Dick LaBonté Anchor & Palette Gallery

Wear a Wistful Smile

When I was a boy in Illinois, Chester Gould lived in our town. And I shall never forget the excitement in 1931 when he started to draw Dick Tracy. Small boys hung around his house, hoping he would emerge and give them autographs. Those of us who could draw were ablaze with ambition to become comic strip artists. We sketched Tracy endlessly: his beak of a nose, his sharp jutting chin, his tough slash of a mouth. And the snap-brimmed hat and turned-up coat collar had to be just so. By the time I was 12, I could draw Dick Tracy better than Gould could.

Then there was Carl Ed (pronounced Eeed). He, too, lived nearby and was one of my father’s bowling colleagues. Carl Ed drew Harold Teen. I would hang around the lanes, egging Ed into drawing for me on the backs of score sheets: bow-tied Harold, his girlfriend Lillums, his small friend Shadow, and Pop Jenks, the proprietor of the Sugar Bowl soda fountain. I went home and did likewise.

And there you have the answer to the question I often am asked: “How long have you been doing what you do?”

By the time I was in high school, I was a fair (only fair) cartoonist, so I spent a summer studying the subject at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. I also studied the models in the life class in the adjoining studio, so that when I got to college I was very good at gag cartoons in the campus magazine, featuring distraught semi clad girls. (To this day, my wife tells people that I paint all the women in my paintings in the nude first. Well I never!).

People also ask, “Did you ever paint, you know, regular art?” I had no interest in painting landscapes and still lifes, as much as I envy those who excel at them. But in college I began a study of portraiture that lasted into later life. I loved facial structures and painted them well and had a flair for color and likeness. But I found it limiting. I lost interest, and for years I painted almost nothing at all.

Then in the 1970s, when I was about to retire young from business and was itching for personal creative expression, I ran across a book of paintings my wife had picked up at a yard sale. The artist was the late Helen Bradley, “the Grandma Moses of England.” The simple and charming pictures showed her childhood in Edwardian times. They were bright and evocative and filled with happy little people.

It was Helen Bradley’s work that suggested both the mission I undertook and the style it required: to evoke the imagined seashore of simpler and gentler times, when the girls on the beach were clothed in total mystery, with their hair piled tauntingly high. When diversions were quiet and the kids grew up with nature. And everyone moved slowly. And the sun was probably sunnier. And water probably tasted like water.

When you look at my pictures, you are not supposed to wear a serious expression. You are expected to smile, perhaps wistfully and with a sense of loss. Often while I paint I laugh aloud. You have my permission to do likewise. ....written by Dick LaBonté from At the Shore with Dick LaBonté, published by LaBonte Prints Inc., ©1993 by Richard H. LaBonté