Carefree California on Canvas

CALIFORNIA! It possesses that common commodity of sunshine found everywhere on earth. But nowhere else, a Californian will assert, does the sun shine as it does there, on sailboats in sheltered harbors, on surfboards catching a big wave. Perhaps because the state has such a tremendously varied terrain and climate, Californians seem to develop a very particular sense of place. Phil Dike is such a Californian. He is a painter of places. We know from each of his landscapes that we would recognize the site immediately, should we chance upon it.

The viewing point for ``California Holiday'' is from the bluffs at Corona del Mar looking out across Balboa Bay - although it's been 50-plus years since this scene was painted, and the view no longer exists. Dike enjoyed painting from a bird's-eye view. Here, the rocks divide the canvas in an irregular pattern diagonally - dark bluffs against the shining light of the sun-drenched beach and shimmering water.

This work was painted in 1933 when a California highway had only two lanes, when Orange County had orange groves. The state's population was sparser and poorer.

In this painting Dike makes full use of the era's holiday activities to crowd the landscape with the joy of a Breugelian kermis - an outdoor fair. The finger of land peeking through the jaunty sails adds a touch of firmness to the painting.

DIKE's self-portrait was painted the same year. The composition is handsome in its apparent simplicity. Dike is sun-browned - hair, face, and arms all the same warm bronze. The gray palette anchors the figure solidly. The white shirt sets it off from the pale yellow background, which, for all its simplified linear treatment, gives a complete picture of the artist's sunny studio.

Unlike many self-portraits in which the artist seems to ignore the viewer by looking inward or aloof, Phil Dike engages us in a direct glance that seems friendly but reserved.

Dike was born in Redlands, California, in the canyon country foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. Noticing his talent, a high school art teacher urged him to draw, draw, draw - draw people on the streets, houses, anything that caught his eye. Later he won a scholarship to the much-respected Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles.

In the 1920s he studied in New York where George Luks, a member of the famous Ashcan School, taught him to paint with ``a big brush.'' In a letter, Dike wrote that artists he met in New York ``had a great sense of the urban place, the urban people ... they were reporting ... they painted pictures of what life is all about.'' He, too, made pictorial reports in oils and the swift watercolors, in a manner which came to be known as the ``California style.''

With his family's encouragement, he studied lithography, fresco, and mural painting in France, and visited the great museums. It was in Italy that he knew for certain that art was his lifework. While in Morocco, Dike was offered a position teaching drawing at the Chouinard School. He dedicated the rest of his career to celebrating California and Arizona in paint.

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