There's a painting at a local Moxie Java coffee shop that looks just like one of Vincent Van Gogh's self-portraits, but in it, Vincent's about to sip a steaming cup of coffee. It lives in a Moxie near replicas of other famous paintings with caffeine added inconspicuously, such as Grant Wood's American Gothic with Moxie-logoed overalls or da Vinci's Mona Lisa posing with a wee shot of espresso. All of these Moxie Java masterpieces were painted by local artist Fred Choate.
In fact, one wouldn't necessarily know it, but most of the murals that are painted around the Treasure Valley are Choate's creations. "Well, there are a few murals around town that aren't by me," Choate says humbly.
So how many are there actually? "Boy, I don't know," he says. "I did most of the Moxie Javas, both Café Oles, Taco del Mar--I'm doing all their murals now. I've got about five murals in old Boise, and along 8th Street, I've got Gino's, Cazba, the Optical Shop then, of course, the Record Exchange. I can't remember all of them actually."
He also did the Garden City Library, Global Travel, Ceramica and Nifty Nineties Antiques, just to name a few stunning successes.
Choate, a fourth-generation Idaho native, recently received a lot of attention for having completed the giant red and orange mural on the outside of the Hitchcock Building, home of the Record Exchange, on 11th Street.
This is notable for at least two reasons: one, passersby could actually watch Choate at work during the three-month-long painting session; and two, while fans wept goodbye to the 20-year-old mural of storefronts that once graced the building, few knew that the man dutifully painting over it was the same man who painted it the first time. The first three times, actually.
Choate first painted the Hitchcock Building in 1984, shortly after graduating from Idaho State University in Pocatello. "I survived the '60s in Pocatello," he says. "I'd been living in this really elaborate camper on the back of the pickup for a while; I had been working construction."
Choate eventually moved into an apartment while working on a building that is now Louie's Italian restaurant. He also did a lot of work in the 8th Street Market Place, where he met architect Brian Smith, who was about to build the Hitchcock. Smith hired Choate to paint it. "I thought to make it look like a row of separate buildings," he says. "I spent the whole summer doing it. Then it got the design review award for architecture that year." With that, Choate, who had majored in sociology at ISU, started making a living as an artist.
Twice since that first painting, which took a little over a month to complete, Choate made some small changes to the mural and refreshed the paint. But earlier this year, he was excited to completely redo it. "Boise is a different city than it was in 1984," he says.
Oliver Russell, a brand marketing agency in Boise, actually designed the new mural for Choate to paint. Though the giant black bird on the warm, red swirly background is totally unlike the blue background and detailed storefronts of the old mural, one theme transcends the repaint. "On the Idaho Street side, there was a plaza with a bunch of people standing around and Alfred Hitchcock was getting into an old stretch limo and there were birds all over the place," Choate says. "And this time, we paid homage to Hitchcock by using a bird motif. It harkens back to that."
The bird motif is a reference to Hitch's classic avian horror flick The Birds. But Boiseans should not be mistaken by rumors: Alfred Hitchcock did not ever own the Boise building; another Hitchcock family owned it.
The project took Choate longer than he anticipated. "I miscalculated it. I expected it to take maybe a month but it took about three months," he says. "I'm about 30 years older and 30 pounds heavier. Mixing and carrying paint and scaling ladders--it takes longer than it did back then."
Though he's 60 now, and he admits work has gotten harder to do over the years, there's no retirement in Choate's future. "I can't imagine ever not painting. Retirement never occurs to me," he says. "I'm trying to work myself to a career in fine art. Fine art landscape painting is what I want to do. I love doing plein air painting."
Plein air painting is done on locations outside--and lucky for Choate and others in the Plein Air Painters Society, Idaho is one of the best places to do it. In 1997, other landscape painters introduced Fred to plein air painting, and he has since developed a passion for painting the southern Idaho landscape.
"My favorite place (to paint) is Red Fish Lake--we go for a week every year, and they set up a big pavilion, and they set up a big show the week before Labor Day," he says. "I really am starting to love painting the desert. I love painting the Hagerman area."
Hagerman, as it happens, is near Choate's home turf--he grew up in Wendell and Buhl. The area lends itself particularly well to plein air painting because of the deep canyons, deserts, farmlands, lakes and waterfalls.
Choate says painting water, capturing the illusion of transparent water has become his most recent passion. "I'm beginning to find, however, that it is the relationship of water to the land that really fascinates me," he writes on his Web site (www.fredchoate.com). "No two bodies of water refract and reflect light in the same way. Attempting to capture this elusive quality of water is what keeps painting exciting for me."
Also exciting for Choate is his upcoming show of landscape paintings around the first week of April at the Spotlight Gallery.
But even with his new plein air angle, Boiseans should still expect to see Choate's murals popping up all over town. "Next week, I'm doing a mural for Taco del Mar at the Idaho Center and the following week, I'm doing one for them in Ontario," he says. "And Artisan Optics is opening a new store by the mall, and I'm doing one for them. And then I've got a couple of residential murals."