Wayne Thiebaud '51, MA '53 (Art)

Wayne Thiebaud

Artist and alumnus Wayne Thiebaud earned international attention for his paintings, particularly his series of pastels devoted to desserts—still lifes of cakes, ice cream cones, éclairs and other treats. His work has earned him numerous awards, including the National Medal of Arts Presidential Award.

Thiebaud spoke with Sac State Magazine about what he’s up to now, what inspires him and what his time was like as a Sac State student.

Sac State Magazine: How often do you paint?

Wayne Thiebaud: I’ve never been to ‘art’ school. I started with cartoons, doing advertising and design. I learned to go to work every day and that’s what I do now. I get to the studio pretty early and put in 40 to 50 hours a week. It’s a pretty regular schedule.

SSM: What is a “painting day” like?

WT: I get up early every day. I take a mid-day break, maybe play some tennis, and then go back to work.

SSM: What are you working on now?

WT: I’m trying to do some beach paintings. I grew up in Long Beach, and sold papers on the beach. Now we have a place in Laguna and I spend a lot of time at the beach. I’m doing figures from memory of people on the beach and their shadows. I’ll see what comes out, if anything.

SSM: When a piece isn’t working, do you scrap it? Or do you revise it until you are happy with it?

WT: When a piece isn’t working I try to revise it. Sometimes I paint over it or destroy it. Painting for me is a process of change and evolution. It’s an organic process. It’s quite mysterious. And that’s the way it should be. It helps to avoid formula and repetition. I want to keep from doing the same thing over and over. I’m never happy with (a painting) and I always hope to make changes. That’s one of the un-ending challenges.

SSM: Do you think of yourself more as a teacher or an artist?

WT: I see them as close to the same thing. (Teaching) is a great life, a privilege, to try to touch the lives of people in some way. I get a lot out of teaching but find it very hard work. I am an old-fashioned kind of instructor.

SSM: What kept you in the Central Valley once your work began receiving national and international attention?

WT: I’ve had the chance to live in New York a couple of times and moved around while I was in the service. Maybe it’s the idea of where one lives and feels at home. When I had my family I wanted to be able to paint and teach and have some sort of a normal life. Perhaps it’s the Westerner in me—space is important. I like the feel of it and the physical beauty.

SSM: What memories do you have of your time at Sac State? Who influenced you when you were here?

WT: My memories of Sac State are very moving. I was fortunate to be there in the first beginnings of Sac State. We were on the grounds of the City College and I was able to teach and go to school. The faculty were very generous—Robert Else, James McMenamin, Paul Beckman, Tarmo Pasto. They were very accommodating. They even let me help teach a little bit. It was a very helpful experience. Sac State offered me the wonderful opportunity to go to school, even after I had graduated, and take classes in literature, philosophy, anthropology and music. It helped me to develop intellectually and be constantly challenged.

SSM: What painters do you follow?

WT: I am influenced by the entire tradition of painting—mainly the Western tradition, everything from cave paintings through the Renaissance. Lately, I’ve become more and more interested in pre-Columbian, Persian, Chinese and east Indian paintings.As a serious research painter I try to find connections. I try not to ignoble this great tradition that has given us such great achievements in painting. We should feel very privileged to be part of that.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2007 edition of Sac State Magazine.