Radio Maine Episode 19

John "Jack" Gable: Larger Than Life 

 John “Jack” Gable has been a full-time artist for more than four decades after an equally successful career in automobile design. Jack trained to work for his initial profession at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. While there he explored artistic creation in various forms, affording him the opportunity to transition between watercolors, oils, acrylics and other mediums. In 1980, he left his original dream job as a designer for the Trans Am Firebird at General Motors in Detroit, Michigan, and moved his young family across the country to the small Maine enclave of Kennebunkport. Jack now lives in Woolwich, Maine. He works from a studio that is 50 feet long - giving him room to create massive, commissioned murals. He has also remained immersed in, and painted, the worlds of America’s Cup sailing, and competitive rowing. He does the same for automobile events and competitions around the globe. Jack has pieces in the Smithsonian and the Willard Intercontinental Hotel in Washington DC, as well as numerous private collections. We invite you to learn more about the formidable talent of Jack Gable in this conversation with Dr. Lisa Belisle.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello, this is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine. Today I have with me in the studio, artist Jack Gable. Thanks for coming in today. 

Jack Gable:

Nice to be here. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So Jack, you've been doing this art gig for quite a while now.

Jack Gable:

Well, I've been working as an artist since around 1979 or 1980, and I came here from another profession, but I've enjoyed it. So it's been quite awhile, yes.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What did you do before that?

Jack Gable:

 I was with the General Motors (GM) design staff. I designed Trans-Am Firebirds and loved it. I had a great time there. I was with GM for about 15 years and got into what I would call lower management. Design people are generally artists. You have to create shapes and so on.  We had so much fun. And then I started painting on the side. I had no complaints whatsoever with GM but realized that I loved art. GM had treated me really well but my wife and I decided to move to Maine to paint. It was one of those 35 year old decisions that a lot of people make. We moved to Kennebunkport and things began.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So was your training in art before you went to work for General Motors?

Jack Gable:

It was an interesting thing. I'd gone to the University of Kentucky prior, but I'd always loved to draw cars. I was a kid who loved cars, racing and so on. And at the time, there was one school in California that was called the Art Center College of Design. They gave a bachelor of science in industrial design and a major in transportation design. I was out there for four years and when I graduated, GM came out and interviewed the students. They offered three of us a job at this spectacular design center north of Detroit designed by Eero Saarinen. I was excited to go.  But a week later, I got my draft notice and ended up going to the wrong place for a couple of years. This was the late sixties. I then came back and talked to GM again and away we went. As a designer you had to have training in illustration because you have to portray your designs and you’d better be decent at it or no one will take notice. So for someone who loved art to begin with, this was good professional training.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So when you say portray your designs, you mean create life out of them?

Jack Gable:

It's true. The way you start out with automotive design, at least at that time, this was 1968 when I came back, is the automobile, the exterior of cars. Only an idea. And you're a newbie, you're a young creative designer, and you have to be able to render or portray your idea in a way that will attract the people that are going to be making those decisions. That meant doing anything from illustrations on a smaller scale (sketches), nice tight renderings to doing 15 foot long full-size airbrush renderings of these automobiles. And that was just the process. And from there, it would go into a full-size clay model where sculptors created these shapes and so on. So it was very art oriented. So when I moved toward what I wanted to do, which was free painting, I had let's say the technical skill to be able to just jump into it without taking years to try to develop that. So it worked out.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I noticed that a lot of your pieces are on the larger side. And now, as you're telling me about the work that you did previously, that kind of makes sense. The larger sizes don't really intimidate you.

Jack Gable:

It's very interesting because that is true. But when I moved to Kennebunkport originally, all I did was average size watercolors. And at the time I had an opportunity to show in New York. And I was showing at the same gallery that (Andrew) Wyeth was painting out of Coker. And these were main subject matter. So typical, main subject matter. And I enjoyed that. And that career developed and I was asked to do watercolors for America's cup crews, portraits and everything. They were all watercolors. And it wasn't until the early nineties that I had been contacted by some people in Washington. And they said, “You know, we really love your rowing watercolors.” I had done a lot of rowing pictures on the Charles River. And they said, “Do you think you could paint classic automobiles?” And I said, “You're kidding.” They said, “No, do you think you could? We like your style.”

Jack Gable:

I said, “Do you realize that I used to design automobiles? Do you realize that I fly to Pebble Beach to paint Bugatti's and Duesenbergs?” They had no idea. Then they said, “Can you or do you paint murals?” And I said, “Yes” having never painted a mural in my life. And they said, “This is perfect.” There's a funny story as to how I was asked to price murals, but I won't go into it because I was completely unaware of that side of the art business. But anyway, that first mural I did was an indoor mural on canvas. And it was 120 feet long by eight feet high for a company in Washington. And I got a lot of help and a lot of advice. And then other people would see it. And I ended up doing murals for Audi, and I do paintings for Ferrari and so on. And that's the automotive side. But since then, I've done many, many paintings that have nothing to do with automobiles, from portraits for the Smithsonian on commission, to the history of Washington, DC, to the history of the automobile at a museum in Detroit to any number of things. And some of them are six or seven feet wide, but not mural size. So I like to do both. And those are generally on canvas.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What's the difference between painting a smaller size and painting a larger size?

Jack Gable:

It's humorous. I mean, if you can picture a 20 by 30 sheet of watercolor or canvas in front of you, you have the full scope of it. You can get focused and involved in it. It's kind of thrilling and terrifying because we can all mess up a painting, but you're right there with it. When you're painting a mural, let's say it's a 40 foot mural. Let's say it's eight feet high. You're standing there at kind of a technical aspect, a foot from that mural, you can't see up, you can't see to the side or right or left, and it's more of something you just have to accomplish and you have to do it well, you have to do it technically well, but it is the completion of a commission. And because most artists don't do murals for themselves, some do, but then you can back away. I have a studio in Woolwich where I can back away about 25 feet and see whether I've messed up or not. But it's a completely different structure that you have to psych yourself into.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So that must be a very large space.

Jack Gable:

Yeah, it's pretty good size. The mural room is about 25 by 50. The whole studio is about 80 feet and I've had it for about 25 years.  The humor in it, of course is if you don't have a mural, you don't need the space, but you can't get rid of the space. And so far I've been lucky. I usually do a mural every couple of years, but since I'm there, I do the larger paintings too, because it's the same canvas. And then I'll do a watercolor at home in my home studio when I can.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So when you're creating a mural that's a commission, I'm assuming you would have to plan it out, sketch it out ahead of time, but then have it approved by the people that you're doing this for. 

Jack Gable:

You have to do research. Luckily I've been doing this for a while.  Luckily people are aware of the work that I do, so they seek me out because they are interested in the way I paint the style and the skill that I have, the way I paint. So now they will say, we've seen your work, pretty much go with it because we like what you do. Prior to that, we’d have to have long discussions so we would understand what each other would do. But I think now I have 14 or 15 murals in Washington, a couple in the Michigan area,  a couple in Europe, and so on. So it's a known entity but still I'm an artist and I have to make a living. And commissions put you in the space that you can be, if you're doing a small watercolor for yourself or whatever, but what I like is having control of my day.

Jack Gable:

I like the fact that I love a challenge. And so these commissions to me are one: necessary, and two: really interesting. I'm not a good sailor, but I've been to Australia and Sardinia with 12 meter sailors. It was the thrill of a lifetime. I’m not a good rower, but I've met a lot of great rowers and enjoyed the sport. And so my range of subject matter is as much based on life experiences as it is on, you know, pinholing as, you know, a certain subject matter. So, so far so good. I mean I’d still like to get back to just the watercolors, but that isn't, at this point.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Given the choice, what would you paint?

Jack Gable:

I still like  painting main subject matter. I still like painting people, quiet scenes. I always have been a Wyeth fan, but contemporary wise a Neil Welliver fan.  The great painters of the 19th century I've always been very enamored with. I'm a realist painter that, not to dwell on it, but I believe that skill is something that is important when you're a realist painter, not necessarily an abstract painter. And the patrons that I have appreciate that they can see it.  I know where my strengths are. I know where my weaknesses are, but skill is something that's important to me. So I try to create a piece that's personal and important to me and has artistic merits, but I try to do it, realism, in a skillful way. And so the subject can vary, but the application of my abilities is pretty much the same, whatever I paint.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Tell me about this piece that is in the studio behind us. It's not one of your larger pieces, because we have a smaller studio space, but it is a beautiful landscape, and you put the sailboats in the background. How would you describe it?

Jack Gable:

Well, this I did purely out of enjoyment. I wanted to create three pieces for a show I had recently at the Portland Art Gallery and I thought this size would be good. I originally was going to try to do more pieces, but I couldn't. So I thought I'd try to do something that had lovely light and mood and was more simplistic about Maine. So this is a piece that's somewhat designed to create a mood. I've seen many islands in Maine. I've lived in many different areas in Maine, on a bay where I presently live and I created this painting really involving a fog bank out of my head, but with lots of experience about what I've seen in Maine, and it's mildly abstract in a way, if you want to look at it, the simplicity of it. And I did a couple of other paintings that were a similar size that were more ethereal, kind of like this. And it was an experiment for me that I really enjoyed going into. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What originally brought you to Maine? What was the draw of the Southern part of the state?

Jack Gable:

It was that image of Maine, of Wyeth and Edward Hopper and Neil Welliver and so on. And as a designer, I lived in Bloomfield Hills at the time and in Michigan, I was still going to galleries and looking at art and reading books and so on. And when we sold our home in Bluefield Hills, for some reasons we had to search out an area in Maine that would make sense in terms of going from one home to another. In our case, it had to be the location of the house and the price of the piece because that's part of life. And we'd heard wonderful stories about Kennebunkport. So we went there, we looked around, we looked at Camden, and we thought that Kennebunkport was the most playful of those areas.

Jack Gable:

So we moved there and actually we've been in Woolwich for 30 years because we moved out of Kennebunkport. My children love Kennebunkport. They still play tennis at the river club, but we love Woolwich, it's a real town with BIW (Bath Iron Works) there. And, it's very interesting. The water is there. We're on a bay, it's more laid back and half the people on the road are from Princeton, New Jersey. So there's a huge range of people that we enjoy there, including some of the great folks that were living there for years and years just farming. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

How would you describe the difference between the beaches down in the Southern part of the state and up kind of on the mid coast where you are now?

Jack Gable:

Well, the access is different. Reid State Park, for instance, as you're coming out of a forested area and not everyone knows about it, and it's on a back road in a peninsula. Kennebunkport, Ogunquit, York, all of these are, let's say more touristy areas, but at the same time people have enjoyed their summer homes there and year round homes for years and years, but the beaches are more open access-wise.  There's more of a social atmosphere in the Southern part of Maine. I can't speak to Camden, but that's just a gorgeous harbor, but it's not really about a beach. It's more playful, maybe more youth there are engaged, more activities, more boats, schools, and so on, but coming from Michigan, which also is a big sailing area, there still was this huge transition about the east coast that we knew nothing about. So it was, it was great fun to go there, the beaches they do differ, but we have enjoyed both north and south areas.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And do you find that the water in the different places, Michigan, the Southern part of Maine, mid-coast part of Maine has influenced the art that you've done?

Jack Gable:

No more, more the land than the water. I mean, in Michigan, you're talking about clear water, not salt water.  I didn't do a lot of painting in Michigan.  I was designing automobiles. I didn't really get into serious painting until I moved to Maine. And of course, then I was the 35 year old newbie with an art education, but like most artists I was influenced by lots of people that were more famed than anything. Because that's the access that I had. And yet my nature was realism. So that narrowed the focus. I appreciate contemporary art and abstract and everything else, German expressionism, but I'm a hopeless realist, so that's what I tend to go to. And as far as portraiture looking at the great painters from the more profound, supposedly Thomas Akins to the incredibly talented John Singer Sargent to the bizarre Lucian Freud paintings, you just have a whole range of things to be influenced by. And eventually I just evolved into my own style. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So I would imagine as a 35 year olds who's married with a family making that leap from the safety of designing to full-time art. 

Jack Gable:

It was a funny start. I've occasionally had these questions. My wife at the time was also an artist; she was involved with a high-end corporate interior design group. They even worked on the world trade center years ago, out of Michigan. And the truth is that I had enough confidence, which is hard to rationalize, but I had been treated well, had done well enough at a decent level that I didn't really think it through very much. It wasn't terrifying. We thought, well, let's go do this. And in retrospect, somehow I will look back and say, my God, how did we ever have the courage to do that? Except it wasn't courage. It was just almost a lark and it's been kind of a gift. She was a lovely person. We had three children, she was a well-known artist in this area, a pastel artist. She recently passed away. I've been married to my present wife, Bobby for 30 years. Bobby is also an artist, she is very creative and restores oil paintings. So this whole thing has been a gift of an adventure. I see my children often, they come with us and it's just been a really lovely life for the last 40 years. Really. We're glad we did it.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

My understanding is that Bobby also does a lot of your framing.

Jack Gable:

She used to, my framing style appears to be changing recently. So I'm not sure. mostly what we do is she works in her garden and we go on sports car rides. So everything changes and she's certainly capable of that. And she's certainly capable of a serious critique of my work and I accept it and she saves me on many occasions. So there you go.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I'm good friends with one of your children, your daughter, Kate, Katherine. Yes. I call her Kate. Yes, the red head and her wonderful husband and her two little boys. And she's an artist and a designer really in her own right.

Jack Gable:

So, well, Kate grew up with a couple of artist  parents, two boys grew up the same way. They were all going to be artists. They didn't end up doing that. Kate went to Savannah College of Art, got a degree in industrial design and got into doing interior design with an architectural firm in New York City for a couple of years. Then she came up here and got involved in working at the Portland Art Gallery, which she enjoyed, a magazine prior to that. And then she got into boat design, interior design and has just kind of exploded and she loves it. She's very personable, loves to travel. It's kind of interesting watching Joe, who does high-end cabinetry work at his own firm, watching them juggle all this along with two young gentlemen.  I'm frankly amazed at their energy level, but I think I sort of remember it from the past, at my end, but that was a while ago.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And Kate also has been involved in kind of making sure that your art career in Maine moves forward.

Jack Gable:

 I have for years after I had an agent John Patient who I'd shown with in New York and Hobe Sound, Florida and all over. He was from a well-known art family and we got along splendidly and John went and died on me about three or four years ago, which is part of life. And Kate said, “Well, dad if you need  an agent on the side, galleries are important, but I'd like to kind of get involved with that” and who am I to complain? So she's lifted the load off of me to a degree for my end of the work. Plus I said yes, immediately, because who wouldn't want to work with their daughter? So she's involved in that way. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And how has it been to work with your daughter? I mean, I have a father who's in the field that I'm in and I enjoy it. And also we sometimes don't always see eye to eye. 

Jack Gable:

Well, with humor, I will say Kate is very capable, very straightforward, and has no problem in stating her ideas about everything. But fortunately to Kate, when it becomes our relationship, I'm still dad. And I love it because she, on a professional level, takes care of what I need, strictly business, but we have this wonderful father, child relationship, although Kate is hardly a child, but you can imagine what I'm talking about. So, it couldn't be better. So there you go.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

As someone who's seen his art evolve over the years, from a more focused on the design that you were doing, when you were employed to the work that you like to do now, do you see a direction? You've talked about watercolors. Is there something you'd like to explore next?

Jack Gable:

Yeah, as much as I will never give up commissions because I love the experiences in the interaction with people, but I guess my opinion is I should probably be retired by now, but if I was retired, I’d paint, so forgive me, but I might as well get paid for it. So I do that, but on my own, if I get even older, which I'm looking forward to, I would be in my studio at home, still doing paintings of Maine or whatever comes to mind, but with more of an ethereal feel that I just would move into emotionally. I still do it. In fact, you can't create a painting that you can let go, unless you're serious about it, unless you try very hard and unless you're satisfied with it. So anything I do, I do my best.

Jack Gable:

It's only years later that I might run into something that I did in the past. Then I might look at it and say, well, I guess I would like to have done that a little differently, but that's when it catches you completely off guard. So when I'm into a painting, regardless of the reason I'm into it, because I want to do a good job and I want to feel like an artist. I want that ethereal, joyful feeling. That is the so-called artist stereotype, where you're doing something that you have a natural ability to do, but you feel fortunate to make a living doing it. So you're grateful at the same time, you're in a position to be having that kind of a lifestyle. So it shows in the work and the painting, as far as just my own personal style, I like to play up light, atmosphere, and drama. And I'm, I suppose, known for that. But if it's tight realism, it's very obvious. If it's a subtle watercolor, it can be obvious, but it's more subtle, it's softer, but there's still light in the atmosphere, even if it's a face in a field because I need that light rather than just a lack or a bland atmosphere, at least in my view.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Does it take any kind of repositioning of your brain or your approach to go from a more realism based piece to something more ethereal?

Jack Gable:

Yeah, but, but another example, I was asked not to go back to it, but I just completed a painting of Martin Luther king who had written the, “I Have a Dream” speech at the Willard Hotel. And so that was to be a professionally painted portrait, pure realism, but it had to have a mood because think of that speech that was in the early sixties it was a profound speech. He had toured the country with his obvious interests, but this was a special moment for him. And they wanted a certain feel that somehow portrayed a wistful, hopeful attitude. Now, given that speech, we can look back or forward and surmise where it went one way or the other, but I wanted to bring into my mind how to do that. And it wasn't just a technical feat by any means, because when you're doing a portrait, you need to portray something, someone that looks as they should, but you want some atmosphere and mood and spirit to it. So you have to do both. And that's what I try to do. So I wouldn't say in my case, anything I'm painting my head is generally in the same space. It's just that, what am I trying to paint? And what does that require? Sometimes it's for me and sometimes it's for someone else, but I still have to be satisfied or I'd be terrified to show it to someone if I don't like it. And I think it's a failure, then someone else would too, you know? 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Not every artist likes to do commissions. And for you, you described it as a way to make a living.

Jack Gable:

It's called bring it on. I love it because the automotive field was highly competitive, very, very talented people, young guys at the time. Some women have been there now, and they're very good, but a lot of ego this design center was an absolute show place. They treated us like little princes because they thought we were artists and we were sensitive and we needed to be treated well, but in truth, most of us were drag racing on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. And we're just a bunch of guys and athletes. So we thought that was very funny, but what I'm talking about, it was a very aggressive environment. And so it was always a challenge. And how can I do this? Or how can I do this best? So when I would get a call later to do these commissions, it was, yeah, I think I can do that.

Jack Gable:

And where are we going? You know, and who am I going to meet? And I, for instance one time I'd never been to the Indy 500 and for Roger Penske and they were about to win the Indy 500 and Philip Morris was backing them. And they flew me to the middle of the Indy 500. And I was in the pits watching these races. Now that was cars and I love cars, but it could have been anything. And you leave that and you think, wow, was that ever an amazing experience? And then you have to do the painting, but they're separate, but not because it's all involved and when you're thrilled to be in a situation. Imagine being on a 12 meter sailboat in the America's cup when they're there pre-racing, other boats, just imagine you're with the best sailors in the world and you're there.

Jack Gable:

And, of course, you have your camera because there's water, you're not standing there doing a sketch, but it's just unbelievable. And then to see the huge yachts that surround these America's Cup courses from all over the world, so that they can watch these races,  it's just an amazing experience and you meet people. And so that to me is the motivation, the skill to be able to paint gets me there. So I'm dead serious about painting, but it's more than just that, you can't be afraid to pick up a telephone. You can't be so isolated. If it's the way you want it to just put yourself in a room and do still lifes as many people are doing, they're far better at it than I am, and they should do that. But that's just not where I came from.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, Jack, I'm really thrilled that you were willing to come and talk to me today about all the different aspects of your career over the years. And I know that people will enjoy watching.

Jack Gable:

I appreciate the opportunity. It's fun. It's been fun.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I hope that people will take the time to look up your work on the Portland Art Gallery website and go to the Portland Art Gallery and learn more about you. And maybe, I don't know, go to the Smithsonian and see some of your pieces down there. 

Jack Gable:

Well, it's a great gallery in Portland, and I appreciate showing there and we love Maine. So all I can say is that it is great.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I love Maine too. I've been speaking with artist, Jack Gable, who is represented by the Portland Art Gallery and also is a long-time artist in his own right. I hope that you take the opportunity to learn more about his work. I'm pretty sure you'll love his work as much as I do. You've been listening to Radio Maine and I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle.