Greenwich artist Fred Mason’s work on display
GREENWICH — There aren’t many artists who can say their work hangs in boardrooms, faculty offices and family dens — as well as the Pentagon and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Over a wide-ranging career, Fred Mason has been painting everything from family pets to Navy ships to industry titans. Part of the legendary circle of artists, cartoonists and illustrators who spent their careers in the Greenwich area that included Jerry Dumas, John Cullen Murphy and Mort Walker, Mason is still going strong.
The artist is also getting some exposure in his own home town this month: a retrospective of his work is being exhibited at the Beaux Art Gallery of the Round Hill Community Church.
Mason said he can’t recall a time when he wasn’t drawing or sketching something. Growing up in Utah, he recalled, “I started drawing about the age of 5, and I can remember my mother telling me: ‘quit drawing, go outside, and play.’”
An uncle, working in the advertising business, encouraged his interest in painting, and he studied art in college and worked in the art department at a Salt Lake City daily newspaper. He also apprenticed with a sign painter and learned the value of precision when he misspelt the name of a company logo, earning the wrath of his boss.
Mason decided to enlist in the armed forces during the Korean War rather than get drafted, and he ended up a junior officer in the Navy. His artistic talents were soon recognized, and Mason went on to paint the images of Navy ships all over the world.
His military record also got him into some interesting places. He flew in the backseat of a fighter-bomber piloted by one of the major aviation figures of the wartime Vietnam era, Robin Olds, who gave him a brief lecture on what he had to do in case they needed to eject from the plane. Mason also painted the launch of Apollo 11 at Cape Canaveral in Florida, the first successful manned flight to the moon in 1969.
Like many talented illustrators, the artist raised out West decided to come East. He was drawn to the design studios and ad agencies of Gotham, where dreams of glamour and opulence were created by a crop of highly skilled commercial painters.
“I wanted to see if I could play with the big boys,” Mason said.
Mason crossed paths with a young Andy Warhol, who also started as a commercial illustrator before achieving fame as a pop artist. “I was fascinated by him - he was so quiet and introspective. A voyeur and an observer. And he really wanted to become a famous artist,” Mason recalled.
Mason settled in Greenwich in 1956, in part because his wife, Sue, who died last year, had family in the area. He also came to enjoy the support and friendship of other arts professionals in the region.
After illustrating print ads for cars and food products, Mason eventually found his métier in portrait painting.
Like Rockwell, he’s adept at painting kids. As a father of three himself, he’s the first to acknowledge it’s a challenge to paint youngsters, but a rewarding one --“they’re lively and fun to be around.”
When he paints a portrait, he gets to know the subject, aiming to capture a person’s essence.
“The most important thing that I’m looking for is who they are. It’s trying to capture the feelings, the spirit, the personality. Obviously, you have to do a good likeness. But you have to get to know them,” the artist said.
Typically, Mason will do a sketch and several color versions of a portrait as the process unfolds, “getting to know the person, what makes them click.”
On view at the Round Hill gallery, the portraits tell small stories about the subjects of Mason’s painterly gaze. They include a number of clergy at the church, of which Mason is a member.
The Rev. Ed Horstmann, pastor of the church, said he’s a fan and enjoys what Mason did with his own portrait on the wall at the church.
“I walk past it every day, and can say it does me justice,” he said with a laugh.
Horstmann said Mason was an inspiration, in both his outlook and his artistic skill.
“Wonderful man, and he takes great pleasure in devoting his life to the things he loves doing,” the minister said.
Others also find his work compelling. Mason has painted 20 members of the same extended family, and he’s planning to finish the last portrait in the family series in coming weeks.
Mason had to undergo stomach surgery recently and take a short hiatus from his labors, but he’s itching to get back to the easel. With clear blue eyes and agile hands that fidget when he tells a story, Mason has many more canvases to cover.
“I’m anxious to get back to it - and I will,” he said. “I’m certainly not ready to hang it up. To me, it’s not work, it’s really who I am.”