Friday, November 13, 2020

Almost 100, famed artist Thiebaud still painting the lines

Sacramento's Wayne Thiebaud, shown last month,
plans to play tennis on his 100th birthday Sunday.
Photo by Colleen Casey  
   Wayne Thiebaud plans to celebrate his 100th birthday on Sunday doing what he loves most.
   Painting and playing tennis.
   Not only does the renowned Sacramento, Calif., artist still work seven days a week, he plays tennis two or three times a week at the venerable Sutter Lawn Tennis Club, which is even older than he is — by one year.
   Thiebaud (pronounced TEE-bo) doesn't just go out and slap a few balls around, either. He plays up to two sets of doubles.
   "I try to keep exercising and play with some pretty old guys," the humble, self-deprecating Thiebaud said. "We all go out and sort of insult each other but have a good time trying to hit the ball still."
   Thiebaud plays with two young bucks in their 80s and a whippersnapper in his 70s.
   "He does very well," said Larry Crabbe, the kid of the group at 74. "He's not fanatically competitive out there. He mainly really, really, really enjoys being outside in the sun and loves the exercise. 
   "He's still pretty tough. For 100 years old, he's not a pushover. He makes you work. I have played sincerely against Wayne (in doubles) and lost — in recent times."
   Larry O'Connor, another member of the foursome, added that he's "amazed (Thiebaud) can move as well as he does. I'm 85, and he almost moves better than I do."
   Thiebaud's attitude on the court is no less impressive.
   "He's a gentleman," observed O'Connor, who worked in the family mechanical and electrical contracting business. "He never gets upset, never gets mad."
   In honor of Thiebaud's 100th birthday, the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento had scheduled an exhibition, "Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints and Drawings," from Oct. 16, 2020, through Jan. 3, 2021. However, the museum closed today until further notice because of a local surge in COVID-19 cases. 
   Thiebaud, who worked his way through high school at restaurants in Long Beach, Calif., is best known for his colorful paintings of desserts (not deserts). A vintage Thiebaud recently sold at auction for — brace yourself — $19 million.
   Thiebaud was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2010 with Barbra Streisand, Serena Williams and 11 others. He received the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton in 2014.
Wayne Thiebaud plays at the Sutter Lawn Tennis Club in Sacramento
in the 1990s. Photo courtesy of Colleen Casey
   Any discussion of Thiebaud and tennis inevitably returns to art.
   His game?
   "He's also artistic on the court," said Crabbe, a retired school district administrator who has played in Thiebaud's foursome for 15 years. "He was all about finesse. The balls very seldom came at you on a straight line. They either arced or (went) up or down or left or right, or were sliced and fell just over the net. His lobs would go way up, and you'd wait for them to bounce, and if you did, you'd better be way back because they'd go way, way up, typically out of reach.
   "He was a very scientific player and was into physics and geometry. He knew how to make that ball work for him."
   International Tennis Hall of Famer Bill Tilden's 1925 book, "Match Play and the Spin of the Ball," strongly influenced Thiebaud.
  "I was really interested in that idea of the spin, so I think I made some pretty interesting spin shots," he said. "I had a decent forehand and backhand. I was not very good at rushing the net and volleying."
   Tennis' appeal? 
   "Well, a great number of things, but I suppose the way the game was designed so that primarily you can never lose until the last point, unlike so many sports," Thiebaud mused. "You can be down all the way and still manage to come back by that curious and interesting scoring method. I like that a lot.
   "Plus, I like the beauty of the court because it's somewhat like a Mondrian painting."
   His favorite player?
   "The Swiss guy," Thiebaud exclaimed in reference, of course, to Roger Federer. "My background is also partially Swiss. He's probably the most beautiful player who ever played the game."
A reproduction of Wayne Thiebaud's painting of the outside
courts at Wimbledon hangs on a wall at Sutter Lawn.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   In some ways, tennis is similar to painting. Players execute their strokes with rackets instead of brushes and express themselves on courts instead of canvas. Yet tennis is everything painting isn't: physical, outdoors and social.
   And yes, Thiebaud sometimes combines his passions. Sports Illustrated commissioned him to paint at Wimbledon in 1968, the first year in which prize money was offered and professionals were allowed to compete. Thiebaud painted a ball lying on a line on the grass, the outside courts before the day's matches have begun, a female player toweling off during a changeover and the trophy on top of the British flag. Reproductions of the ball and courts hang on the walls in the upstairs lounge at Sutter Lawn.
   Thiebaud said he has "made a few drawings and paintings of tennis" since then. Through his late son Paul, an art dealer, Wayne became a friend of John McEnroe, an art collector who owned a gallery in New York. McEnroe bought a painting of a slot machine by Thiebaud for $5 million four or five years ago, the artist said.
   Thiebaud has not specifically painted McEnroe but has depicted a left-handed server like him.
   "That's really sort of an homage to him," Thiebaud said. "I liked the way he played, his serve-and-volleying technique."
   Thiebaud got a late, comical start in tennis. After serving in the Army and working as a commercial artist, he attended San Jose State College (now San Jose State University) in 1949-50. Shortly before turning 30, Thiebaud transferred to Sacramento State College (now California State University, Sacramento).
   "I decided I'd try to take tennis classes, but they didn't have any," Thiebaud said of the 3-year-old school.
   Sac State, however, did have a tennis team, and Thiebaud recalled a conversation he had with coach Jack Jossi, who died in 2007.
    Jossi: "Do you play tennis?"
   Thiebaud: "No, I'm trying to learn how to play."
   Jossi: "Well, I have only five guys for a tennis team, and I need another one."
   Thiebaud: "I'm not good enough to play tennis with a team."
   Jossi: "Let me see how you hit the ball."
   Jossi (after hitting a few balls with Thiebaud): "No, you don't know how to play. But I've got to get another person, so you're going to be the sixth man on the tennis team."
   A quarter of a century later, Thiebaud began competing in USTA age-group tournaments. His late wife Betty Jean was a nationally ranked player.
   Thiebaud initially said his highest ranking in Northern California was No. 8 in the 70s before correcting himself.
   "I was about 4 in the 90s because there weren't many of us," Thiebaud said with a chuckle.
   Thiebaud has no plans to stop playing.
   "If he were to spend his last day on a court, I think that's exactly what he would want," Crabbe said.