Artist Hanson Puthuff remains one of my favorite California Impressionists from the turn of the last century. Back in 2012, I had the pleasure of researching him for the school’s Art History 101 blog.
It was well received by fellow enthusiasts of the artist. Seven lovely comments each shared their own story with regards to Hanson Puthuff.
Then, out of the blue on October 12, 2021, a new and very lovely comment arrived from a Ms. Jessica Chess: “Just came across this and it made me smile. Hanson was my Great-Great Grandfather and it is amazing to see that his work is still cherished.”
Let.That.Sink.In…..How exciting, and what an honor, to receive a message from the Great-Great Granddaughter of the distinguished painter, himself! I squealed with delight.
When I gained composure, I reached out to Ms. Chess asking if she might consider being interviewed about her Great-Great-Grandfather.
She warmly thanked me for the request, recommending instead if I would consider interviewing her cousin, Zachary Mendoza, who is a current working artist and graduate of the Pasadena Art Center College of Design.
Wow! Interviewing Hanson Puthuff’s Great-Great Grandson who is keeping the family fine art tradition. (Deep breath!)
What a scoop and, of course, a privilege! Mr. Mendoza was pleasant and gracious in his reply. I was ecstatic when he warmly accepted my invitation to interview him for the blog, promising to bring family heirloom photos to the story. 😀
So, without further ado, I’m pleased to introduce you to the artist and progeny of the illustrious Hanson Puthuff and share his and his family’s story with you.
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LRW: Your style of painting is wonderfully different from your great-great-grandfather’s. May I ask, what is your style of painting referred to? For our art students, would you please describe what this style means or represents?
ZM: I would refer to the style that I have been developing as expressive and contemporary. I think that I have trouble identifying my work with a single style, but I think one through line is the experimental and spontaneous qualities that I aim to have in the work.
LRW: Expressive Contemporary sums it up nicely. What techniques encompass this style?
AM: Sometimes I use thick textures and others the surface is flatter, but often the image is layered with realism and some elements of abstraction. I think that I am interested mostly with the in-between.
LRW: I can see that in your art. Did you start out painting in this style?
ZM: I first started really painting this way in school when I was considering ways to make the act of painting somehow reflect the ideas that I was trying to explore. For example, the portraits named “Trudi” (1-5) were of someone whose internal psyche I wanted to imagine and express visually and externally. I thought to myself “how does one paint a raw emotion?” I also thought “What does a fragmented conception of one’s internal self look like?” These were some of the questions that lead me to begin exploring more abstract ways of making pictures. I have been interested ever since in painting what is true in some sense, if not necessarily visually accurate.
LRW: Very existential and spiritual. Very nice thought processes to anchor a work. I was excited to learn you are the great-great grandson of California impressionist painter, Hanson Putthuff! How has this influenced your art? Are there other artists in your family? May we please ask if you have any family stories about him?
ZM: I am the great-great grandson of Hanson Duvall Puthuff. Although he lived to be 94 years old, I never had the privilege of meeting him in person, but I grew up around his art.
LRW: So cool! That’s a good long life, the same as my dad. Please continue.
ZM: My grandfather’s house in Boulder, Colorado as well as my Grandmother’s house in Los Angeles has always been adorned with large and small landscapes of an uncultivated Southern California that he painted nearly a century ago.
I think that as a young child, this must have impacted me in some way because my earliest memories are decorated with these works, and they have been a part of my family for multiple generations.
LRW: How nice to have been surrounded by such beautiful artwork at an early age.
ZM: My grandfather Ken, has many Puthuff works and has made it a family tradition to gift one to family members when they get married. When my lovely wife and I were married in 2017, he gave us an incredible seascape that I believe was from Puthuff’s studio in Laguna Beach, California.
LRW: What a treasured wedding present. May it bring you many years of inspiration! I forgot Puthuff had a studio in Laguna Beach. (My favorite haunt since childhood.) Are there other artists in your family?
ZM: My great aunt Natelie is a very talented watercolor painter and an uncle on my father’s side is an art director as well. Puthuff wrote an autobiography that detailed his early childhood and his professional career that he made solely for his family. My mom has a copy and it’s full of pictures of my grandfather as a young child amongst our many relatives.
ZM: My mom has a framed graphite drawing I made of Hanson Puthuff when I was about 10 years old that hangs in her living room.
I think that being aware of these paintings and knowing that my great-great grandfather was an accomplished oil painter in his lifetime showed me that a life as a painter was possible.
LRW: Wow! Quite an artistic lineage and heritage. I’d love to read that autobiography at some point. So much to learn from master painters and their take on the time in which they lived. Thank you for sharing your drawing of your great-great-grandfather. Seeing is believing! On the subject of tools of the trade, our students are interested in the latest tools of the trade. May I please inquire, what is your preference for paints and brushes? Do you use oils or acrylics? Do you paint on canvas board, panels, or…? Do you finish with a varnish or leave as is?
ZM: I love materials and I find that laying out as many near me as possible is helpful for the creative process. As I’ve built a certain familiarity with the marks that different tools make, I find it exciting to identify when to use things such as acrylic paint, ink, oil or dry media and sometimes I use all of these in a single work.
LRW: Me too. I hadn’t thought of laying out a variety of media and tools before starting a project, as a way to spark the creative process. Will have to try it sometime. Is there a medium you use the most?
ZM: I would say that oil is the predominant medium that I use because the richness of the pigment is so satisfying to me and the textures that one can build are so beautiful. As a child, I found Hanson Puthuff’s paintings so thick and loose when I got up close to them and I always preferred to shade and smudge the imperfections away rather than to let details go in favor of the material. I’ve began to love the thickness of paint in recent years and I think about my great-great grandfather’s works when I do this often too. It’s funny how tastes change.
LRW: Indeed. I love studying Puthuff’s paint strokes and palettes he used whenever I see his work at various galleries. Tastes may have changed, but his masterful style lives on in your work. What tools do you prefer to work with?
ZM: With materials, I love cheap brushes because I tend to beat them up and not clean them as frequently as I should. I use hog-hair long handle bristle brushes often but also cheap synthetic acrylic brushes I find in packs of 50 at Michael’s. I love metal Pallet knives for applying paint, too and most recently, one of my favorite surfaces to paint on is Yupo paper. It’s slick, and the smoothness of Yupo really allows thick paint to sit on the surface. I rarely varnish paintings because they usually have textured areas.
LRW: Haha! I asked the same question to artist Malcolm T. Liepke at one of his gallery openings at Arcadia Contemporary, and he freely admitted to using cheap paint brushes for the same reason! [To my students – this does Not give you permission to avoid soaking your brushes once a month in Murphy’s Oil Soap! :-/] Palette knives are fun to apply thick textural layers. Hey, I’ve never heard of Yupo paper. We will definitely research that for our art students! Are you represented by any art galleries or do you work solo?
ZM: I am represented by Gallery 30 South in Pasadena as well as Talon Gallery in Portland, Oregon. I have had a solo show most recently at Gallery 30 South in Pasadena and have another upcoming show in March there. Additionally, my work will be included in a two-person show at Talon Gallery in Portland in March 2022 as well.
LRW: Congratulations on your past and upcoming shows! I will try to make it to your March show at Gallery 30 South in Pasadena. For our students, what do you believe are the pros and cons of gallery representation?
ZM: I have fortunately had very pleasant experiences with the galleries that I’ve worked with so far. The directors of these galleries are great and I’m happy to continue working with them. I’ve heard from other more established artists that they have had trouble with galleries promoting their works or encouraging them to do more of a certain type of work that has sold before but I haven’t really experienced much of that.
LRW: Glad to hear. Can you go into a little more detail?
ZM: The standard gallery model of payment is 50% of sales to the artist and 50% to the gallery which many artists take issue with but accept for opportunity to show with certain galleries. Some galleries ask for less of a percentage of sold revenue. This is one aspect of gallery representation that is worth considering too. Sales are not guaranteed either and many artists, myself included, supplement income in other ways with a full or part-time job and/or through commissions, licensing. There are many different types of artists and there are many ways to make a living as an artist but particularly in the fine art gallery world, there are similarly numerous possibilities.
LRW: Good intel straight from seasoned experience, not idle opinions or speculations. At what age did you realize you wanted to be a professional artist?
ZM: For as long as I can remember, the answer that the child version of myself would give to some adult who asked what I wanted to be when I grew up was “A famous artist or a paleontologist”. Though I still enjoy dinosaurs, art has remained the primary focus of my professional life.
LRW: So nice you are living your childhood dream, at least the artist part. I wanted to be an archeologist myself. Instead of digging ancient gravesites, I’m unearthing stories through my blog. It’s less messy. lol. BTW, did anyone try to talk you out of venturing into an art profession? How did you handle it?
ZM: Sure, there will always be people who will make remarks that are critical of pursuing art as a profession or that are otherwise critical of the time and money that one might invest to pursue making art. Often it comes from a good place I think and these people have shared what they’ve found to be a useful way of navigating through life but these people are not interested in pursuing art and this path is not for everyone. There was a time when I would listen to these voices and it would stall my development and enthusiasm for things I was interested in pursuing and learning. I found myself over the years returning to drawing and to painting despite other ventures and I began to recognize art as a constant in my life that is an indelible part of who I am.
LRW: Yesss! As American mythologist Joseph Campbell often said, “Follow your bliss”! Much of your recent work features distorted, “ghoulish” (as you state on your website) scenes. What is the story or inspiration behind your choice of subject matter?
ZM: I think that this way of painting has come about as a result of emulating a lot of different artists over the years and one of whom is Irish-born British figurative painter Francis Bacon, whose work is often very visceral, distorted and direct.
LRW: Ah, I’ve heard of and seen some of Bacon’s work. It’s indeed a little unsettling but brilliant nonetheless. How exactly were you influenced by him?
ZM: Bacon once said “I want to make a very ordered image but I want it to come about by chance.” I really enjoy that quote. I think that experimentation is important in my work as well. I like to end up in a place that is unexpected but is somehow resolved. I like the process of responding to the unexpected and discovering new and exciting ways of making marks that reflect the ideas I am exploring. I’ve painted a lot of famous writers and artists and I think that doing so in this way is a sort of reanimation. I think that the word “ghoulish” is an accurate way to describe the way in which the ideas and likenesses of these figures is resurrected into half truths. If I paint a non-historical figure or someone who I know personally, I think they often take on this quality too in my paintings.
LRW: Fascinating revelation into your process. Love your homage to my favorite jazz composer, arranger and pianist, Bill Evans! Did you study art in college or are you self-taught? What are the pros and cons of studying at a university vs. self-taught?
ZM: I studied illustration and fine are at Art Center College of Design where I graduated in 2015. There are a great deal of pros to studying in an art university. I found these to include access to working professional instructors, a culture of competition and a program that instilled in me the value of consistent practice and hard work (often to a fault). Having to make several works each week helped me to overcome the fear of messing something up or the obligation to make something perfect. I learned to meet deadlines and I worked alongside talented classmates.
LRW: I can see the value in that experience. What are some of the cons of studying art in college?
ZM: The cons in my experience were the cost of tuition which is not insignificant and is a heavy burden for many. Much of the technical knowledge involved in being a practicing painter I think can be sourced online and through independent practice most importantly. I do, however, think that the experience was invaluable to me overall in my personal growth as a painter.
LRW: A sobering reality. Art Center is a fantastic school, though. Their student gallery blows me away each time I visit. Speaking of education, do you happen to teach any workshops via Zoom or in-person?
ZM: Not yet but I would love to. My first job post-graduation was as a painting teacher at an after-school art program. I really enjoyed teaching painting and portfolio classes there. I look forward to doing more of it in the future. It is so rewarding to see students’ progress in their work. I love sharing ideas and I love learning from others. There are so many wonderful artists in this world.
LRW: Perhaps we can collaborate with a guest artist demo + workshop at the studio and on Zoom in the near future! I feel the same joy when I teach art. As American novelist and science fiction writer, Robert Anson Heinlein said, “When one teaches, two learn.” What is some advice you can give the young artists studying at Pastimes?
ZM: One thing that really seems to ring true for me when I have difficulty starting something or finishing something is to remind myself that consistency is the key to achieving great results in one’s work. I used to subscribe to the romantic ideal that it was best to wait for a moment of inspiration and then to act by painting vigorously until the sun came up.
This idea of waiting for inspiration and striking with a vengeance has only really felt the case for me once or twice in my whole life so far. I’ve found that if I can instead put some amount of regular time each day into what I am making, I am able to really progress in a direction that is exciting to me across time.
LRW: As a pianist and piano teacher, I couldn’t agree more. Small consistent steps develop stamina and skill along the way to your goals. Was there someone who inspired you in this manner?
ZM: When I graduated from school, I emailed the Russian-American artist Alex Kanevsky who is a painter whose work I’ve highly admired for years.
LRW: I love Alex Kanesky’s paintings! I’ve been following his work on Instagram. Did he respond?
ZM: Yes! He was kind enough to share some advice for a young artist trying to make this into a career. He wrote that an artist should show their work as much as possible whenever given the opportunity.
Showing as much as possible was very helpful for me to hear because I experienced uncertainty about being selective about where to show work and in finding reputable places to share my pieces. I saw friends turn down gallery showings because they believed that the gallery that offered them a show was not the best. I instead put this advice into practice and walked door to door to restaurants near my house and in coffee shops and showed work at those places while I was showing works in larger gallery group shows. You never know who will stumble on your work and seeing a painting in person is so much more impactful than seeing it digitally on a screen on Instagram or one’s website.
Doing this lead to many sales and meeting great people who love art and who continue to stay in touch and follow my work. I’ve met people I can call my friends as a result of this and this would not have happened had I not shown work in cafés and shops when I first graduated. I’m grateful that someone can have an unexpected connection with the work I really care about.
LRW: I’m so happy to hear this. Artists connecting with the community is vital to keeping our culture alive. It’s why my school hosts student art shows in cafés and outdoor art festivals. When students see their artwork framed and displayed professionally, it’s a game-changer. You can see it in their subsequent work, taking pride in their accomplishments. The business owners who show my students’ work take pride in supporting the art community too. It’s a win-win. What else did Kanevsky reveal to you?
ZM: Alex Kanevsky also wrote that it is important that one paint always if they aim to be the best they can at what they do. A phrase he used was very simple and poignant and it was “painters paint”. He suggested keeping one’s life simple and allowing time to make work regularly. I think about that often, and I know that the only way to make the work I want is to paint as much as I can.
I think it’s easy to talk one’s self out of making, finishing or even starting something and I think that pushing through that mental block, laziness, or directional uncertainty and just making something as often as possible is the only path forward.
Art is fun and serious and everything in between. Hanson Puthuff had a long and illustrious life doing what he loved and I am happy to know that is possible.
LRW: So nice of him to share his good advice and provide an example to follow. Thank you for sharing. Art can touch people’s lives, bringing happiness and hope. For example, my school partners with CoachArt to provide free art classes for families impacted by childhood chronic illness. Is there a charity you are fond of or support, that you might like our readers to learn more about?
ZM: I couldn’t agree more and I think that what Pastimes does is wonderful! I am very happy to know people like that because it reminds me what I should aim to be, too. I think that the charity work that the artist Todd White does is great too, his charitable endeavors seem to aim to provide art materials to young students as many schools cut arts budgets across the nation.
LRW: Very cool and so important for school children to have access to art materials. Are there any charities your family supports?
ZM: My mom used to be on the board of directors at Beauty Bus Foundation which is a great charity as well. I found their work through my mom, and my wife contributed to working on their website recently. Beauty Bus Foundation provides haircuts, manicures and other beauty grooming services to hospital patients. They help to provide a respite for debilitating diseases by making people feel beautiful.
LRW: I hadn’t heard of this great organization before. It brought a tear to my eyes. I’ll look into how the school might be able to support them.
ZM: Thank you for all the great work that you both do and for inviting me for an interview!
LRW: Aww, thank you dear Zachary for such an inspiring interview and all you do to keep the bar high for art in our culture! Best wishes to you in your creative endeavors.
You can learn more about this great artist on his website and on Instagram.
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Art History 101 reviews selected artists from periods of history that continue to influence today’s culture and taste. If you enjoyed this story, please feel free to share on your favorite social media. Comments appreciated! If there is an artist you would like us to feature, please comment below. Thank you for your support!
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