By Marcia Meier
An author once described the Brooklyn Bridge as “steel poetry ... It makes you feel that maybe you, too, could add something that would last and be beautiful.” It's a sentiment that resonates with Professor and Artist R. Anthony Askew, who pasted it on the door to his Westmont College studio.
Askew believes anyone can create art that would last and be beautiful, and if it can be done with something reused, recycled and re-purposed, all the better. An ardent environmentalist, printmaker and assemblage artist, Askew uses only found objects in his work, which has been exhibited throughout the United States and abroad. One of his assemblage pieces was chosen this year by Santa Barbara’s Art From Scrap (see sidebar) to represent its annual fund-raising drive, The Artist’s Muse.
“I’ve always been interested in recycling and environmental issues, politically and socially,” Askew says. He and his wife, Barbara, walk every morning and pick up trash along the way, which often ends up in his art.
“I’m partial to certain things, like old cigarette packs.” He likes Lucky Strikes packs for their color. And he is fond of American Spirit cigarette packs. They are popular in New Mexico, where he spent 18 summers working in the printmaking studios of the College of Santa Fe. It was there he was exposed to creating art without toxic chemicals.
“It changed my life. I realized you could do so much without toxics. I’m not convinced there’s as much flexibility artistically, but it’s close.”
Askew instills his love for the environment in his students at Westmont. Baby and citrus oils have replaced solvents and chemical cleaners in the studio. Old telephone book pages are used for cleaning plates and absorbing inks and paints. While they still occasionally employ oil-based paints, most of the inks and paint used are water-based.
On a recent day, his students were creating solar etchings and prints made from found objects. Askew was in his element, offering a suggestion here, a little encouragement there, coaching and getting excited about the discoveries his students were finding in their art.
With retirement planned for the end of the academic year, Askew can look back at milestone after milestone in the life of Westmont’s art program. When he joined the faculty in 1984, there was no art department. His colleague and longtime friend John Carlander was the only art instructor. After Askew arrived, the two of them began to work toward establishing an art major, building community ties and, ultimately, acquiring a building for studio space and a gallery.
They launched a successful summer arts camp. From that grew an Arts Council, which raised the funds to buy a small building on the south end of the campus. Today the Westmont Art Center serves more than 250 students and houses Reynolds Gallery, which Askew has directed since its inception.
Next fall, ground will be broken on a brand-new, multimillion-dollar Adams Center for the Visual Arts, with three times the gallery space. Donors Steve and Denise Adams gave $10 million for the building, and recently joined with Walter and Darlene Hansen to create a $2.5 million endowed chair in Askew’s name.
Askew isn’t likely to slow down after retirement. He has already embellished his home art studio with a new press, and just completed two series of collages and monotypes. Plus, he recently joined and exhibits his work with Printmaking Artists Northwest in Portland, where his son and grandchildren live. He will also likely continue to teach one course at Westmont.
“I love teaching,” Askew said. “It’s so rewarding and has given me so much. I have so many teachers in my students. They’re inventive and energetic. They’re so free.”
For Askew, the art is the teaching and the teaching is the art. Like that beautiful steel bridge, Askew’s gift to his students – to his community – will last and last.
Art, for Earth’s Sake
By Marcia Meier
It was no surprise when Art From Scrap chose R. Anthony Askew’s art this year to represent the organization during its annual fund-raiser. “Tony is kind of the assemblage muse of the town,” Executive Director Cay Sanchez says.
Art From Scrap and The Oak Group are two Santa Barbara-based organizations devoted to creating art with the environment in mind. Art From Scrap combines art and environmental education in one program, while the members of The Oak Group paint to preserve nature.
Art From Scrap’s retail store sells a plethora of donated recycled art materials to the public. It also provides an extensive educational program for the schools and promotes environmental awareness by highlighting the work of artists like Askew in gallery exhibitions.
The Oak Group is made up of 24 landscape painters who collectively exhibit and sell their work to preserve open space. The group includes some of the best-known landscape painters working today: Larry and John Iwerks, Marcia Burtt, Meredith Abbot, Whitney Abbot, Arturo Tello, Ray Strong, William Dewey and Patricia Chidlaw.
Fifteen years ago, several of the artists discovered some bluff-top land they were painting was headed for development. They organized a show to raise awareness about the need to preserve open space. Since then, the group has raised more than $1.5 million from painting sales, half of which has gone to groups such as The Nature Conservancy and land trusts in both Santa Barbara and Marin counties.
These are just two out of a number of organizations dedicated to incorporating concern for the earth into artistic expression. They are artists who make a difference.