Friday, October 9, 2015

John Alexander and the Crystal Head

Crystal Head
by Mark Nesmith
Oil on Canvas
14" x 14"
As an artist growing up in Beaumont, TX and attending Lamar University it was impossible not to know about John Alexander. Alexander, born in 1945 in Beaumont, earned his bachelor’s degree from Lamar in 1968 before gaining a Masters Degree from SMU and teaching at the University of Houston. These of course were all stepping stones to his move to New York and rise to renown in the art world.  Alexander’s work hangs in the collections of some of the most prestigious museums in the world, and he has had major retrospectives of his work at the Smithsonian and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

Though I’ve known about him for half of my life and often seen him across a crowded gallery (most recently at The Grand Bal at the Dishman Museum where I have to admit I was thrilled to see my painting “Somewhere Under the Rainbow” hanging near his as one of the showcase artists this year), I’d never had the opportunity to actually meet the man. Well as luck would have it, he was in Beaumont this week for the opening ceremony of the newly named John Alexander Painting Studio at the Lamar University Art Department, and I finally had the chance to press the flesh and talk a while with Mr. Alexander.

It’s really a few chance meetings that led to this encounter.  My sweetheart Elizabeth has been working at the MCM Elegante Hotel in Beaumont for more than a year now.  One of the regulars at the tavern there is none other than Jim Gilligan, the Lamar University baseball coach and Texas Baseball Hall of Fame member.  Over the past year I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know coach a little.  He’s a lively story teller and a great guy.  Turns out he’s been friends with John Alexander for years.  When Coach found out I’m a painter from Lamar and have never met John, he was determined to introduce us.  I’ve seen coach a few times over the last month or so and he always reminded me about Alexander coming in for the ceremony at Lamar and that he was intending to introduce us.  I was touched by the gesture and thought I should do something in return.

The other piece to the puzzle happened this past week.  Elizabeth and I were talking about Coach and John Alexander and she suddenly remembered that she needed to order a bottle of Crystal Head Vodka.  Alexander designed the bottle and partnered with Dan Aykroyd to found Crystal Head in 2007, so they wanted to make sure they had some on hand at the bar. It occurred to me that the bottle would make an interesting little still life painting and a perfect thank you gift.  

I finished the painting the day of the ceremony so it was still too wet to give to him in person. Instead, I took a picture of it on my phone and showed it to Coach Gilligan at Lamar.  He instantly grabbed my phone and made his way across the room to John Alexander and motioned for me to come over.  John was surrounded by well wishers, friends, and representatives from the university and was constantly posing for photos with someone, but he took the time to talk to me a few minutes and wish me well with my career. I told coach I would get the painting to him after it dries and he said he’d have it shipped to John.

I wound up going to the Elegante that evening to see Elizabeth, and sometime around 10 PM John Alexander stopped by Tradewinds at the Elegante with a gift for me.  He gave me a hardbound book from his retrospective at The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and signed a little note to me inside the cover.  We spoke a while about art and Lamar, some professors we had in common and other artists from the area.  He’s a very genuine guy and an entertaining storyteller himself.  It’s not often that you get to meet someone of John Alexander’s status, and it’s even rarer when they turn out to be so down to earth and friendly.  It’s an experience I won’t soon forget and was truly an honor, and if I ever make it big I hope to be as gracious and generous with my time as Mr. Alexander.