Painting the energy of the streets
December 19, 2014 § 1 Comment
By JENNIFER BLOT
The destiny of artist Veerakeat Tongpaiboon had a lot to do with the windows of Academy of Art University’s Sutter Street gallery in downtown San Francisco.
Though he’s now a nationally recognized cityscape painter, the first time he walked by the gallery nearly 25 years ago, he was a waiter and recent emigrant from Thailand. Captivated by the painting of a nude in the window, he set about learning more about the artist, Craig Nelson. When he found out Nelson was director of painting in the School of Fine Art, he decided to enroll at the Academy.
Fast forward a couple of years to an evening when Thomas R. Reynolds, the editor and publisher of a San Francisco legal newspaper, passed by the windows and felt a similar connection to a painting he saw. He entered the gallery, inquired about purchasing two of the works on display and left a business card for the artist, an Academy M.F.A. student who went by one name: “Veerakeat.”
These serendipitous moments happened more than two decades ago, but Veerakeat’s relationship with both Nelson and Reynolds endures — as has his popularity as a San Francisco cityscape artist.
Reynolds, after meeting Veerakeat, rented a Pacific Heights gallery space for six weeks to showcase his work. The exhibit was so successful that Reynolds extended his lease — and left his newspaper job. “We had a tremendous reaction — we had regular shows of his and they sold out,” Reynolds said. Today he continues to represent Veerakeat in that same gallery off Fillmore Street.
Veerakeat arrived in San Francisco in 1988 from Khon-Khan, Thailand, and worked seven days a week as a waiter at his aunt’s Thai restaurant. On breaks between shifts, he would skateboard around his Fillmore District neighborhood, stopping at corners to sketch and do quick watercolor renderings.
He loved to paint and had won international art competitions as a teenager, but his family discouraged him from art school. So he ended up with a bachelor’s degree in architecture.
With money saved from the restaurant, he enrolled at the Academy and signed up for Nelson’s “Quick Study” class. He hadn’t used oils before and found the “mushy and muddy” consistency challenging. He also wasn’t interested in doing portrait work. According to Veerakeat, he was on the verge of getting an “F.”
Nelson said he doesn’t remember the “F” part of the story, but recalls that his student was not a strong figurative painter. His work was freer, looser, more expressionistic. For the class final, he instructed Veerakeat to spend two weeks painting the subject of his choice and bring back five completed works.
Veerakeat remembers those two weeks well. He painted “all day, all night,” and ended up with not five but 20 paintings. It was overwhelmingly clear: Cityscapes, busy intersections and the motion of cars and buses in the city were his forte.
“That’s what makes the art world so exciting,” Nelson said. “Eventually, if the students keep going, they’re going to find where they fit in.”
Veerakeat occasionally will paint a portrait and think of his instructor. “Every single time I put a stroke on the face,” he said, “this is a Craig stroke.” During class, he paid close attention to Nelson’s brushwork, standing nearby during demonstrations. He felt liberated when he realized that a scene, or even a portrait, “doesn’t have to be exactly what you see,” Veerakeat said. He learned to master oils and also paid attention to Nelson’s statement: “The good paintings have to have impact and knock-out.”
Veerakeat earned his M.F.A. from the Academy in 1994. His initial success through shows at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery was staggering. Two years later he bought a home with a garage that doubles as his studio and a rental unit that helps pay the mortgage.
Every weekday, he opens the door to his studio and paints from about 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Neighbors, tourists — even the kids who attend the elementary school across the street — stop by to say hello to the soft-spoken, long-haired, left-handed artist who works away in a colorful space filled with paintings, plus a skateboard, push scooter and Harley Davidson.
Above the garage door is a small green sign that reads “Awesome Ave. USA,” which is no coincidence: The first word Veerakeat usually hears from people peering into his workspace is “awesome.”
Veerakeat thrives on the sounds of his neighborhood — the honking of cars, the barking of dogs, children playing. “I want the music from the street — real life music,” he said.
Veerakeat’s daily painting schedule, his discipline and his speed have resulted in a massive body of work. He’s sold thousands of paintings over the years. Because he is so prolific, he is known to recycle his older works, scraping off the paint to reuse the canvas.
In a good year, Veerakeat will sell 60 to 80 paintings. Other years, it might only be 20. They range from around $900 to $15,000.
Veerakeat has donated many works over the years to auctions for local charities. In 2005, he organized a fundraiser for victims of Thailand’s 2004 tsunami and generated $50,000 from sales of his paintings to build an orphanage in Southern Thailand.
The artist’s San Francisco street scenes are motion-filled, mesmerizing, loving tributes to the city, with easy-to-recognize neighborhoods, corner stores, the Golden Gate Bridge and one of his favorite subjects: MUNI, San Francisco’s public transportation system.
The intersection of Union and Jones is Veerakeat’s favorite and he returns to it regularly. “Every time I go back to the same corner, I see something different,” he said. “The sky changes every single day and never repeats.”
He usually takes a photo and does a sketch or small painting on location, then returns home to flesh it out on a larger canvas with oils.
“He hasn’t done what many artists do: change styles, change subjects, change approaches,” said Reynolds. “He’s doing what he did in that very first show: capturing the motion and the energy of urban life.”
Over the years, Veerakeat has contributed to the Academy’s alumni auctions and has visited Nelson’s classes. His success story begins with the part about the hard work, the years he worked as a waiter, the determination.
“We always want students to know it’s possible, but it’s not an overnight success story,” said Nelson. “The one common denominator of everyone I have seen succeed here is that work ethic. Veerakeat had it. No matter what day of the week, what time of day, you stopped by his studio and he was in there working.”
Veerakeat, now 48, tells aspiring artists that perseverance is key.
“Don’t give up — one day it will happen,” he said. “If you give up before then, it won’t happen at all.”
Excerpted from Academy Art U News, November 2014