I have had the pleasure and honor of interviewing over 100 artists for this blog over the years. One thing I know for certain, everyone has a story and each one’s journey is unique and interesting. Still, it’s with some trepidation that I share some of my story with you, maybe because I fear you may not find it interesting, but more importantly that it will seem somewhat self-serving. I comfort myself and justify the decision to go ahead and share the story because I believe what I said above in the second sentence.
I’ve divided my story into four parts. The interview was conducted by Randall Cross for the Smith Public Library and The Wylie Historical Society as part of an oral history project. Since I write better than I speak, I have taken the liberty to edit, clarify, elaborate, even include images, in order to more fully respond to Randall’s questions.
I hope you find my story…well, you know. (Click images to enlarge)
Establishing a fine art career
You mentioned the oil and gas industry, that it helped you transition into fine arts, how did that occur? A good friend of mine, a vice-president at Texas Oil and Gas, was instrumental in making that happen. We met through the church we attended. He learned that I was an artist. He loved art and appreciated its value to society. I had expressed a desire to leave illustration and move into the fine arts. He mulled that over a bit and suggested I consider doing a group of paintings of the oil and gas industry. At the time they were accused of destroying the environment and leaving a mess when they were done drilling. “You need to see what’s really going on,” he said. He suggested I create a group of paintings that show that wildlife and the oil industry can coexist. He made the necessary introductions for me to visit various oil drilling sites and to actually see what they were doing, and talk to the guys in the field. From that experience, I created six paintings. Through his contacts, we found six corporate sponsors. Each corporate sponsor contributed a certain amount of money that together allowed each sponsor to purchase one of the original paintings, pay for the production of prints, and provide an income for me during the project. The original works were selected on a first-come-first-served basis. Also, each sponsoring company received one-sixth of the 500 prints produced of each painting. All were beautifully packaged and presented. The sponsoring companies could sell them, give them as gifts to their contractors, customers…or whatever. It proved to be a really good way to launch my fine art career. All the paintings were done in acrylic. It was after this project that I began painting in oil.
Did you have an opinion, one way or the other, on the oil and gas industry? I came to learn that it’s not all one thing. It’s not a completely clean industry with no affect on the environment, but it’s also not just a destructive, care less about the environment industry. I think it’s bit of both. It is not a totally pure industry in that everything is cleaned up and left pristine. But overall, I was quite impressed with what I saw, with the people in the field, all of that.
Looking back on your career, what lessons have you learned, anything that you would pass on to someone or advice you would offer? Yes, regarding the arts, a good foundation/education is really important. Unfortunately, I never received a great education in art because of the time in which I grew up. Fortunately, things are changing, we are moving away from abstract expressionism towards realism. Art students of today find the former things empty, shallow, and unsatisfying. Being able to actually draw what one sees and draw it well is satisfying. People relate with things they recognize, so there is a return to realism. Currently, there are some great teachers out there, great schools where a young student can receive a tried and proven art education. What I’ve learned over the years is that one must have an understanding and mastery of the sound fundamentals of art in order to develop a career as a realist artist. I’ve learned perseverance through the ups and downs of this profession…not unlike many other industries or professions. Purchasing art seems to be very economy sensitive, as art seems to be one of the first things that people generally stop purchasing when the economy is tight. Perseverance is very important. We must resist discouragement. Continue to create regardless of sales or how you feel. Live conservatively, saving up for those rainy days. Have the discipline to work every day, regardless of how you feel. Don’t work only when motivated. I look at the work I do as a job. I just go to the office every day.
I really enjoy the relationships I’ve developed with people over the years. If I’m fortunate, when a purchase of my work is made, a connection is made with the buyer. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s nice when it does. Creating something with my hands and heart that others appreciate and are willing to purchase is really special. That means a lot to me. I always feel/know the blessing of God because making a living as an artist can be difficult at times. However, God has always provided for us, all our needs have been met, and we have no debt; for that I am extremely grateful.
Do you have a favorite story from your career? Actually, I have three. 1) In 1981, I was beginning to transition from illustration to the fine arts. A friend of mine suggested I do a series of paintings for the oil and gas industry. On FM544 (then just a winding two-lane road from Wylie into Plano), there was as old wooden burned out boxcar just off the road. A dirt road led through a fenced area to a number of buildings. Obviously, it was a business open to the public. I pulled my car just inside the fence and began shooting pictures of the boxcar. I had conceived of an idea in which I could use the photos for one of the oil and gas industry paintings.
Within a very short time, two guys came roaring down the road toward me in their pickup truck…shotgun hanging inside the rear window. They jumped out of the truck and one of the fellows, a cantankerous old guy, who I think was called “Big John” got about a foot from my face and angerly asked, “What the hell are you doing here?” Nervously I said, “I’m shooting pictures of this boxcar.” “Well, I can see that,” he said. “Do you know this is private property?” “No sir, I didn’t know that. Those buildings back there make it look like a public area where you run a business. I can’t drive back there and do business with you?” “It is a public area,” he said, but proceeded to tell me again that I had no permission to be on his property. After a long, in my face, intimidating lecture, he asked, “What have you learned here today?” I said, “Well, I learned for certain that I need to ask your permission before I step inside this fence to shoot photographs.” He said, “You got that right.” Under further interrogation he wanted to know where I was from. “I grew up in Kansas.” “Oh, you’re a half-assed Yankee,” he retorted. It was a pretty scary situation, but of course, that’s exactly what he wanted it to be. Anyway, I got my photos and later created the painting.
2) I have done several paintings and sketches of the Murphy Grocery Store. The first sketch was done in 1984. I felt there was only one appealing view of the store, so most of my works were done from the same point of view. One day, while standing across the street on FM544, I was working on a small painting of the store when the owner came out of the store, walked across the street, came up to me and asked, “Just what do you think you’re doing?” “I’m doing a little painting of your store,” I said. Just like the story above, the owner was offended that I was painting a picture of the store without permission. “What! This is a public grocery store, I don’t need permission.” With that, he just walked away mumbling while I continued working. This one really caught me by surprise.
3) Mrs. Verna McDonald Douglas lived just down the road from me on FM 1378. She had a large piece of farm property, an interesting old farmhouse and some barns. We befriended one another and she allowed me to wander around her place to paint. One day I was over there later in the day and noticed that the sun had cast fantastic shadows on the back of her house from a nearby tree. I did a quick color study and from that conceived of an idea for a larger painting. Mrs. Douglas was a kind person and stray cats seemed to know it. There were probably ten to twenty that hung around the property, and she would feed them. Incorporating the dramatic lighting seen earlier, I really liked the idea of creating a painting of Mrs. Douglas opening the back door of her house and feeding the hungry cats. I asked Mrs. Douglas if she would allow me to take photos of her while feeding the cats. She said, “John, I’ll do whatever I can for you to make you successful.” I just loved that about her. Going over the next day at the agreed time she came out and was all dressed up for me. I said, “No Verna, I just want you very natural. You don’t have to dress up.” So, she went in and changed back into her normal everyday clothes. What I didn’t know is that she had false teeth but had forgotten to put them back in. I just loved it and added so much to the final painting. I was so happy with the painting, I submitted it to an art show at the Bosque County Conservatory in Clifton, Texas. It won the best of show. As winner, I received a substantial cash award and used it to study for one semester at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art in Old Lyme, Connecticut. She wished for my success, so was delighted when the painting won the top prize.
Later, I learned that her brother had a house by the railroad tracks on Brown Street. Unknown at the time, I did a painting that incorporated his house. The painting won the Bronze Medal at the 2010 Oil Painters of America Western Regional Show. I’ve had good success with paintings created here and around Wylie. Raymond Cooper, who has been a huge supporter of my work over the years, purchased this painting and donated it to the Smith Public Library. It hangs in the entrance of the library along with the second major painting I did of the Murphy store, titled “Remembering Murphy Grocery. That painting was purchased by Mike and Vicki Kittelson. It too was eventually donated to the library for all to enjoy.
Life and faith
Has faith played a big part in your life? You mentioned church. Yes indeed, it has. I became a Christian in 1972. It brought about a dramatic change…a dramatic change occurred when I understood, believed, and accepted what God did for me through His Son, Jesus, the Christ. Through His sacrificed life, I was given a gift of incalculable worth: Adoption as a child of God, redemption of my life from the pit, forgiveness of all my sins, possession of an eternal inheritance, and a sealing by the Holy Spirit as a guarantee that all God’s promises to me will indeed come to pass. It’s God’s free gift because its not deserved, nor is there any way it can be earned or purchased. It’s by faith we receive the gift and become followers of Christ. So yes, all these wonderful truths affect my daily life in every way. We’re told to trust God in all things, yet I still find that difficult at times when overwhelmed by circumstances. During those times, it’s easy to deal with it “my way”. Thankfully, I continue to learn that God cares deeply and will provide and care for every need, regardless of circumstance. So yes, my belief and trust in God is important…critical to life itself. Additionally, it’s nice to know what happens after we die…where we’re going. To have that kind of assurance is a great blessing, because many people don’t have it. They’re hopeful, but unsure. Many think the standard for eternal life is that their good deeds outweigh their bad. Most think they are basically a good person. I think that is hopeful thinking and very deceptive because our goodness next to God’s is as filthy rags. When His standard is absolute perfection, whatever our highest standard, it doesn’t measure up to His and what He requires, if it did, we wouldn’t need the Son. It’s only through the Son, and trust in Him and His atoning sacrifice for our sins that we are declared righteous and acceptable to God. Have all these truths played a big part in my life? Absolutely.
Speaking of growing and knowing where you’re going, obviously community has played an important part in your life here, what can Wylie do as a city to hang on to those roots that you appreciated when you first moved here? Randall, that’s a tough one, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. However, I know for sure, the bottom line, the root of all things is always spiritual. Physical Wylie, the way things were, will never return. Those days are gone. However, Wylie will be a wonderful place to live and a beacon to other communities if it is strongly committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That truth will repel a lot of people who do not realize, that from the beginning, man has been in the middle of a spiritual war between God and the one who wants to be God (Satan). Whom will we worship and obey are life’s most important questions? We are spiritual beings and what happens inside of us, in the spirit, will manifest itself outward. The more we are connected as individuals with the Lord Jesus Christ as our hope and Savior, just about everything in our community will change for the better: The way we think, the way we act, the way we treat one another, the way we design, build and grow, our view towards money, debt, and servant leadership. All that stuff is based on one’s spiritual beliefs. Churches preaching the word of God without apology or compromise will be used by God to change hearts, and that changes a community. I think that’s what will make Wylie strong, strong, strong.
It sounds like a hopeful message. Are you optimistic about the future? It depends on the pastors. The American church today seems like it’s more interested in telling people what they want to hear, making them feel good, building a large audience, rather than preaching the whole Gospel without compromise, regardless of how people respond to it. A true pastor/teacher, has the responsibility to preach the word of God accurately, without any distortion and to preach it completely. Don’t just pick pet subjects; preach the whole word of God. God is the one responsible to make the Word stick and change people’s hearts. Our responsibility is to preach it truthfully and to make sure all know we desperately need a Savior. From that standpoint, I think, yes, the Gospel message will change people. God loves people, so He wants his Son to be known and the Word to go forth. That’s the only hope for our country. Our country is falling apart because we have turned from God. Every state, every community, every individual home is affected to some degree by our turning away.
Adjusting to Wylie’s growth
Is there anything that we didn’t talk about today that you’d like to add as we wrap up? Yes, concerning Wylie’s growth…this is kind of funny. As Wylie started growing, I had a difficult time adjusting to all the reduced speed limits. Parker Road and 544 were two-lane winding roads going west into Plano and I racked up a number of speeding tickets along those roads. Eventually I was notified by a local judge that there was a good chance I would loose my license. An appointment was made to meet with the judge in McKinney. I was scared to death. I thought, if I loose my license for the next six months, my business will really suffer. So, I was pretty nervous when I walked into his office. To my surprise he was jovial and very friendly. He apparently knew who I was and all he wanted to talk about was art. When our meeting concluded, he gently said, “John, you need to slow down.” That was all I needed.
Sure, seeing Wylie grow as it has is sad because what drew us here in the first place has passed away; however, I understand it. Our boys went all through school here. My wife and I have laughed at times, selfishly wishing we were the last ones to move here. It’s stupid I know, but still, there are a lot of good memories attached to this town. For that we’re grateful.
This concludes the interview with Randall Cross. As I said at the beginning, Randall’s original interview prompted me to republish it with more clarity, elaboration, and illustrations. I have called it “My Story”, but in reality it’s “God’s Story”, worked out in me. His sovereign workings in my life…all the things mentioned in this four-part series, and every other detail of my life, are the kind workings of His grace. To Him and Him alone belongs all the glory.
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