Artist finds his place in the country

By Chris Samson

"The true artist," George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art."

Artist Byron Randall of Tomales hasn't been forced to that extreme to earn his distinguished reputation as an expressionistic painter. But for most of his life, he has maintained an uncompromising devotion to the purity of his art, often in the face of economic adversity.

"Ideally," said Randall, "it should be possible to pursue this creative objective without having to compromise the kind of work that's an expression of my time and space in history."

"My solution for years has been to work a totally separate job." He has worked as a seaman, a cook and a baker. He also raised a family, all the while concentrating on painting.

He was subsidized by art patrons in New York and by Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA) which put artists to work all over the country during the post-Depression 1930s.

For the last several years, however, he has found the financial freedom to pursue his painting in a secluded, turn-of-the-century country estate in Tomales. At one end of the rambling picturesque grounds is a converted chicken coop where he lives and paints, along with his wife, Eve.

The old mansion at the entrance to the estate, with its eight bedrooms and three stories, is run by the Randalls as a bed and breakfast inn, with the catch-all name, Byron Randall's Famous Victorian Guest House and Art Gallery.

"The idea is a sound one," he said. "To find a way to make a living as an artist without taking art into the (commercial) marketplace." With bed and breakfast inns becoming a booming business all over the country, "the income from the inn has kept me solvent," he said.

The Tomales guest house is different from other bed and breakfast inns in many ways. Originally a private mansion, Randall bought the property about 12 years ago.

"I had a place in Mendocino before that was quite similar to this. It was a big Victorian with plenty of room to set up a gallery and rent out rooms. It also served as the peace center during the Vietnam War," said Randall.

Around the end of the 1960s, he went through "a series of changes" that included a break-up with his former wife. "After flapping around a bit, I found this place. I read this as a place that could work."

At the time, the old mansion was being run as a rooming house. "The house was a shambles," he recalled. "It had no foundation." Over the years, Randall remodeled and improved the premises. All rooms are furnished in keeping with the Victorian character of the house and Randall's rich and colorful paintings grace the walls throughout.

Secluded by trees and surrounded by gardens, patios and lily ponds, the inn is a tranquil sanctuary for people seeking to escape the stress of urban life for a quiet moment in the country.

"We don't run it like other people do," said Eve Randall. "We try to allow people maximum privacy." The Randalls don't live in the house. Guests check themselves in and out, although an "unobtrusive curator-resident" is on the premises and can be summoned.

The guest house's open-door policy "brings out the best in people," Eve added. "We get a lot of unsolicited (positive) comments about the place. Since we don't live in the house, we're not breathing down their necks."

Eve and Byron Randall have been together only a year, their relationship spawned by a "personals" ad she placed in the Pacific Sun. Eve said she was "egged on" by friends to place the ad, while Byron admitted he had gotten in the habit of skimming the lovelorn notices and Eve's ad "seemed reasonable."

He promptly sent a letter along with brochures on his guest house and art background. "I explained my scene here and said I was rich and famous," he said with a wry smile. They both describe themselves as "from the Old Left." Said Byron. "We speak the same jargon. We both have compassion for the underdog. We still believe that socialism is the best hope for humankind."

The Randalls traveled opposite routes to arrive at their shared philosophy, however. Eve, a native of Austria, grew up in a wealthy family and became a professional designer. "I found out what money doesn't buy -- happiness," she said. "I came by my philosophy the opposite of Byron."

"Eve," said Byron, "is the only person who has progressed from a castle in Vienna to a chicken coop."

Working in the cozy chicken coop home-studio, Randall feels he has the freedom to pursue his creative potential, "free of any consideration of what the marketplace might want me to paint."

"Art has become a jungle where trends have changed and the kind of work being sold and produced varies," he said. "Selling art doesn't have anything to do with creative painting."

"Art today is very trendy," Eve interjected. "It's no longer art for art's sake, but what's economically feasible. It's become a major area of capital investment."

Byron agreed. "Twenty years ago, banks wouldn't have considered art an investment. But it's become a tremendously active field of investment."

He was astounded when one young man visiting his guest house said he wanted to become an artist because of the money involved in it.

"The best security is to get your work into a museum, so there's no question about your integrity as an artist," Randall said.

When he was growing up in Salem, Ore., his central direction was to be an artist. He struck out for New York City at age 19 with his portfolio and had "fantastic luck" to be sponsored by an art dealer who believed in his work.

"I rented a walkup right across the street from (Willem) de Kooning (a hero of the New York abstract expressionist movement). He (the art dealer-patron) never at any time attempted to influence my work in a way to make it more saleable." Randall said his "blind good luck" in New York went on for three years until World War II.

"When I first came to San Francisco in 1940, there was just one gallery, Raymond & Raymond on Sutter Street." Remarkable, considering the proliferation of commercial galleries in the Bay Area today.

Coming of age as an artist during the WPA era left a lasting impression on Randall. "The fact is that there has never been a period when so many people were employed to use their talents. All the American painters who became famous then were all people who had a chance to develop their talents under the WPA.

"There was a real feeling of creative ferment and excitement that came from artists being in a social dimension," he said. Byron and Eve agree that their Depression upbringing gave them exposure to a different milieu than the post-World War II generation.

"We were educated politically by that time in history when art was a different kind of function," he said. "The WPA was really remarkable." He taught in the federal art center in Salem under the program.

Over a career of nearly half a century, Randall has exhibited his work in galleries and museums in the United States and abroad, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Gallery in Washington, D.C.

During the 1940s, he was very active as the founder of the Artists Guild of San Francisco and co-chairman of a group which acquired a grant to stage the first open-air art show in the city.

For ten years he maintained a studio on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco's North Beach. "It was a very dynamic period for West Coast art," he recalled. "Abstract expressionism had come into its own as a phenomenon."

In a statement about his paintings several years ago, Randall wrote: "the look of them might have been different if I'd grown up anywhere but in Oregon. Brilliant sunlight nursing the green valleys after a long rainy winter . . . there's a powerful bit of environment that would show in a man's work all his life.

"I've seen that creative communication has a vitality all its own. It's not a refuge from life, but an intensification. It's the practice of humanity. In painting I think the approach that best affirms life is expressionism, and that's why I became and am now an expressionist. I think that in time, my (and your) creative effort will overcome the forces of evil that menace peace-loving mankind."

If G.B. Shaw were alive today, no doubt he would amend his definition of the true artist to include Byron Randall.

(Byron Randall died in 1999 at the age of 81.)

From left, "Pianist," "Portrait of Emmylou" and "Still Life with Big Candle."

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