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Magazine

Painting the town: Artist captures local history on canvas


Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Mountain View artist Robert Schick frequents venues like the Cuesta Park Annex to create plein air paintings featuring natural landscapes.

 

Mountain View artist Robert C. Schick has spent much of the past two decades on a mission: to call attention to the beauty and historical value of the area, as well as to preserve it on canvas.

Schick’s talent is natural - there are artists on both sides of his family - augmented by his studies and years of experience and experimentation. He is still experimenting; his latest work, at the Cuesta Park Annex, is in the style of Russian-American Impressionist Ovanes Berberian. It’s a south-facing view featuring a bay laurel tree Schick wanted to capture before construction of the new El Camino Hospital parking lot obscured it.

Born at Stanford hospital in 1963, Schick attended local schools, including Springer, Blach Intermediate, Los Altos High, Foothill College, the Art Institute of San Francisco and San Jose State for his bachelor’s and master’s of art degrees. He now teaches in the area as well, at Mountain View’s Community School of Music and Arts and privately, and is pursuing a teaching credential to teach art at the junior high and high school levels. His favorite medium is oil, but pen and ink is a close second.

Vanishing scenes

Schick draws inspiration from the landmarks and pastoral scenes of the local area, many of which have vanished since he painted them.

"Since 1997 I’ve been focusing on landmarks that I grew up with," he said. "I remember this area in the ’60s where there were orchards every mile and old farms. … So as a student in art, I kept thinking, Someday when I retire I’ll take my time and paint all these landmarks I grew up with."

But Schick discovered he couldn’t wait until retirement.

"By the mid-’90s, the internet industry kicked into high gear and I was seeing all my childhood landmarks getting bulldozed at about a monthly rate," he said.

During Schick’s stint working at an educational software company in the 1990s, his co-workers would tell him about local orchards and landmarks in danger: "I hear the Olson orchard’s going to get bulldozed," they’d share.

So he quit his job and started painting full time with the expectation he’d be able to capture everything he wanted within three years. Cost-of-living increases led to a part-time job at Palo Alto’s Accent Arts, but he continued his artistic mission.

"I still felt my project wasn’t complete, so on a part-time basis I kept going to these local landmarks and painting them," he said. "I largely painted them on how quickly I thought they were going to disappear."

Paintings from the era include the Los Altos Nursery tank house at Hawthorne Avenue and South Gordon Way.

"That was right after I had painted for two years at the Olson orchard (in Sunnyvale), and that got bulldozed," he said. "The same demolition crew that cleared the Olson orchard was marking the Los Altos Nursery property. I was almost like an ambulance chaser - I was one step ahead of things disappearing."

Another depicter of local beauty is artist Cynthia Riordan, member of the Peninsula Outdoor Painters group. Riordan moved to Los Altos as a young child in 1957 and has seen many changes as the area moved from agriculture to high-tech.

"Just the number of apricot trees alone - 7,000 in 1962 to 700 today - says a lot about how the landscape has changed," she said, adding that plein air artists must drive farther and farther to find pastoral sites.

A race against time

Schick has been known to travel back in time to re-create the visual past, as he did at the Olson orchard.

"I had done colored drawings the spring before, and I knew that the following spring I wanted to do paintings of the barn between the rows of the blossoming cherry trees," he said. "But when I came back the following spring, the barn had already been dismantled, so I had to use photographs to put the barn back up in my pictures."

Other paintings, like his "Memory of the Winbigler Tank House and Orchard," were a race against time. He called the property at Miranda and Fremont roads, with its French-style two-story house, orchards and tank house, one of Los Altos Hills’ great landmarks.

"I think when I was painting the Los Altos Nursery tank house, someone stopped their car and said, Oh, you know that tank house in Los Altos Hills - it just came down," he said.

When Schick drove up to take a look, he discovered that the house and orchards were still standing, minus the tank house.

"So I went out there and I painted it," he said. "As I was painting the blossoming trees, a demolition crew was cutting them down."

Other glimpses of days gone by that Schick has painted include the Rengstorff House in Shoreline Park; Hangar One at Moffett Field; the Los Altos main library apricot orchard; the Griffin House at Foothill College; "The Garden," Craig Murray’s recently dismantled flower and vegetable farm on Dori Lane in Los Altos Hills; and the pumpkin patch in Coyote Valley at the intersection of Bailey Avenue and Santa Teresa Boulevard.

Painting on location

Schick prefers painting outdoors - "en plein air" - and is a member of the Peninsula Outdoor Painters group.

"I do most things on location," he said. "I just like fresh air, and somehow I just get so much more information in person than I would looking at a photograph. So I really don’t like to be in a building if I don’t have to be."

The places he chooses to paint are more than visually interesting to him; he feels a physical and emotional connection to another time.

"What I like about places that exist, it’s like this memory network - you stand in this place and then your mind connects to all the other places that existed at the same time period," he said. "If you think about computers, they talk about hard drives saving memory, but I think physical landmarks save memory. Just like the Native Americans had sacred mountains and sacred rocks and thousands of years of generations all visually link mentally to a location … you’re walking back into a shared generational experience."

Riordan, who first met Schick in 2008 while painting at the Cuesta Annex, noted Schick’s close relationship with the subjects he paints.

"If you look at Bob Schick’s paintings, there is a feeling of reverence for the natural world, and the natural world he depicts is one that is on the wild side and dramatically rendered," she said. "He pays attention to specific trees and when they are in blossom, when they are exhibiting fall color, if they have been damaged or have died. Every year … he has let me know when to expect peak blossom on my favorite 100-year-old almond tree. It is different every year. He knows a tremendous amount about Los Altos and Mountain View from a historical standpoint."

Approximately 250 of Schick’s paintings are owned by people in seven different countries, and a number of them hang locally. A selection can be viewed on his website and have appeared at occasional solo and group art exhibitions, such as the Peninsula Outdoor Painters’ show at the Los Altos main library in February, the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara in 2016 and the Los Altos History Museum in 2014.

For more information on Schick, visit robertcschick.com.

For more information on Peninsula Outdoor Painters, including a schedule of upcoming "paintouts," visit pleinairlinks.com/pops/home.html. O

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