Back in 2006, when I relocated to Sausalito from San Francisco, the first thing I did was ask around as to whether there were any quality painters. Given the tourist haven’s reputation for kitsch, I was dubious. Then I met an antique dealer named John Wilmer who said, "Go see the work of Heather Wilcoxon."
Not long after, I spotted the artist herself walking around town. Heather’s hippie credentials were unassailable: she wore a loose-fitting blouse of African mud cloth, beads, peasant skirt, paint-spattered sandals, aviator sunglasses, and a purple baseball cap that sprouted green Mercury wings.
I took one look at her and my heart sank. I asked myself, Do I really want to meet this person and ask to see her paintings? But curiosity triumphed and the next thing I knew, I was invited to visit her houseboat, the century-old Delta Queen. Her vessel is a holdover from the early 1970s, when artists, seeking cheap rents, migrated from San Francisco and cobbled together a colorful floating village of un-seaworthy crafts. Its most famous resident was Stuart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogs, the counter-culture’s bible.
On the way to her boat, we passed an old Gremlin car, literally covered with thousands of old toys, including some wispy-haired troll dolls. A closer look revealed an interior filled with stuffed animal passengers who resembled the Adams Family out for a Sunday drive. Heather grinned and said, "Yeah, that’s mine."
As we made our way down a wooden boardwalk, she filled me in on her background. It turned out that she comes from Hollywood B-movie royalty. Her father, Henry Wilcoxon, played Marc Antony in Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934). However, he’s best known for his role as the minister in Caddyshack. Heather’s mother, Joan Woodbury, achieved less fame but was still an established figure in the Los Angeles film community.
As I boarded the Delta Queen, Heather said, "You know I live on about $12,000 a year." I thought, Wow, that probably wouldn’t even pay for the shark in a Damien Hirst tank. Heather went on to explain that although she earns more than that from art sales, she keeps her overhead down so that she has more money to buy paint and canvas. After paying for the basics, whatever is left is recycled into her art.
Every square inch of Heather’s boat interior was covered with drawings, mainly tiny sketches of beasts with odd protuberances, long skinny tails, and snaggle-toothed snouts. While they struck me as goofy, and had a decided cartoonish quality, I recalled Philip Guston’s example and decided not to dismiss them just yet.
About an hour later, at her studio, things really got interesting. Before even showing me her paintings, she filled me in on her career. She earned both her undergraduate and master’s degrees at the San Francisco Art Institute, completing grad school in 1988 when she was already 36 years old. I asked, "Who did you study with?" She replied, "Sam Tchakalian."
The name rang a bell. Or, I should more accurately say, set off an alarm. As a former art major, I remember applying to the SFAI masters program and not being accepted. The rejection letter was signed by none other than Sam Tchakalian. Years later, when I opened Acme Art, my Bay Area gallery, Tchakalian showed up at my space looking for representation. When I told him about how he prevented me from getting into graduate school, he smiled, "We can change that!"
After graduate school, Heather established a studio and began the long arduous process of developing her own art. Along the way, she was awarded two Pollock/Krasner Foundation grants and eventually found representation in San Francisco with the Jack Fischer Gallery and in New York with the Brenda Taylor Gallery. She also began teaching, but kept it to a minimum so as not to spend too much time away from her work.
That afternoon, as Heather pulled older paintings from the rack, I nodded, occasionally declaring, "That’s a good one" or "Nice color." But mostly I was unimpressed. I thought, Another competent painter. I was about ready to call it a day when she said, "Here. . . this is what I’m doing now."
I was instantly struck by her mature vision. Some of her canvases were populated with odd creatures who told stories about the artist’s frustration with the Bush administration. But mostly they spoke of how she viewed the world, her love of nature and her concern over the local ecology. The paintings were also about what it meant to be an artist. While the act of painting is important and the artist has a responsibility to tell it like it is, at the end of the day, it’s only art. Now 62, Heather has experienced enough of life to know better than to take herself too seriously. Hence the overriding sense of humor in her work.
I left her studio that day, wondering to myself, Why aren’t more artists like Heather Wilcoxon? While I couldn’t relate to her stringent personal lifestyle, I responded to her work ethic. In fact, I felt inspired, enjoying the experience of hanging out with someone who was only about "the work." In an art world obsessed with careerism and an anything-to-get-attention mentality, it was reassuring to find that there were still painters around who could care less whether they wound up in Artforum.
At the risk of sounding corny, it was nice to meet someone who could honestly say the work itself was the reward. I sensed that whether Heather "made it" as an artist was truly irrelevant to her. Sure it would be nice to get recognition and have a little more money. But I knew I was right about her when Heather’s parting words to me were, "You really need to get going, Polsky. I think I figured out how to finish this painting."
RICHARD POLSKY is the author of the forthcoming, I Sold Andy Warhol (too soon), to be published by Other Press. Works by Heather Wilcoxon are priced at $800 for monotypes and $2,200-$8,000 for paintings; inquiries can be made at Heatherwilcoxon@mac.com