By Michael Aushenker
About six months ago, Gary John was just another struggling artist on Venice Boardwalk, frequently homeless and his career going nowhere after a decade of selling paintings on the beach. About to turn 50, he was all but ready to abandon his dreams.
Then John did something he hardly ever did: deviate from his painting schedule to attend an art walk after a listing in the LA Weekly caught his eye. He headed toward Culver City and eventually meandered into the Bruce Lurie Gallery.
After a look around, John was about to go home when he heard a man say “Hi, artist!”
“You talkin’ to me?” John recalled answering.
“Are you an artist?” asked the man, gallery owner Bruce Lurie.
“Yes, I am,” John said.
“What kind of stuff do you do?”
“A variety of stuff.”
“Take 20 of your best pieces and bring them to me next Tuesday,” Lurie shot back.
John’s reaction, he said, was to go into the gallery next door, where “I sat down and cried like a baby.”
When John returned to meet Lurie with his work, Lurie “went crazy over them,” John said. “He said, ‘Come back the next day and we’ll sign a contract.’”
Since that encounter, “Things are flying off the shelf,” said John, which Lurie confirmed: four out of five of John’s pieces sold before the opening of one recent group show.
“We hadn’t even taken off the cardboard,” Lurie said.
Suddenly, John has a lot going on.
Throughout the first week of December, his art will be featured in two satellite art fairs in Miami Art Week. He will have work at the L.A. Art Fair at the L.A. Convention Center in January. He will participate in the Palm Springs Art Fair through February.
In addition to Bruce Lurie Gallery, John is now also aligned with Wallspace L.A., a gallery on La Brea Avenue near Melrose. He recently sold work at The Hamptons Art Show in New York and at an art auction at the Skirball Cultural Center.
And now he even has a website: streetartgaryjohn.com.
“My head is just spinning from all of this,” said John, who still has trouble believing that it’s his art hanging in a gallery. “I was standing in awe, staring at my paintings on the wall.”
It’s a far cry from the artist’s life a year ago, when John was borderline homeless, eking out a living by selling paintings along the Venice Beach boardwalk and sometimes using newspaper as a canvass.
“I didn’t believe in it anymore, even though friends would tell me keep going,” said John.
Through Lurie, TV producer Lee Kernis (“Mind of Mencia”) bought three John paintings and while former “Today” show host Bryant Gumbel bought a painting that features vintage characters from “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”
In addition to gritty street art in an almost graffiti style, John also takes inspiration from classic cartoon and comic book characters.
“He knows every single cartoon character inside out” and has a deep knowledge of Marvel comics, Lurie said.
Indeed, John has somehow managed to hold onto his childhood comic book collection, when he devoured Silver Age Marvel and DC Comics. He grew up a big fan of Marvel’s Jack Kirby and MAD magazine’s Mort Drucker and Al Jaffe, but his hands-down favorite was the surreal artist Steve Ditko, co-creator, with writer Stan Lee, of two of Marvel’s most innovative books, “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “Dr. Strange.”
“I still have ‘Amazing Fantasy’ #15,” John said of his beat-up but cherished copy of Spider-Man’s first appearance from 1962. Vintage comics also hang on the wall of his new Culver City apartment: “The Doom Patrol,” “Dick Tracy,” “The Monkees” and “Captain America and Iron Man.”
Lurie said he was attracted to the whimsical side of John’s art.
Valda Lake, owner of Wallspace L.A., was drawn to its “very strong, very bold, very graphic” qualities, she said.
“He creates a different genre of art that I didn’t have at Wallspace,” said Lake, who represents some 60 fine artists. Also, “he’s just a good soul.”
On the fine arts side, John’s heroes include Pablo Picasso, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He claims to have seen the film “Basquiat” 30 times.
“Those are my gods. I love street art,” John said.
But life as a boardwalk vendor was not easy. For the first four years, John set up along Windward Avenue, where he often ran into conflicts from others trying to challenge him for his spot. For the past six years, John has stationed himself by Rose Avenue, finding more solidarity among vendors, he said.
Originally from an alcoholic household in a Seattle suburb, John came to Venice a decade ago “in search of getting to the next level with my art.” Despite or because of his family’s troubles with alcohol, John said he never drinks or uses drugs.
But two weeks into his L.A. stay, John fell into what he called “a bout with homelessness” and sometimes lived in and out of motels.
“It’s been a crazy journey,” he said.
Lurie could not describe exactly why he decided to roll the dice on John.
“I had this feeling there was something gritty about him,” recalled Lurie. “He looks like he’s been through hard times, but his energy was really good. You talk to him and he’s extremely articulate and very charismatic and extremely humble.”
The gallery owner also appreciated that John “didn’t come out and say, ‘Can I show you my work?’” he said.
Despite his newfound success, John continues to get up every morning and occupy a table at the boardwalk.
“I was a street artist,” he said, “and I will always be a street artist.”
But instead of others encouraging John to stick with his art, he’s now the one offering encouragement.
“I tell them, ‘Listen, I made it! Your artwork is good. If you keep at it like I did, you’ll make it.’”