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Don Bachardy discusses art and politics

Following the screening of “Chris & Don: A Love Story,” artist Don Bachardy spoke about art, politics and more to an enthusiastic group Saturday, June 29, at the Crocker Art Museum.

The 2008 film documentary is a chronicle of the life of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, and brought laughter and at least a few tears to audience members. The film includes archival footage, current interviews, animation and excerpts from Isherwood’s diaries.

Following the screening, Bachardy joined Scott Shields, chief curator for the Crocker Art Museum, for a conversation.

Don Bachardy and Scott Shields in conversation

Bachardy was relaxed and humble, and said that it has been several years since he saw the film, which he has seen many times.

The conversation turned to the recent Supreme Court decision, and Bachardy said that the decision is a “tremendous triumph.”

Until Isherwood’s death in 1986, Bachardy said that they would have been “stunned and delighted” if someone had told them “about these triumphs.”

Slides of Bachardy’s work generated further discussion, including one of Natalie Shafer, best known as Eunice “Lovey” Wentworth Howell on the sitcom “Gilligan’s Island.” As with all his portraits, the colors were bright, and Bachardy captured her essence as only he could do.

Don Bachardy discussing the portrait of Natalie Shafer (on screen)

Besides Shafer, Bachardy’s list of sitters includes Henry Fonda, Bette Davis, Igor Stravinsky, Beatrice Arthur and Governor Jerry Brown, whose portrait he painted in 1984. Since painting that portrait, which currently hangs next to one of Ronald Reagan, Saturday’s viewing was the first time Bachardy had seen it since it left his studio.

Bachardy said that Brown’s portrait took five sittings. It was, after all, the governor of California.

“It was very tough on him. He couldn’t understand why I wanted to go on and on. It was a major commitment for me. Without moving, he went miles away from me,” Bachardy said.

The portrait, in all its brilliant color, was completed after Bachardy told the governor that he must sit perfectly still.

1984 portrait of Governor Jerry Brown

When asked if he’d do another portrait, he replied that the governor looks quite different and that it would be interesting because “it’s such a visual change.”

Every few years, sitters return to Bachardy’s studio, and he said that an exhibit that shows that progression of age would be wonderful.

He had many stories to share about sitters and his experiences painting them. When asked whether he finds it easier to paint himself or others, he replied “Other people, of course.”

“(There is) a lot of mental preparation for a sitting,” he said.

Sometimes, he added, sitters don’t show, and rather than let that energy go for naught, he’ll redirect that energy to a self-portrait.

Don Bachardy discusses the challenges of painting the self-portrait

For Bachardy, people are his subject of choice, and he’ll only paint from life, saying that he could not be successful working from a photo. Plants, still lifes and landscapes do not hold his interest.

The audience was offered the opportunity to pose questions, which included whether Bachardy found any differences between the famous and the ordinary sitter and why he uses such vivid colors. One person noted that his paintings remind some people of landscapes.

“I like hearing that my paintings of people are like landscapes,” said Bachardy, adding that the “color must come from the sitters, the inspiration comes from the person.”

Several people shook hands with Bachardy and thanked him for sharing his story. One audience member shared his own story of how the film made an impact on his life.

Don Bachardy talks with an audience member

This event is part of the “Icons in Conversation” series and was presented in connection with the Crocker Art Museum exhibit, “An Opening of the Field,” which runs through September 1. Several additional events are scheduled to complement this exhibit, including films, lectures and studio art.

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