At 88 years old, Tucson artist David Laughlin has lived to create Western art about the endless stories from his life. Though a stroke several years ago left Laughlin unable to paint, Arizona Highways sat down with him to learn about his history and the way he keeps himself busy today. (Interview responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.)
How did you get started as an artist?
I’ve always been an artist. My first art adventure was at the age of 4. My mother had just had new wallpaper in her bedroom, and when she went outside, I took it upon myself to decorate it all the way around the wall. She left it on there — she didn’t say, "No, don’t do that," or anything like that, and I guess that’s what got me started.
Tell us a little bit about your history.
I went through high school, and then I went to college. I won a biology contest from the state and the art contest as well, so I had a scholarship to Central Missouri State [University]. I was an artist there and did all kinds of things to survive because I never had any money. I did sign-writing for people at the university. When I got out, I went to Kansas City, got a job as a display artist with a company that’s no longer there, but I was there for a couple years until the Army snatched me away during the draft for a couple years, and I was an artist there as well. They never could find a job that I could do except be the company forger, and I did pretty well at that.
How did living in Tucson inspire your art?
My wife, Doris, passed away in 2010, and I’ve been here in Arizona since 1977, doing illustrations for architects. We lived in Tucson about 45 years now, and one day during that period, when my wife was still in Chicago, I went down to the parade. For every four or five years, I would go down there, set up my easel and make sketches of the people as they went by. I think it was 1980 or ’81, the Vision Quest put on a parade with their young black soldiers, and I followed them to the university campus. I talked to the head of the group and got really hooked on doing something with the Buffalo Soldiers. In 1981, I started a series of relief prints of the 24 hours a day of the soldiers in Arizona, and I have several sets left, but I’ve donated a set to the museum and to the Arizona Historical Society.
Your daughter mentioned you had a stroke.
That happened at the very end of 2001, so you really can start counting at 2002. I’ve been unable to paint or draw or anything like that, because it was my right side that got paralyzed. I’m still living independently, but sort of paralyzed. It’s hard for me to get around without a wheelchair.
What do you do today to keep busy?
My daughter knew that I would like to do plants. I love plants. I grew geraniums, I painted geraniums. I talked to my daughter, and I kept saying, “Well, if I just had a greenhouse, I could get plants ready to put outside after the last frost.” And I said, “Well, I’ve got half of a property here you can use if you want to do something with it, but you’re going to have to give me a greenhouse in payment for the use of my land.” She and her husband fixed my apartment—they took all the lead paint off the walls and then covered them up with sheet rock painted a wonderful lavender-gray color, and my floor is burnt sienna with lilac spots on it. I love plants, and I especially would love to grow tomatoes. I got a whole bunch of new tomatoes that are all about 4 feet tall and have baby green tomatoes all over them.
If you could tell our readers one thing, what would it be?
I could tell them what my goal was when I was a teenager. I wanted to be an artist, and I wanted to do a body of work that didn’t necessarily sell, but if it did, fine — but it would leave something for the rest of the world to see what my life was like, as an artist not supported by any club or anything like that. All by my own initiative. I just wanted to do things where everything that I did was my own hand, my own idea, but hopefully people would like and enjoy it. I have discovered that most people do like my work. We’re in the process now of cataloguing everything we have left so that my daughter can handle it after I’m gone, and hopefully in the next 100 years, my name will be on something in somebody’s closet.
— Molly Bilker
To learn more about David Laughlin and see more of his work, visit www.davidlaughlinfineart.com.