ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) — George Kehew believes that creativity is one of the keys to longevity. He should know; he just turned 93 and is still actively working as an artist.
Based in LaVerkin, Kehew is now best known as an acrylic painter, focusing on landscapes that have a geometric, almost science fiction style to them. But throughout his professional career in California and his 35 years of retirement in southern Utah, he has explored a variety of mediums and styles, from wispy watercolors and technical industrial design to comic strips and even foam art.
He began writing instructional art books in his 80s and he still shows new work in two St. George locations, the Arrowhead Gallery and Art and Soul Gallery & Gifts. The Arrowhead Gallery at the Electric Theater Center is operated as a co-op so Kehew and his wife, Dorie — who is also in her 90s — work there at least three days each month.
"Art consumes your life," he says.
Yet all that creativity also keeps him going, giving purpose to his sunset years.
Kehew's introduction to art came as a child when he began tracing cartoons. During his teenage years he began to paint watercolors. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he used the G.I. Bill to attend Art Center and gain the skills necessary to become a professional artist.
Following his schooling, Kehew found a career as a technical artist for industrial companies. Rather than painting lush landscapes or kid-friendly cartoons, he was creating detailed depictions of machine parts.
"You had to know how to render aluminum to make it look different than steel," he says.
He still found an outlet for his love of cartoons. When their children were young, the Kehews had a blackboard in their room and George would use it for collaborative art projects with the kids.
The projects began with Kehew drawing little squiggles on the board. Together they would try to see images in the abstract shapes. The shapes eventually took on personalities, becoming the whimsical creatures his daughter named "Groinks."
His experiment with Groinks influenced a whole style of whimsical art he explored on and off throughout his career. One whimsical painting called "Rapture of the Deep" features sea lions playing music on a variety of horns. It's full of life and color.
"This is the fun part of art," Kehew says.
Yet even whimsical ocean scenes like this have a basis in reality. At one point Kehew worked as art director for an oceanographic group. They were analyzing a cubic mile of the ocean so he learned the technical aspects of painting the sea. As a result, he began selling quite a few seascapes.
For a time, Kehew also sold many of his serious paintings as part of the Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art. The actor, known for his roles in horror films, was also an avid art collector and held a degree in art history from Yale.
Price started the collection in 1962 as a way to sell fine art prints. He either selected or commissioned the pieces himself, including art work by Rembrandt, Picasso, Dali . and Kehew.
"When I was painting for Vincent Price I did small watercolors," Kehew says.
During that time, Kehew painted six or seven pieces each month for the Vincent Price collection. Among his memorabilia is a letter from Price, thanking him for his work and saying he remembers "with adoration" Kehew's "very fine paintings."
The notoriety from his inclusion in the Vincent Price Collection also resulted in commissions from all over the country. He also showed his work in a number of California galleries through the years. Currently, though, he is only represented by two local galleries, including Art and Soul Gallery & Gifts, housed at Print It in St. George.
"George was one of my very first artists," says Anita Wotkyns, owner of Art and Soul. "We actually have one of his paintings in our house. I just love him."
Wotkyns says she loves the variety of Kehew's work, from his whimsical Groinks to the detailed machinery parts. She also simply enjoys the artist himself.
"It's so fun to talk with him and hear about his life experiences," she says. "I just think that he's wonderful."
Gallery at home
The Kehews' LaVerkin home doubles as both an art studio and art gallery. He has converted one of the bedrooms into a studio and his paintings cover the walls of nearly every other room.
Many of the paintings hanging in his home are either award winners or his wife's personal favorites.
"I have very good taste," Dorie declares. "I choose all the really good ones."
She has her own creative talents as well. Kehew says his wife is a talented knitter who has won prizes for her work. Some of them also hang in their home gallery.
"She does incredible things," he says of her knitting. "We've been married 70 years and she's always been with me and my art."
"I have to push him sometimes," she adds.
One of the first pieces of art you'll see when entering the Kehew home is an undersea landscape sculpted out of foam. The foam pieces begin as blocks of blue or gray. He then shapes and paints them with a water-based acrylic to create the art.
More of Kehew's foam creations are found on the back patio. Among them are a couple of water fountains.
When he first began working in foam he was looking for reference books on the subject. Unable to find any, he decided to write his own series of books about foam art.
"By the way, I did this when I was 88 years old," he says. "So you're never too old."
He has also created a few children's books, writing and illustrating them. And he created a book of cartoons based on adventures he and his wife had while traveling throughout the United States with their fifth-wheel trailer after they retired.
He also combined his interest in illustrating books and a concern for the natural world when he produced a coloring book for Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab.
Art as advocacy
Hanging in one of the Kehews' bedroom galleries is a painting that depicts a cracking landscape.
"This world is coming apart," he says. "It's about where we are today. Our environment's gone to hell."
He doesn't just paint landscapes; he also advocates for them.
When he was living in California, he became aware of plans to pave over a marsh and build an industrial complex in its place. Kehew decided to fight the plans by writing an article about the marsh and illustrating it with his own depictions of life in the marsh.
"The pen is strong," he says of his advocacy for the marsh. "We can't just tear up everything."
In the end, his campaign was successful with the help of others who joined the fight. The construction project never happened.
"I guess that's the best thing I ever did in my life," he says of saving the marsh.
Kehew also used his art to protest the Vietnam War, creating political cartoons that appeared in magazines and other publications. He used his own military service in the South Pacific during World War II as a basis for his beliefs in protesting the conflict in Vietnam.
It wasn't popular to protest the war. He says many who did so were considered communists. But he knew a little something about war from his own service and was concerned about his sons being drafted to fight in a conflict he did not believe was justified.
"It was a slaughterhouse," he says of Vietnam. "I saw that from the beginning. So I used my cartoons to protest."
The Vietnam War wasn't his only exploration of controversial subject matter. Among his projects through the years was an ongoing syndicated political cartoon called "Hamalot," which found a home in 32 newspapers.
"Hamalot" featured pig characters in medieval times but commented on the politics of the day. Kehew believes many of his "Hamalot" cartoons are still relevant today.
"History repeats itself," he says. "We keep making the same damn mistakes."
Even with Kehew's landscape paintings there is often a story. One called "Desert Resurrection" was inspired by a trip to Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, where he saw a small shrub trying to eke out a living in a nearly barren landscape.
"Here was this one, tiny, green piece of life coming up — this one arrogant little plant," he says.
Others tell stories of experiences he and Dorie have had through the years. A painting on display at the Arrowhead Gallery called "Flash Flood" was inspired by a visit to Capitol Reef National Park years ago when an actual flash flood nearly swept their car away.
Kehew continues to find new scenes to paint as he explores the area around his home. Still an avid cyclist, the artist says he rides about 5 miles each day.
Often he will ride his bike around the surrounding mesas for half a day, camera in hand, as he looks for something to paint, even if it's just the patterns created by cracking mud.
It may be different from the seascapes of his professional career in California, but Kehew has grown to appreciate the southern Utah landscape of his retirement years.
"I miss the sea but, doggone it, the desert has a lot of charm," he says.
Information from: The Spectrum, http://www.thespectrum.com
Copyright (2016) Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
This article was written by Brian Passey from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.