Focusing on an Artist in his Streng Home

A new film looks at artist Tony Natsoulas, who has turned his Streng Brothers home in Sacramento with his wife Donna into a gallery for his work and that of his friends and colleagues. Courtesy of Tony Natsoulas

If you’ve spent time in public places in Sacramento or Davis, you’ve seen the colorful, sometimes joyous, sometimes unnerving ceramic statues of Tony Natsoulas. Now you’ve got the chance to see the man himself.

Tony, who grew up in a mid-century modern Streng home in Davis, and now lives in one in Sacramento where he also keeps his studio, is the subject of a new feature-length documentary that will premiere February 25.

There couldn’t be a better place or a better time for this showing because it’s at the new Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis, whose superb and surprising inaugural show hones in on the first generation of artists to teach and work at the university’s art department, which was founded in 1958. It was an exciting place indeed.

Tony, who studied there, is among the third generation of what can almost be called an artistic school. One of the leading members of the first generation faculty, the late Robert Arneson, “was my teacher and has been my mentor since college,” Tony says.

The film, ‘Tony Natsoulas: A Face in the Crowd,’ will screen at 2 p.m. at the UC Davis Museum, which opened this past fall. Tony will be there in person.

The poster for the film.

If you go, don’t miss the current exhibition, ‘Out Our Way,’ which features an amazing array of sculpted toilets by Arneson, among his most groundbreaking work, humorous, scatological, and terrifying by turn.

Other artists shown, some big names today, others not, include Wayne Thiebaud, Jane Garritson, and Roland Peterson, represented by some uncharacteristic but beautiful prints of dams and other industrial sites. The exhibit is up through March 26.

Among the many pieces of public or semi-public sculptures by Tony, whose primary medium is ceramics, are ‘Joggers’ near Davis police headquarters, a series of life-size figures at the old Plaza K Street Mall in Sacramento, one of which has been relocated to Plaza Cervante on Freeport Boulevard, and three painted bronze busts at Sacramento’s Granite Park.

Tony also shows work in galleries, does private commissions and portraits, and curates exhibitions at Blue Line Arts, a gallery in Roseville.

Tony has been a working artist since the early 1980s. His studio is in his Streng home in Sacramento’s neighborhood of South Overbrook. The home that he shares with his wife Donna Natsoulas, also an artist, is filled with art by Tony and Donna and many of their friends.

When we visited some years back, the house seemed to be a museum in itself.

Tony Natsoulas, as seen in the film, discusses his life and work.

“There’s a lot more art since you’ve been here,” Tony says today, and he explains why the Streng home is ideal for an artist – openness and lack of applied ornamentation.

“It’s a blank interior,” he says. “It doesn’t have any ornamentation in it, so that allows us to have all that art in here, without competing with any of the interior architecture. It’s a clean slate basically.”

Tony’s art, goofy and funky, filled with color and detail, seemingly influenced by such first generation Davis practitioners as William Wiley and Roy De Forest (known for his beady-eyed dogs), would make a great animated film.

But first-time feature filmmaker Benjamin Fargen has opted instead for real people. “It’s the story of my ceramic career told through 14 key people in my life through interviews,” Tony says. Interviewees range from “my junior high teacher who taught my first art class” to artists he has known, including Sandra Shannonhouse, who is also Arneson’s widow, and curators from several museums who have shown Tony’s work.

The Natsoulas home in Sacramento is one of the most stylish in the neighborhood where, Tony says, too few residents appreciate the modernist architecture. Courtesy of Tony Natsoulas

We also see Tony working in his home studio.

Fargen, a musician by profession, also builds guitar amps. He got into film by making commercials for his amps. He and Tony are longtime friends. “He says he was in the shower, saying, who could I make a movie of? Then he thought of me,” Tony says.

The film will have other showings, still yet to be scheduled, including at the Di Rosa in Napa, and is available on DVD through Tony’s website.

 “It came out really well. It’s really great,” says Tony, who is 58. But he adds, “It’s very embarrassing because, god, who wants to really see me?”

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