by Shauna Grissett, photos by Candra George
I ARRIVE EARLY for my interview with the renowned painter, Billy Solitario. While I wait on the porch of Studio Solitario on Magazine Street, I flip through the postcards printed with reproductions of the artist’s work left for passersby. Crab Claw with Tattoo, oil on canvas, catches my eye and I look, really look, at the striking image. The seemingly ordinary becomes exceptional: the claw’s many beautiful colors, its spiky angular ridges juxtaposed to its curves, the glossy patina … its teeth. I continue to gaze at the image and the seemingly endless shades of blue blend and morph into each other.
Dressed casually in shorts and a baseball cap, Solitario soon appears and warmly welcomes me into the spacious front room of the renovated shotgun, which serves as the artist’s gallery. The cool off-white walls are covered in still lifes, landscapes, figural works and small studies. There are many depictions of seascapes, and I can practically taste the mollusk’s briny edge as I view the large canvases. Solitario’s paintings display a strong sense of composition and craftsmanship and are commanding in their presence.
Solitario is outgoing and straightforward when he talks about his work and motivation. There are no complex narratives, despite the expert and intricate use of color, perspective and spatial cues in his paintings. “I was born in California but was raised on the Gulf Coast, in Gautier, Mississippi. We moved there when I was a little kid. I love nature—it’s the inspiration for all of my work. And, I also love the Gulf Coast. I always knew that I wanted to paint it. But, I wanted to know how to paint what I saw; that was really important to me. So, the first part of my career was devoted to learning how to paint.”
The artist attended the University of South Florida in Tampa and received his bachelor’s in painting in 1994. “I had a great time. But I discovered that most of my professors didn’t know how to draw or paint—they were products of the 1950s and 1960s, when representational art had practically died out and abstract expressionism was what everybody was doing. No one knew how to draw any longer.”
After he graduated from college, Solitario moved to New Orleans. “I was drawn to Auseklis Ozols to learn the craft of painting. Auseklis held out during the 1960s and stuck to realism. He understands and is able to teach the disciplines of painting and the virtues that come from the hard work of truly looking at the beauty that surrounds us. He knew the physical act of rubbing pigment onto the canvas.” Ozols founded the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts in 1978 and currently serves as director and as an instructor at the Academy. In 1997, Solitario was awarded the prestigious Gwendolyn Ozols Scholarship at the Academy and studied painting full-time.
Fortuitously, while Solitario was at the Academy, the Sylvia Schmidt Gallery (now closed) asked for their three students to fill-in for an artist who had canceled. The up-and-coming painter was asked to be in the show. “I sold a lot of pieces and realized that I could actually make a living at this. How fun is that!” Solitario recounts this story exuberantly, as if he just realized he could support himself by painting for the first time. He eventually moved to the LeMieux Gallery, where he has remained ever since. Solitario went on to earn his master’s from Tulane University in 2003. Never far away from the academic environment, he teaches a class in portrait painting at the Academy every semester. And the artist can frequently be found there as a student in the open figure drawing classes. Solitario’s early training consisted of figure drawing, among many other things, and he has a particular fondness for it. He sells his pen-and-ink gesture studies at his studio, and the sketches reflect his mastery over the human form.
His light-filled atelier on Magazine Street is where Solitario paints as well as sees clients by appointment. Not only is his workspace sunny but, it’s organized, something that isn’t always expected of creative types. “I am really into efficiency and getting things done. If you are going to make a go of painting for a living, then you have to paint constantly. When I go on vacation with my family, I fill up sketchbooks the entire time I’m away.” Solitario lives in New Orleans with his wife, Nici, and their ten-year-old son, Enzo. He continues, “We are going back to Venice this year. I love Italy, I’m Italian!” The artist has a boyish fervor about not only his painting but about seemingly everything in his life.
Our cover painting, Sunset on Horn Island, depicts the two most powerful themes in Solitario’s work: nature and the Gulf Coast. Both were cultivated in his youth, from his early experiences along the Gulf Coast and on Horn Island. “Our house was right on the Mississippi Sound and I had a dream childhood. I grew up like a little wild kid, barefoot, no shirt and running around the woods. Horn Island is one of my favorite places. It was just seven miles off shore from where I lived.”
As the painter talks about Horn Island with youthful animation, it’s as if he’s lost in his own daydream, “As a kid, it was so cool to have this island just over the horizon. Four or five of us would sail there in a skiff or a sailboat, and it was our own private island. We’d pretend to be pirates!”
Solitario always sketched from as far back as he can remember. “I drew constantly. Perhaps I was just a tiny bit better than the guy next to me at school in terms of natural talent. But the difference was I drew constantly, and the more I drew the better I became and the more motivated I became. I was always interested in drawing what I was seeing, the visual world in front of me rather than drawing creatively, out of my head.” Drawing did something else for Solitario—it helped him combat his reading disabilities. “I had dyslexia, and drawing was my escape. Exercising that part of my brain helped me with the dyslexia; it kind of rewired my brain and propelled me into the visual world.”
“Contemporary Realism” is how Solitario describes his painting. “It’s tighter than Impressionism but looser than Photo Realism.” He paints landscapes on site and then finishes the canvases in his studio from photographs. “You have to work really fast on site to get the colors, the clouds and the sky down. My favorite place to go is The Fly, looking out on the river.” In terms of subject matter, clouds are currently of particular interest to Solitario. “I love clouds. The clouds and the sky are often my substitute for nature in the city.”
The painter’s newest venture is a cookbook, On the Coast: Mississippi Tales and Recipes by Troy Gilbert and Matthew Mayfield, art by Billy Solitario. “I did the cookbook with my best friend, Matthew, who is a CIA-trained (Culinary Institute of America) chef. We grew up on the island together. The writer is a relatively new friend of ours.” The book is a well-edited collection of photographs, quotes, Solitario’s beautiful art and Mississippi stories; it is available at Amazon, in local bookstores and at Solitario’s studio.
Billy Solitario has spent years training and refining his painting skills to become the master he is today, and his success is well earned. As for his future plans, he says, “I am starting to work with bigger brushes, and I am getting looser and looser. Hopefully, I will be an abstract expressionist by the time I am sixty! Why not? I could be! I still love nature, and I still love the figure and being out in nature, but as I get older I could see myself just falling in love with the color blue and painting only blue. I am open to anything. I love painting, and I love people who paint. Who knows where I am going with it? As long as you are being true to yourself you are winning.”
Studio Solitario is located at 4531 Magazine St. 905-4175. BillySolitario.com. Solitario’s next show will be at the LeMieux Gallery from November 20, 2017, through January 2, 2018, with an opening reception on December 2, 2017. The Lemieux Gallery is located at 332 Julia St., 504-522-5988. Solitario’s paintings are in the permanent collections of the Ogden Museum of Art, the New Orleans Academy of Fine Art and the Whitney National Bank, among many others.