Feature story: The hills are alive

Colors pop in artist's oil-paint odes to the California landscape

Depending on how sentimental you are, California's summer hills are either invitingly, softly golden, or just brown. In Gary Coleman's oil paintings, the hills glow all year round.

The third-generation Northern Californian expresses his love for his home through color -- vivid, jazzy color. Trees are so green that they're sometimes blue; hills are so warm that they're sometimes orange. The terrain may not technically look like this, but this is how it makes Coleman feel.

"I'm taking what I see and making it what I'm seeing when I'm painting," he says. "I think I've made it more alive."

Coleman often works on abstracts at the same time as his landscapes. Perhaps the fanciful influences spill over. He'll have four or five paintings going in his San Jose home studio, where paint speckles the door handles.

He ponders one abstract canvas, which may have its urban, angular roots in his Oakland upbringing or the Scissor Sisters music he listens to. Then he looks at a landscape he's working on, of the Stanford hills near Interstate 280.

"It's not really speaking to me," Coleman says. He traces the gentle slopes. "Maybe it needs an upward thrust. What do you think?" He and a visitor speculate about adding a tree or the Stanford Dish. He says: "A painting ought to be interesting; it ought to have direction, motion. There's something missing. Until I find it, it'll just sit there."

He laughs and points to a closet shelf where canvases are stacked tightly, sometimes rarely seeing the light of day. "Or it'll go to the back of the class."

Coleman knows about artwork left at the back of the class. For years, he hardly had time to paint while teaching English and history at Leland High School in San Jose. He enjoyed teaching, but it was a 60-hour-a-week job.

He also knows about artwork making it into the bright gallery lights -- and sometimes finding a buyer. After he retired in 1998, he was able to create art full-time, returning to the drawing and painting he had studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris in the 1960s.

Coleman has displayed his oil paintings, and the occasional monotype, in many solo and group exhibitions. He's been especially active in Palo Alto's Pacific Art League.

Currently, he has about 18 landscapes in a solo show at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts and in neighboring City Hall. Artists are chosen by a visual-arts committee appointed by the city council.

The paintings' bold colors stand out against the lobby walls in the theater. A visitor's eye is drawn to the dynamic, fluffy whites in "Clouds Over Windy Hill," and to the warmth of "Cleaved Hills." At one end, "New Mexican Earth" is a non-Californian anomaly, with mesas that look faded by the sun.

Hues are most vivid in "Uphill Climb," with trees and swaths of earth popping in peacock blue. If this painting were a photo, it would be delightfully oversaturated.

"I particularly like this show at this time of year, because it's very bright and colorful, and it speaks to the excitement of spring coming," said Michele Roberts, who works with the theater's visual-arts program as marketing and public-relations manager. "And it's very nice, that local connection of knowing those hills and seeing them interpreted in his style."

Back in his studio, Coleman says it can be hard to say where that style comes from. Once he gets rolling on a canvas, his conscious mind often steps back and a creative force takes over.

When Coleman became a full-time artist, the muse led him toward figurative works. (And, he confesses, "I was doing figurative to show people I could draw.")

In a 2001 solo show at the Pacific Art League, the figure was his own. The exhibition was called "Artist as Landscape," playfully reflecting how the artist saw himself sans mirror. The viewpoint was often looking down at his hands and feet. In "Contemplation," the artist sits on the toilet, pants around his ankles.

Coleman smiles. "I never, ever thought there was a possibility that I would sell this. But a lady in Atherton bought it."

Another painting, "Duck," proved so controversial that it sparked an art-league board meeting. It shows the artist in the bath, his feet, legs and genitals showing. A toy duck floats in the water.

"I think the reason it was objected to is because it's a male nude. You see female nudes everywhere," Coleman says.

Over time, Coleman did more landscapes of the California hills, sometimes en plein air, sometimes from photos or sketches. Ever since his family moved to Walnut Creek when he was in the eighth grade, he's been drawn to those hills. He used to be a regular cyclist, and still sometimes hikes with his wife, Karoline.

Coleman usually doesn't paint the other places he's been, though the palette would be broad. In 1964, a taste for change led him to a job as a diplomatic courier for the U.S. Department of State, based in Germany. He'd carry sealed bags with secret materials to Cairo and then Ethiopia, or to Beirut, or to Cold War Moscow. Coleman remembers the Russian guards on the trains, with long coats and machine guns, German shepherds sniffing under the cars. "It was so cool."

Coleman met Karoline, who is from Germany, and they lived in Belgium when their children were young. They still make regular trips overseas.

Nowadays, Coleman spends much of his time painting, and not much on marketing his art. "Things kind of happen by accident," he says. Sometimes he knows another artist who's shown at a gallery, and that gives him an in; or people buy paintings through his website.

"I'd like to keep seeing growth in my work, to say: 'That's interesting. That's new,'" he says. "When I was starting out, I wanted to be nationally known. Now I just want to see positive change, to feel what I'm doing is worthwhile."

He grins. "It doesn't hurt that this pays for our travel to Europe."

Info: Gary Coleman's landscapes are on display through June 18 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts at 500 Castro St., with a few at nearby City Hall. The lobby show is free and open to the public Monday, Wednesday and Friday from noon to 1 p.m., and one hour before performances in the center. Go to

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Like this comment
Posted by anon
a resident of Barron Park
on May 14, 2012 at 5:18 pm

While Coleman's work is impressive, I think he was at the peak of his career back in the 1970s when he starred on Diff'rent Strokes. I'll never forget his line, "What'choo talkin' 'bout, Willis?"

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