John Collias is not the sort of artist to apply high-falutin' terms to his work. Once, while riding a bus into downtown Boise for his regular outing for coffee with friends, the driver asked him what he did. When Collias said he was an artist, the driver said, "So, you're a scribbler." Rather than correct him, Collias has since declared that he is beginning a new phase in art, which he calls "Scribblism."
But after more than 60 years of scribbling up some of Idaho's most prominent citizens and its most evocative landscapes, Collias finally has an exhibit all his own. "Boise's Own John Collias: A Life in the Studio," is at the Idaho Historical Museum. The exhibit was assembled and directed by Collias's grandson, BW's own Nicholas Collias, and features about 50 paintings, drawings and illustrations by the elder Collias from the 1940s through the 21st century. His career began in 1942, when he began drawing cartoons for the Gowen Field military newspaper, The Gowen Field Beacon. From 1962 through 1995, he drew the weekly "Portrait of a Distinguished Citizen" for the Idaho Statesman.
You've had a very different kind of artist's career, with all your various jobs. It belies the stereotype of the artist laboring in obscurity.
I'm not going to give you a lecture on what I think art is. I don't know myself. I enjoy what I've done, because I've done it forever. I don't know anything else. I'm a misfit. I don't have a beard or run around with all these good-looking women. I'm a misfit.
I've been getting so much publicity, I don't like myself any more. I've always stood behind my drawings, you know? People knew the drawing. I was in a place one time, and a guy was looking at the drawings, and I looked over his shoulder and I said, "That drawing stinks." And he said, "No, it doesn't."
How did you get your start at the Gowen Field newspaper?
I was in a medical corps. I was doing a portrait of a guy, a male nurse. He said, "You know, they're starting up a newspaper here. Why don't you go over?"
So I went over. It was on a Sunday afternoon. You're supposed to go through your first sergeant, but I didn't. I broke the rules. They said, "Do you do editorial cartoons?" I said, "Oh, yeah." I never did one in my life. God was with me. [The sergeant] said, "Here's a piece of paper, sit down and draw." So I drew. And I drew Hitler, and that swastika thing. How it came out, I don't know. But it came out. He [said], "Well, this is what we want. We'll transfer you over."
I also was overseas in intelligence. I drew maps. I painted some insignias on planes. And I was writing love letters to my wife, who was my sweetheart then, every day, so I didn't go into town and get drunk like everybody else did. I did portraits there at night. I did that until the war ended.
You're known for your portraits of Idaho's governors, as well. How did that start?
That started with "The Distinguished Citizen" at the Idaho Statesman. One of my first commissions was for a portrait of Gov. [Robert E.] Smylie. My exposure from the Statesman did that. I worked with a lot of great photographers and a lot of great writers. Dave Frazier, Tom Shanahan, Katherine Jones.
I did [the portraits] in black and white, because they didn't want half tones in the reproduction. Doing them on coquille board gives you a clear reproduction. You get whites, grays and blacks. With a grease pencil, so it won't smear. I developed a touch. When I came out of school, I was painting in oils.
I was doing all kinds of paintings, and nudes. But to me, it's all whites, reds, blue and that. You get to the point where you get sick and tired of doing them. You want to stick them in a pirate costume or a cowboy outfit.
That grease pencil and coquille board style sounds awfully committing, with the risk of getting one thing wrong.
Oh, let me tell you. Each stroke has to be done so it stays above the level on the dot [on the board]. When you get heavy, it floods, and then you get your blacks. I wanted to get about five tones of grey, as much as possible. It's very hard to erase, so you start very lightly, then you build up.
I guess you could almost call it a glazing medium.
What was it like to have these governors sit for you?
Gov. Smylie was the only one who sat for me. The others were photographed for me. With "The Distinguished Citizen," we tried to recognize volunteers, who had done things in this community.
I used to be an artist-reporter, [for a section called] "Round About The Boise Valley." It was a weekly thing, for two years. Then they stopped it.
I went back to Chicago and didn't come back for 10 years.
I did freelance work. When you've got a project on the board, that's great. But when you haven't got one, you're out of work.
I came back the second time because my father-in-law went blind, and he wanted me to be a cowboy. I [was] feeding the cattle early in the morning, with the wind blowing in [my] face and eating up all that hay. I was eating most of it.
I was walking down the street and saw Jim Brown, who was the publisher of the Statesman. He published my stuff previously. He said, "Come on down and see if we can't keep you busy." By golly, I didn't want anything better than that.
You joked about being a slob. Isn't it true that a lot of the paintings in your exhibit were found stacked up around your property?
I would do a painting because I wanted to, or it was a potential job, and then I would just put it away someplace, because there was a next job. The good thing about working for the Statesman was they gave me a weekly paycheck. I was able to do other things. I did all the hall of famers for the Allan Noble center. I designed the logo for the football field.
Now I'm doing as much as I can. I was very sick here, in 2002. I was paralyzed for six months. My eyes went bad. I ruined a couple of paintings because I was trying to work on them in the garage.
"I've done enough," I say to myself. I'm not going to paint a Sistine Chapel.
MacArthur said, "Old soldiers never die." I say, old artists never die. They just nicely fade away. Maybe if I can get enough energy to play four or five holes of golf once in a while, that's about it. As long as my wife is healthy, what else could there be?
"Boise's Own John Collias: A Life in the Studio," is at the Historical Museum through February 13. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $1 for children ages 6-18 and $2 for adults. Admission to the museum is FREE from 5 to 9 p.m. on First Thursday, February 1. 610 N. Julia Davis Dr., Boise, (208)334-2120.