Inside the Surreal World of Artist Wayne Sumstine
After years traveling the world and trying out different forms of creative expression, a Tucson artist finds his true niche back in his hometown.
An astute observer might have spotted the early signs of Wayne Sumstine’s eventual life as an artist. At age 7, he transformed the ceiling of his bedroom in his family’s Tucson home into a skyscape of birds, angels and airplanes in a starlit expanse. In his teens, he painted his first car, a 1964 Ford Falcon, by hand. His inspiration, he says, was the colorful “magic bus” novelist Ken Kesey (of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” fame) and his band of offbeat friends drove across country in 1964. “I did not only psychedelic blast-out colors, but images over the whole thing,” he says.
Despite his early penchant for paint, it would be decades before Sumstine, now 70, found his way back to that particular form of creative expression and the vivid, textural acrylic works he turns out with a fervor approaching obsession these days.
Meanwhile, his innate creativity found its outlet in a life of adventure and careers in film, travel writing and photojournalism. Shortly after earning a degree in political science from the University of Arizona in 1972, Sumstine moved to Los Angeles, began taking film classes, and got a job as an assistant to French filmmaker Agnès Varda.
When his friend A.J.S. (Salley) Rayl moved out to L.A. after journalism school and got a job as an editor at the Los Angeles Free Press, she hired Sumstine as a writer. He soon segued into freelance travel writing, toting a camera along to take photos to accompany his stories as he traveled the world. A 1989 story he wrote for The Washington Post relates the tale of a four-day crossing of India’s Thar Desert on camels he and his then-wife, Chloe, bought at a camel market in Bikaner.
He met Chloe, a Scotswoman with wanderlust to match his own, at the tail end of an earlier adventure that included a harrowing couple of months in the Nicaraguan jungle. Over the next few years the couple traveled, returning to Scotland in 1990 for the birth of their daughter. Somewhere in the early 1990s, Sumstine says, “I sort of drifted into painting.”
By the mid-1990s, he was divorced, back in the U.S., and began working at his art in earnest. When galleries passed on his depictions of life in the American West, he hung his art in the Tucson restaurant managed by his sister. “You’ll get exposure, but nothing sells here,” she cautioned him. His first piece for the restaurant, portraying Apache Crown Dancers, sold for $3,000 within a week.
In the years since, Sumstine’s style has moved steadily toward the abstract. In his sunny south-facing studio, a converted garage attached to his pink stucco Tucson home, he can easily spend 12 hours a day on his unique hybrid of representational and abstract works. He may have eight or 10 pieces in progress at once, each pulsing with the energy of bold brushstrokes and rich color. “I paint all the time, till I’m no longer functioning very well,” he says.
He sometimes begins with a plan of some sort, but more often, he says, “I just start putting down colors or patterns.” What he sees when he steps back can take the piece in a whole new direction. “The Sweeper on a Tectonic Plate,” for example, was almost completed when Sumstine rotated it onto its side. “When turned, it resembled how I imagine tectonic plates might look,” he says. “With all the friction and grinding of the plates, there must be a lot of debris that needs cleaning up. Thus, the sweeper.”
Even his purely representational works often have an element of the unexpected. “Smelling the Flowers” is a conventional-enough still life of a plant in a living room—until you take note of the pig lounging on the sofa. “Self Portrait With Horsey,” currently hanging in the Phoenix Economic Art Council’s virtual show, depicts Sumstine in Western garb—with a horse obscuring his face.
People who love his work point to that surprise factor as a big part of the appeal. “Artists see things in a different way from other people,” says Rayl. “Most would make sure they had a face in that portrait. It grabs you, and then what happens? You smile. I see Wayne’s humor and appreciate it. I’ve known him since 1969 and he still catches me off guard. That’s what an artist should do, I think.”
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Sumstine was represented by galleries in Arizona and New Mexico and had shows at Phoenix’s Paulina Miller Gallery and the Tucson International Airport’s Upper Links Gallery. The business of selling his work held little appeal for him, however. “I decided to quit selling, and just paint what I want,” he says.
Recently, he has decided to return to promoting his work, if in a limited way. He shows in two online galleries, the L.A.-based Saatchi Art and the Paris-based Singulart.
For this artist, the process is more important than the result. “What gets and keeps me going is more immersion than expression,” he says. “In a sense, no painting is definitively done as long as I have access to it.”
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