A conversation with George Allen Durkee


When I stopped last summer to watch George Allen Durkee painting in San Francisco, I knew I'd discovered a different kind of artist. Durkee is the Coca Cola of urban painters - the real thing. His paintings are so energetic, so full of life, that I wanted to discover just how it is that this solitary painter, standing alone on an ordinary street corner, could conjure up such inspiration. Last October, I met with George and recorded to my delight the following conversation...Rex Lampman

Rex: Okay, George, let's start with something easy. How did you get started painting? Have you always painted?

George: Actually, I started late. Or at least at the time I thought it was late. I was twenty-five when I first tried painting. I wasn't very good at it, but I got interested.

Rex: So how did you develop your craft? Did you go to school?

George: No, I never went to art school. Back in the mid-sixties, there was this ad for a correspondence course that you'd see in the backs of magazines. I signed up for it. I learned to paint through the mail.

Rex: That's amazing. So... how did you translate a mail order education into your current lifestyle? ...you're one of the most successful artists in California. That seems like a long reach.

George: (Laughs) Well, I guess it was a stretch. But I was young enough that I didn't know what couldn't be done. I suppose I got lucky. It took about eight years, but people started buying my paintings. I quit my job in 1975, and I haven't worked for anyone since.

Rex: So let's talk about the paintings. I'm curious to know how it is that you're able to get them to express such energy. What is it you do in your paintings that other artists don't do?

George: Well, let's see... I like my paintings to make a lot of noise, so when I paint I just tune in to the commotion that's going on around me. I get myself worked up, I get excited.

Rex: Okay, suppose you're on the sidewalk and you're going to paint a painting... Where do you begin? What do you do?

George: To start with, I just stand and look for a while. At some point I'll see my painting. Actually, it's more like a vague notion of a painting than a real clear vision, because when you come right down to it, you've gotta let the painting do what it wants to do. If you try to force it in one direction or another, it feels forced.

I usually let my picture expand out of what happens around me while I'm working. A lot can happen on a street corner, there's a lot of activity. I might not paint it all, but I want the feel of it.

Once I dive into the paint, I let the splatters and drips land where they land. Once a brush-stroke is there, it's there. I just keep going forward. You start messing with the paint, trying to fix things, and you get a picture that looks like it's trying too hard.

Rex: You seem to enjoy painting in a crowd. With all the distractions, isn't it hard to concentrate?

George: Well I don't think of it as distracting, Rex, I think of it as rowdy background music. Sometimes I need to step out of someone's way, or maybe I just get banged into. It's really a juggling act - a dance. I just shift my mind from one thing to another and back again. If I get interrupted, I'm not too concerned about it. You can paint big parts of a painting while your attention is somewhere else. This idea that you've got to control and manipulate every brush-stroke is someone else's notion of how to paint.

Rex: Your paintings look like you paint them pretty fast. How long does it actually take you to paint a painting?

George: Till it's finished. Two days, two weeks. There's no formula.

Rex: Well how do you know when a painting is finished? How do you know when to stop?

George: (Laughs) When I see that if I keep going I'll screw it up, it's time to stop. I try not fix things that don't need fixing. I read somewhere about musician who said that an album is never finished, it's just abandoned. I kind of see painting the same way. There's always some little thing more you can do, and then one more thing. The trick is not to do it. The truth is, I just lose interest at some point.

Rex: I understand that you don't show in galleries these days. How come? How do you make a living?

George: Over all, I've gotten along pretty well with art dealers, I don't have many horror stories to tell. They've promoted my art, kicked in for framing, sold my paintings and paid me on time. But the thing was that I felt cut off from the very people I was painting for, I couldn't track where my art went, I couldn't connect with the people who took my paintings home. And that's important to me because it completes the circle.

And I like the folks, they help me know that I'm doing something worth doing. I like the smiles, the handshakes, the cards at Christmas. I like filling out the invoices and taking the checks to the bank. Why hand my life's work over to someone else and smother my applause? Besides, I'm a better salesman.

Rex: So you don't need the dealers anymore.

George: Well, I'd characterize it differently, Rex. I just like the way I do it better. I feel more like a complete person.

Rex: Okay, I'll buy that. So once you finish a painting, how do you decide how much to charge for it?

George: At some point, it does get around to the money, doesn't it? Well, let's see... I've just developed an intuitive sense over the years for how many dollars my paintings are worth. Or at least for how much they'll bring in the marketplace. My better work always sells first, even for more money. Which shows that people who buy art aren't into shopping around for the best deal. You can buy a painting for less, but not this painting. You run into a painting that hits you between the eyes and you say, "Wow, I've gotta own this!" Then you ask how much it is.

One thing I don't do is negotiate over my prices. Once I decide how much I want for a particular painting, that's it. I expect to be compensated for what I do. The price I put on a painting is how much it'll take to get me to part with it. It's a matter of honoring my value and my worth.

Instead of looking at how much a painting costs, I try to encourage people to focus on what they're getting. It's a work of art, a special treasure. A few years from now, when you're still finding things in it that you never noticed before, you don't think about how much you paid for it, you just say, "I love this painting! I wouldn't part with it for any price!"

Rex: Before we wrap this up, George, tell me... you seem to have achieved a level of success that most artists only dream of... What's next? What do you aspire to?

George: Oh wow!... (Laughs) Well, let's see... I like where I live, I like the people in my life and I like my line of work... A museum show would be nice.

Truthfully? I feel like I haven't painted my best paintings yet. And I want to do that. I want to paint my best work, ya know?. I wanna paint that body of work that is... my work. And maybe everything I've done up until now has just been training, I couldn't say...