Barns, bikes roll into the Butler
George Dombek has been painting barns for most of his life and currently has about 12 barn paintings in progress.
Bicycles are a more recent inspiration, and one he doesn’t plan to revisit anytime soon.
“I may never do another one,” the 77-year-old artist said during an interview from his home in Arkansas. “They’re much more detailed than anything I’ve ever done, more realistic and extremely rare in terms of watercolors. You don’t see the intensity of color I’ve been able to achieve, but that’s because I’ve been doing it for 61 years.”
Both barns and bicycles will be featured in Dombek’s third solo exhibition at the Butler Institute of American Art, which opens Sunday and runs through Oct. 17.
Dombek always was interested in painting, but he first got a degree in architecture and worked in San Francisco in the 1970s for Gensler, currently ranked as the largest architecture firm in the U.S. Dombek realized he’d have more time to paint as a teacher instead of an architect. Around that time, an old friend lived in the Mahoning Valley and encouraged him to visit. He connected Dombek with Louis Zona, who was chair of the art department at Youngstown State University at the time, and he spent a quarter at YSU as a guest artist in 1979.
“I had a great time and did a lot of paintings,” Dombek said.
Youngstown is where he developed a fascination for steel mills. While teaching in Florida in the 1980s, Dombek often spent his summers in Youngstown to escape the Florida heat and to continue doing paintings inspired by the existing and the abandoned steel mills. That led to his first Butler solo show in 1988.
“That was a landmark show for me,” Dombek said. “I’d been painting since 1960, 28 years. I came into that show, looked at my paintings, and it was all manmade stuff — steel mills, factories, barns. I looked at and thought I have to change my direction. And I did that. I got to Italy and started paintings trees and rocks and so forth.”
He didn’t just paint nature there. The prevalence of bicycles as a primary mode of transportation in Italy caught his attention while in Italy, and he revisited bicycles in recent years as the Walton family (owners of Walmart) have invested in bike trails throughout northwest Arkansas where Dombek lives.
“Arkansas is trying to become the bicycle capital of the world,” he said.
The barn paintings have been a recurring subject for Dombek since college, when he was an architecture student and did a project photographing barns. That inspired a three-year stretch where his paintings of barns earned him 38 awards and gallery shows in New York and other major markets. The work was highly acclaimed, but he didn’t sell a lot of them.
They sell better now. Dombek’s work can be found in more than 800 private, corporate and museum collections and been featured in more than 100 exhibitions.
Dombek quit teaching in 1995 and has focused on his art full-time for more than 20 years. He said he believes this is the best time ever to be an artist.
“Every city now has an art museum,” he said. “Here in Arkansas growing up a little arts center in Little Rock and that was it … You can’t call yourself a city now if you don’t have an art museum.”
Living near the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which was founded with an operating endowment of $350 million and an acquisitions endowment of $325, might shape that rosy outlook, but Dombek made it clear he would be devoted to his work regardless.
“I don’t believe in talent,” Dombek said. “I don’t believe in anything but hard work, not work but desire. I get up at 3, 4 o’clock in the morning and work 10, 12 hours a day. You don’t do that for any other reason unless you love doing it.”