SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. — Andy Lakey's success story is quintessentially American, with an emphasis on the Californian: a spiritual transformation from car salesman to a divinely motivated bestselling artist whose work is owned by such diverse clientele as Ray Charles, Pope John Paul II, and former President Jimmy Carter.
All this in under a decade and with virtually no formal training.
The dramatic turning point of his story is straight from the heart of the millennium-obsessed new-age culture, timed for the turning of the 2000-year mark. As he struggled with a drug overdose in 1986, an "angelic message" told him to become an artist and communicate through what has become his signature icon, a simple angel form.
Says Mr. Lakey, the message was simple: Paint 2,000 angels for 2000.
His original mandate is nearly complete, but Angel No. 2,000 will take a year to complete. It will be different, says the painter: It will require that viewers stand inside it to view it.
He says while his career got off to a slow start (his first efforts "were a mess, so I call them my mud paintings"), he has never lost touch with his goal to communicate. "My art is for the people," muses Lakey.
When he first saw Lakey's early work, says Michael Miller, national director of Dyansen Gallery, which displays Lakey's work, he was struck by how many influences he detected.
"There's tribal, Indian, Egyptian, graffiti art," he says. But when you meet the artist, says Mr. Miller, he is almost unaware of the influences he's incorporated. "He's really a natural-born artist," says Miller.
His signature thick lines of paint are three-dimensional and make a special connection with the visually impaired. After seeing the blind community's need for an art that communicated through touch, Lakey made sure his secret paint formula could withstand continual contact. He now encourages any viewer to interact with his art. Wherever his shows open, the former salesman donates a painting to a local organization that works with the visually impaired.
He also never forgets his own journey out of drug use. For a number of years, he sent a painting to any child who wrote to pledge a drug-free life. Now, after receiving thousands of letters, he will do the same for any school of children who pledge the same.
For the skeptics who wonder if this altruism or "overnight" success is too good to be true, Pierrette Van Cleve, art historian and president of Art Cellar Exchange in San Diego, declares most emphatically that Lakey "is the real thing." She notes that while his choice of images may be deceptively simple, they touch a profound and meaningful chord in his audience.
"We are in a period of great spiritual or emotional ferment, a redefining of who we are," under whatever name you wish to give it, asserts the historian. Lakey's work "has tapped into an imagery and a language that a lot of people can relate to."
As for his financial success (his paintings sell in the six figures), Ms. Van Cleve points out that great artists of other times, such as Michelangelo or Andy Warhol, were savvy showmen who also received the financial support of their widespread and enthusiastic audience. "Many great artists were paid well," she laughs. "All that means is that they were recognized during their lifetime," as opposed to others such as Van Gogh.
Lakey himself shrugs when considering his place in history. "I paint because I need to communicate," he offers, not to prove anything to anyone.
* Andy Lakey's Web site address is: www.lakeyart.com
Gloria Goodale's e-mail address is: email@example.com