The first things you notice about J. Patrick Withington’s artwork are the American Western and Native American themes. Images of bison, antelope and famous western landmarks dominate his originals. The highly stylized paintings and collages, many inspired by ancient pictographs and petroglyphs, deliver a touch of the surreal. Even behind glass, the lines and shapes pop out at you.
J. Patrick Withington, 87, spent his younger years working as an ad man in the Tampa Bay area. So in a sense, he's been a professional artist all his life.
It all started back in the early 1950s. The war was raging in Korea, and Withington was doing his part as a member of the entertainment division. If you ask him, he'll tell you it was a great job. While others were having a "horrible" time in Korea, Withington was living with his wife, Pearl, in California, running hobby shops for the soldiers' recreation when they returned from Korea. It was during this time that Pearl gave birth to their first child and Withington discovered his talent for art.
A couple of men serving with Withington had graduated from art school before joining the service, and one day they invited him to come painting with them. It was the first time Withington had ever painted in his life. When his fellow service men saw his work, they were dumbfounded. They lined up Withington's painting with their own paintings, and asked Pearl which one she liked best. Not knowing whose painting was whose, Pearl chose her husband's painting.
When the war ended, Withington wasn't quite sure what to do with his life, but he knew that he was good at art. So he decided to go to a new art school in Sarasota called the Ringling College of Art. Upon graduation, he was faced with a new challenge.
“I didn’t even know where you’d apply for a job as an artist. Not a clue," says Withington, "So I thought, 'printers seem to do something.'"
He went back to Ohio, where he grew up, and worked in a print shop for "a little while." A few months later, he was back in Florida working for local advertising pioneer, Alfred Lino. But his big break, Withington says, came from New York advertising veteran John Servo. It was Servo that taught Withington how to be successful in the world of commercial art.
"He gave me that foundation that was just a gift," says Withington.
Later, Withington moved on to Wesco Advertising in Clearwater, where he learned to write from Dick Perry.
"The rest of my life, I've never read another writer as gifted as Dick Perry," says Withington. "We won just about every kind of award that you could think of."
These were the relationships that gave Withington the foundation to eventually strike out on his own. The final 16 years of his advertising career were spent as Patrick Withington & Associates.
“We did well,” says Withington. “We had a nice life.”
While his central focus was on commercial art, Withington has always had his side projects, but most of them have never seen the light of day. A combination of paintings, collage and photography document the different stages of his life, from the Korean War to the Kent State shootings to present day.
“It definitely is the progression of [our] lives, really, wherever we go and what we see,” says Withington. “Along the way, Pearl and I have also traveled. We’ve had motor homes, and we’ve traveled all over the west, year after year after year. And that is really what I love the most. This is me right now. This stuff,” he says, gesturing at the walls around him.
When Patrick and Pearl downsized about two and a half years ago, all the artwork presented an interesting challenge for the couple: They didn’t know where to put it all.
“I miss the wall space. I miss the studio,” says Withington. “My God, I have so much stuff I don’t know what to do with it. The bedroom’s filled with it, the TV room’s filled with it. If there’s a space, we’ll put something there.”
You could say that it’s a little cluttered, but you could also say that it’s beautiful. Their home is so full of fine art it could pass for a gallery, and that isn’t even the half of it. Right now, most of the artwork is in a storage unit, just waiting for local galleries and museums to take an interest.
But let’s talk about the artwork that you can actually see now. Thanks to the promotional efforts of his niece, Sherry Duffy, a selection of Withington’s artwork is currently on display at the Safety Harbor Library through the end of July. It’s Withington’s first art show. Ever.
There are 11 Withington originals on display at the Safety Harbor Library — six in the hallway leading up to the library’s meeting rooms, and another five hanging above the periodicals. Many document Withington’s travels across the American West, from animal crossings to ancient Native American rituals.
In "Ancient Ritual," seven people stand in line, single-file, in the style of ancient pictographs and petroglyphs seen throughout the west. A couple of antelope (another image common in pictographs) are running in the fields below. Above them is Person No. 8, like a ray of sunlight passing over them. These figures in the sky, common in Withington’s work, represent spirits. Although he’s not a terribly religious person, a lot of his work has a religious, or mystical, quality to it. Often, this is a side effect of visiting mystical places.
Monument Valley (on the Arizona-Utah border), the inspiration for Withington’s "Haunted Valley," is one such place. Monument Valley is full of natural sandstone monuments, shaped by millions of years of erosion, in the heart of Navajo country. To the Navajo people, Monument Valley is sacred land — a home for both ancient spirits and the living. In Withington’s "Haunted Valley," the people look like tombstones, implanted in the desert sand under an unforgiving sun. A stone monolith hovers in the background, while another spirit passes over in the sky.
"Tall Women" features another stone monolith in Navajo Country, this one at Canyon de Chelly. In Withington's painting, the monolith appears as a group of tall women. One of the women holds what looks like a dreamcatcher — a circular object with long feathers hanging from it. The feathers stick out as though each were painted on a separate piece of paper. It's a technique Withington learned in the ad world, called frisket. Now he uses it in his fine art projects to add texture to his work. Withington describes it as a lot of cutting and pasting, plus some carving. On top of this, he uses clear acrylic paint to make the lines in his images stand out. Many of the pieces of paper he pastes onto his artwork are already painted, and other parts are painted later. In the end, most of his artwork ends up being an interesting mixture of painting and collage. It is precisely this technique that, in my opinion, makes Withington's artwork stand out... literally.
Standing in the middle of Safety Harbor Library, Withington’s artwork transports me to another time and place — a place where bison still roam and a time when America still belonged to Native Americans. Photographs and newspapers didn’t exist, so people told stories by painting, or carving into, the surrounding rocks. These are the pictographs and petroglyphs Withington speaks of when he describes his travels out west. "Generally," says Withington, "these [works of art] are just pictographs of what we've seen along the way."
Note: The Safety Harbor Library isn't the only library in Pinellas County with art. Check out your local library to see what art has on offer.