A Persistence of Vision
Richard Lauran Sample and Gallery 8
- Tony Evans
- Artist Richard Lauran Sample in locker No. 8, otherwise known as "Gallery 8."
Just across the highway from the airport in Hailey, where Gulf Stream jets blast off regularly, lies the South Wood Self Storage Facility. Row upon row of identical containers are filled with furnishings and cargo, all except for locker No. 8, otherwise known as "Gallery 8," a space used by artist Richard Lauran Sample. Above the door reads a sign: "Art Patrons Association of Idaho," which Sample refers to as "a group dedicated to the arts, music and literature." Just inside is the face of the Beatles' Eleanor Rigby, "... wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door." A cat named Turpentine studies the ghost-like face in a jar and then ranges freely through the menagerie of paintings and sculptures by Sample that fill Gallery 8: abstracts, Westerns and magical realism paintings, canvases of Batman and numerous other examples of skilled craftsmanship and determined artistic vision. There is an unfinished ivory-handled knife, a tidy collection of cobalt blue glassware and a series of clocks marking time at various Air Force bases across the United States, including Area 51. Gallery 8 is a long way from the Bel-Air, Calif., mansion Sample once called home.
Ever since Sample's mother, Virginia, posed for the Columbia Pictures torch lady painting, Sample has lived in and around the glamour of Hollywood. During the 1960s, he was featured on several television shows, including the Jack Bailey show Queen for a Day, on which lucky American housewives were given makeovers and European vacations. "I sold 75 pieces from [the notoriety of] that show," he recalls. Over the years, people like Raymond Burr, Edgar G. Robinson, and Tony Dow of Leave it to Beaver fame have purchased Sample's work. "I traded one of my Castle paintings to Hollywood stunt man Charlie Wilcox—a family friend who worked on the movie Ben Hur and also did stunt work on The Creature from the Black Lagoon—for a small Picasso in the 1970s," says Sample. "I should have held onto the Picasso."
Today, Sample's studio contains 108 paintings, all of which he has produced within the last year, while restoring antique oil paintings and repairing artwork in the Sun Valley area to make ends meet.
"I paint fast," he says. "I'm an insomniac, so I rest. I don't sleep. I'll lie down on that couch there and have dreams and visions." Like Salvador Dali, who also experimented with the state between wakefulness and dreaming, Sample creates surrealist landscapes. His are populated with the artifacts of his youth spent in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, where he pumped water from a well and milked 13 cows each day before walking to school. For sustenance, he hunted and fished the nearby James River, named after Jesse James. During a stint as a ranger in the U.S. Army's Third Missile Command, Sample was part of a three-man team that fired the 32-foot-long Honest John Rocket.
"It was fully manual'" he says. "We could hit a moving tank at 15 miles." He also painted mess halls in the military.
Sample's surrealism features whisky jugs and mushrooms, mechanical parts and hillside shacks. A recent work, "Lunar Reactor," has taken hillbilly motifs and expanded them upon the cosmos. The oil painting shines under several coats of deep varnish that the artist has poured over sections of the piece. "When I am finished, there will be a three-dimensional effect. You will be able to see around the individual brush strokes."
A similar fascination with technique developed some years ago into Sample's black and white "Castle Paintings," which he describes as "oil etchings." These medieval ramparts above calm rivers are painted using brushes only a few hairs thick with paint strokes made in exactly five directions, similar to the etching procedure used in the production of the U.S. dollar bill.
Sample worked alongside his father at many trades during his youth: making trick poker tables, saddles, doing bronze work and cabinetry. The father and son also ran the West Coast Mint, pounding out thousands of custom bronze medallions under a 350-ton die press, including one of a farm field with a rocket ship commemorating the POMO Air Force Installation in California. They later built a bronze foundry in Pasa Robles from the ground up, which would reconstruct Remington sculptures to exact specifications. An accomplished gunsmith and saddle-maker, Charles Sample designed and built the spectacular silver saddles used in the Pasadena Rose Bowl New Year's Day Parade. He also introduced his son to the magic and glamour of Hollywood.
"My father made a solid silver telephone and platinum garter clips for Mae West," Sample says. "She tried to give him a Deusenberg, but he turned her down because the car didn't have a spare tire." Sample worked extensively for movie star Bo Derek and made gold leaf and wooden jewelry for Willem de Kooning's wife, Elaine. De Kooning collected Sample's work and corresponded with him for some time in letters. Sample keeps the correspondences in boxes with color snapshots and other personal memorabilia. One photo from 1973 was taken at the Marion Davies Mansion in Bel-Air. In it, Sample stands beside a gingerbread castle he made for the Christmas/birthday party of Charlton Heston.
"I put 7,000 pieces of candy in that cake," he recalls. Nearby stands J. Paul Getty and Sample's one-time paramour, Maria Nicolosi.
Sample reminisces about the life he shared with Nicolosi for seven years in the mansion, which was built by William Randolph Hearst for his lover, silent film star Marion Davies.
"The place was unbelievable," he recalls. "It had every tropical tree you could imagine. They used to shoot Tarzan movies in the back yard. There were waterfalls and caves. The swimming pool was the largest in the United States and ran like a snake through the property. Vincent Price collected my paintings. He would stop in from across the street and have tea with us."
According to Sample, the patriarch of the Nicolosi clan, sculptor Joseph Nicolosi, an artist of international significance, held a 50 percent interest in the Park Plaza Hotel in New York City. He had passed away before Sample took up residence in the mansion with his daughter.
After parting ways with Maria Nicolosi, Sample married 1969 Playboy Playmate Paige Young who later died at her L.A home of a sleeping pill overdose. An artist in her own right, Young's impressionistic portrait of Sample hangs in Gallery 8.
Sample was born on Friday the 13th of November 1936, a "triple Scorpio" by astrological accounts. "I have my Sun, Moon and Mercury in Scorpio," he says, which may explain his resourcefulness and intensity. The legend of Scorpio tells of a scorpion sent by the immortal huntress Artemis to slay Orion, the great hunter. Scorpio, ever resourceful, fulfilled the deed for the goddess and was given a place in the night sky as his reward.
"I may not be a famous artist, but I am a successful one," Sample said. And prolific. To date, he has completed and sold 2,761 paintings and is currently at work on six more.
Sample also inherited a collection of books from his father published by the "photographer on horseback," L.A. Huffman, who traveled the West in the 1870s. A book of glass plate prints and accompanying stories have provided the heart of Sample's work for many years. He renders the photographs in sepia-toned oils. "There is a story behind every one of these paintings," he points out. One is of a prairie Indian burial on stilts, entitled "Spirit Poles." Another represents a self-portrait of Huffman, painted, as they all are, on maximum density particle board, which Sample says will never warp or bend. "These will last a thousand years," he says. "You can wash them with soap and water."
His decision to work in "permanence" came after working in the art of restoration at the L.A. County Art Museum, where several of his cardboard collages were hung in the 1960s.
"I'm self-taught," he explains, while extolling the virtues of Ralph Mayer's The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques.
"I have had three copies of this book over the years. It is the best book ever written for artists wanting to learn. It has taught me permanence. It continues to teach me the chemistry and permanence of paint," he says.
Sample proudly displays a diploma for an Honorary Doctorate in the Arts from California's Polytechnic State University, which he earned after completing a rigorous examination on his knowledge of things such as paint chemistry.
Yet Sample's interests and talents range far beyond the fine arts and include herbology, anthropology, astrology and rock-collecting, to name a few. Against one wall, beside a tableau of religious icons and tribal mementos, is a case filled with meteorites.
Among the artifacts Sample has collected as an amateur archeologist are two nearly perfectly round black stones he found in a dried river bottom near Shoshone. He explains that the natives used them as weapons at one time, bound in hard leather at the end of a battle axe. Sample is incorporating each of the balls into meter-high white plaster abstract sculptures that will resonate with deep history and contemporary sculptural forms. "I also practice Tai Chi and read quantum physics," he says, "including just about anything Albert Einstein wrote."
Sample's studies in physics pertain to certain technical projects he plans to undertake with the U.S. military, projects he would rather not discuss publicly. Relying on friends from NASA, he has plans to install a live video feed of nearby heavenly bodies to a televison set in his studio in the near future.
Even in Idaho, where he continues restoration, cabinetry and painting projects for actors Bruce Willis, John Larroquette and others, Sample still has the occasional brush with fame.
"One night at my brother Bill's, Muffet Hemingway," who is Margaux Hemingway's sister, Joan, "came driving straight across the yard and right over the Christmas tree," Sample says. "Muffet walked into the house and started munching on a crab leg, waved to herself in the glass window and then got into her car and drove away back across the yard. My brother came out and said, 'Who's the chick grazin' in the kitchen?'"
Sample will auction off some of his work in spring of 2008 and give 15 percent of the proceeds to the Parkinson's Foundation. "All of these 108 paintings will be sold in two days," he says. "The last show I had, 1,500 people showed up at the Sage Brush Arena in Hailey. My place is always open to students and lovers of art," he says.