ankle during a night of carousing. He did another of me playing my guitar somewhere in Nova Scotia, and yet another of me sitting in with a band at one of the hotels.
Nick, Val's girlfriend (and later wife, Deidre), Val, Shirley Hummel.
On a very rough boat ride to Monhegan Island.

The trip ended in Ogunquit at Val's house on Shore Road, which sat atop a gigantic rock overlooking Perkin's Cove. We had a party with everybody donning crazy hats from his collection. I stayed on there for a couple of days with Val, his girlfriend Deidre, his daughters, and his wonderful mother, Vi. I recall dressing up in a costume and going to a New Year's Eve party (in September!) at a local watering hole. I don't remember much of the night except for a number of artists "in residence," each of us taking turns at the sketchbook, and the drinking games. Val held court, of course, and he was definitely the life of the party. The Thëlins were practically royalty and enjoyed no small notoriety in those parts... I had a helluva ride!

Val and I remained great friends, and anytime he came to Sarasota we looked for trouble and usually found it. Once, when I wasn't home, he climbed through the bedroom window of a guesthouse I lived in on Siesta Key, and hung one of my paintings upside down....never noticed until he made a joke about it! He had some serious health problems the last few years, attributed by him to a diet that consisted primarily of wine and cheese. He also had a habit of twirling the tip of his brush between his lips to make it point, and no doubt consumed enough cadmium and other chemicals over the decades to kill ten artists. He underwent a serious stomach surgery that was hard on him, and I think the last time I saw him was on Siesta Beach, working on his tan. He lived life in a big way.

Val died of a cerebral hemorrhage, collapsing at his front door, in the fall of 1991. He was "pre-Internet" so there isn't a whole lot out there on him, but I see more and more references all the time by former students, colleagues, art lovers, and collectors. He was and is a legend in the watercolor world, and I miss him dearly.

Valfred Thëlin was an internationally recognized artist. He was born in Waterbury, Connecticut and was trained in the European apprentice tradition by his grandfather, a muralist who came to the United States from Sweden in the late 1800s. His father Carl Valfred Thelin, a commercial artist, strongly influenced his work as well. He went on to study at the School of the Art Institue of Chicago, and the Art Students League of New York, participating as well in seminars throughout Europe and working one-on-one with Hans Hofmann and Georgia O'Keefe. Valfred has been featured in major art publications and is in many museums including the Museum of Modern Art and Smithsonian, private collections, and galleries here and abroad. He conducted over 200 workshops and demonstrations in the USA and ten other countries, and was invited artist at three major universities. He juried dozens of competitions, held seminars in Mexico, and was the recipient of over 95 major awards. He was a member of the American Watercolor Society, among others, and listed in Who's Who in American Art. And last but not least, Valfred was a charter member of the exclusive WPA - Whiskey Painters of America!

Valfred's book, Watercolor: Let the Medium Do It, was published by Watson-Guptill and can still be obtained from many sources on the Internet. If you're lucky, you might be able to track down tapes from the Thëlin Video Workshop series.

For further reading, there are personal recollections of Val posted HERE.

I dedicated a painting to Val, and during the demonstration related some Val stories HERE.

A thread on the WetCanvas! site I started about Val HERE.

In addition to the credited shots, photographs of the Thëlin gallery sign, Val on the Oregon coast, and the last portrait are by Shirley Hummel. Used with permission and many thanks for her fantastic work!
I hope anybody who knew Val, or has something to relate about him or his work, will post here or contact me. Thanks!


William K. Moore said...

Man where you get the time to write these cool stories? Quite entertaining so thanks for that. The only art demos I saw early on were the occasional few that would appear on public television. I loved those and actually learned some cool tricks that I remember and use to this day. But to see a painting being created live is another thing.. and if the artist is talented the experience is magical and transformative.

Sandy said...

I really don't know anything about .
"Valfred Thëlin ~ 1934-1991"..that is... until you wrote this piece on your blog.
You have stimulated my interest in this extra-ordinary artist and I will be doing some research in order to discover more.
Your fondness and appreciation of this man and his art is obvious and sincere.
You have indeed been fortunate to have known such a man and your writings tell us how powerfully he influenced you as a young artist.
Thank you for sharing.

Ron Morrison said...

Me n'that other guy (W.K.) are only a coupla years younger than ol'V was when he packed it in. Yikes. I'll look him up, try and find a book.

Anonymous said...

Bravo! What a great tribute to Valfred and with so much thought and admiration. Those of us who knew him were constantly in awe of his multi techniques. Everywhere he went people gathered around him to watch his fascinating sketches and paintings that started out from nothing and ended up masterpieces as well as to hear his never-ending "Down East" storytelling.
He would have been very proud of your accomplishments Nicholas as am I.

Anonymous said...

very nicely done. when i rented val's video from the library i was blown away. i've heard some of your stories and anecdotes about val and this blogpost is a fine tribute to an original artist.

Sandy Maudlin said...

Hi Nick,
What a ride to read this post. His book was one of my first purchases when I started my watercolor adventure. I tried to find workshops by him, but I didn't get started in watercolor soon enough to get to meet him. Thanks so uch for painting such great pictures in my head tonight. So glad he started YOU on your journey. Have a good new year.

William K. Moore said...

Just a further thought... about the importance of having art mentors, peers and friends. During my art school days there was an abundance of all three. I took it for granted that that would be a natural part of my life always. Not true - sad to say. Thanks to the internet my contact with a community of artists and friends has improved. But nothing equals a day-to-day contact - live (real) as opposed to one virtual.

sandra flood said...

I'd love to see some of his work!
That demonstration he did sounded very exciting.
When I first started to paint it was with watercolors. I switched to oils a number of years later but have always retained a fondness for the medium.

Nick said...

Midas Man - I could write a lot more on this subject, but I don't think people visit blogs to read novellas. I've often wondered if that demo Val did stands out to me as the best (I've seen many) because it was my first...but I don't think so, it really was a virtuoso performance.

Sandy - he must have been able to see into the future, because he told me things about this business that have become more and more relevant to my life the past few years, now more than ever. You might look for his book, it's a wonderful watercolor resource, one of the best.

Ron - you'd have to live pretty hard and pretty fast to follow in his footsteps...I don't mind the fast, but I don't recommend the hard!

Shirley - we sure have some great memories of Val, and you got to do more traveling with him. I'd love to have posted all of the wild pictures, but the innocent need to be protected! Thanks again for the use of your fantastic work - the volcano one in Costa Rica is just incredible, one of the best shots I've ever seen. And the few you got of me....well, what can I say? Hope to see you down there one of these days soon...maybe in February, I'll be there doing a workshop and Olga and Larissa are coming with me. Abrazos!

Chris - not so anonymous to me! You're in the right place, just a few years too late, darn it. You would have loved him!

SandyM - oh I didn't know you were onto Val...shouldn't be surprised, though - he painted everything, and painted it all beautifully, and so do you!

Bill redux - the internet has been a positive thing for people like ourselves, but too many let it become the center of their art universe...and that isn't good. Easy to get lazy...lots of folks end up talking and typing about it more than doing it. And looking at art on the computer is like listening to Beethoven on an AM car radio...a shadow of the real article. Nothing beats getting out to the museums, galleries, and hanging with people who walk the walk. Which is what I'll be doing in a couple of weeks when I hit town. Can't wait to see you again!

Sandra - thanks so much for stopping by! I've been doing my part in spreading the Flood gospel, not that you need any help....your oils knock me out, I'd love to see what you've done in watercolor. You're also way up there on the list of artists I want to meet - hope that happens sooner rather than later.

Anonymous said...

Val as a Colleague
I first met Val Thelin when he came to Florida in 1971/72 to teach a workshop at the Hilton Leech Art School in Sarasota. Hilton Leech, an established watercolorist and member of the American Watercolor Society (who had founded the school after helping establish the Ringling School), died in 1969. Thereafter, the Friends of the Arts and Sciences, a non-profit group, continued Leech Studio activities, sponsoring watercolor workshops, with me as manager. My husband, Elden Rowland, taught oil painting and experimental workshops.
From Val's first Leech Studio workshop, his classes were always filled to capacity. His vigorous approach to painting, his strong and vibrant colors, his expansive outlook on life, and his exuberant laughter - all had a strong appeal to beginners and experienced students alike. As the years went on, Val remained a strong force in the roster of Leech instructors, which grew to include other nationally-known watercolorists, such as Barbara Nechis, Frank Webb and Judi Betts. Nature photography workshops were added, with James H. "Pete" Carmichael, Margarette Mead and Shirley Hummel as instructors.
In 1977/78 Val Thelin, Pete Carmichael and I originated the "Two Arts Traveling Workshops." For the next ten years we took at least two groups a year to picturesque sites in the Caribbean Islands and across the United States, Mexico and Canada. One trip ended with a memorable evening picnic dinner at Val's studio in Maine with everyone wearing examples from Val's collection of historic men's hats.
Over the years, Val and I had a "mutual admiration society." When I left the Leech Studio in 1989 Val wrote to me: "Seeing you in the mornings when I did my workshops always gave me a great incentive as I knew there was another person interested in providing efficient, competent service to the students at Hilton Leech."
I continued to sponsor workshops under the name of "Katherine's World." In the prospectus for one of those in which Val was to be the instructor, I wrote: "Val's excitement in exploring new avenues of expression and new ways of making painting fun is transmitted to the student and working with him is always a new experience." Val was guest instructor in one of the "On The Trail of Winslow Homer" series originated by Suzanne Wilson of Glen Arbor, Michigan. We visited Val in Ogunquit and then we all went to Prout's Neck to see Winslow Homer's home and studio.
In 1990 Val taught a Miniature Painting class for me in the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens on the Bayfront in downtown Sarasota. I was already taking registrations for another one to be held the next season when I learned it needed to be canceled because of Val's last illness.
In my fifteen years of being associated with Val, I respected his commitment: as a teacher, to giving students a good learning experience; as an artist, to his involvement in his own painting and career; and most of all, his joy in life as he enthusiastically pursued them both.

Michelle Himes said...

I enjoyed reading this post so much, Nick. What great memories you must have of Val. (I love that photo of him in the lobster suit). I remember taking his book from the library when I first started w/c. I'll have to see if I can find it again. I'm sure I will learn things I wasn't ready for the first time.

Nick said...

Katherine - I'm so glad you posted that, and it's been great to reconnect with you. I can't think of Val and Hilton Leech Studio without thinking about how wonderfully the place was run, and the person who made it happen. It got me off on the right foot, and I really miss driving over there to go to class all those might remember I was usually up in the "peanut gallery" - I loved looking down on the demo table as Val (and so many others) painted and talked. So many friends that I made there. And the trip to Maine and Nova Scotia was a huge experience for me....a long time ago, but I remember every minute. Thank you for putting up with me and my antics (and Val's too!). You surely must derive some satisfaction from the instrumental role you played in nurturing and enriching the artistic, scientific, and cultural lives of so many. I'm looking forward to reading your book and Elden's, and I hope we may meet again soon.

Michelle - more people have seen that book! So many techniques in there, it could keep you busy for ages. Wish you could have seen him demonstrate in person.

Hall - thanks for posting, and you hit upon the perfect word...the word I couldn't quite come up with: FLAMBOYANT!!!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Nick, I really enjoy reading about Val through your vivid memories. Thanks for this! I found the book online and just rec'd it; now can't wait to look through it..
11hugs, ML

Anonymous said...

Val was my dad and I was happy to read that he made such an influence on you.

He was a very good artist to say the least and lived life to the fullest.

I would love to chat more with you regarding your stay at ogunquit as I do not recall your visit.

Chivette Thelin

Nick said...

Great to hear from you Chivette! Please email me, thanks:


Kelly MacDonald said...

I loved reading about Val. He was a great friend to my mother Suzane MacDonald, and My art teacher growing up!

Im a Photographer in my adult ( eeeek 30 this year!! ) and convinced he taught me what I know about composition.

As a result to being so close to him... I have lots of fantastic memories from Ogunquit ( where we had a home... ) and Florida. ( where I grew up ) My other actually used to threw shows for Val

Anyways,, He was a Amazing Man. I still remember Halloween in 92.

Nick said...

Kelly - thanks so much for the post.I hung out with Val mostly in Sarasota (and once in Ogunquit), so not sure I would have crossed path with your mom. You mention Halloween 1992 - what do you mean? I understood he died in 91, but have also heard that might be inaccurate. You can see that his daughter Chivette posted before you, and didn't mention any date discrepency.

Nancy Lee Galloway said...

Interesting person and a wonderful write -up, Nick. You could be hired as a publicist you write well and take the time to spread the word too.

Elise said...

Nic, I was updating my Curriculum Vitae and googled Valfred, finding your blog here.(I'm also your friend on fb, "Conse Crated") What a great blog you wrote! I took a weeklong workshop in 1986 with Valfred in Ogunquit the summer I was 16. My first art instructor planned to go and insisted I come with her. I remember him twirling his brush in his mouth to make it come to a point, and telling us not to tell his mother! I also remember the way he'd scratch with his fingernails to make blades of grass. He told me I had NO EYE FOR COMPOSITION. He also said I'd probably only heard good things from my family about my work (not so), and that he was going to criticize it/me...He was quite a character! He sure made me pay more attention to composition!!!! Blessings to you, elise