The "Peanuts" gang –Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, Peppermint Patty, et al – are part of American culture just like apple pie or baseball. But Tom Everhart takes the classic comic strip and turns it into a psychedelic experience.
In one painting, Snoopy is covered with tiny versions of his feathered friend Woodstock. In another, he is sleeping on an abstract doghouse with highlighter-hued mountains in the background.
Everhart is the only person besides "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz who legally has been able to paint the characters. He befriended the cartoonist and worked with him until Schulz's death in 2000. They had an agreement that allows Everhart to use "Peanuts" in his work.
Selections of Everhart's art from 2001 to 2013 are on display through Dec. 15 at Coast Gallery in Laguna Beach.
Here are some words with him about his work and his relationship with the man behind "Peanuts":
Q. How did you become acquainted with Schulz?
A. It goes back to basically a perfect storm that happened in 1980 when I was coming out of postgraduate work. I was in New York, living in the East Village, mixing with all the other painter friends I had at the time.
I, unfortunately, was still doing skeleton paintings. It was a whole body of work based on skeletons walking through gardens and religious subject matters, but as well doing freelance projects on the side because I wasn't making enough to support myself as an artist.
One of the freelance projects I took on was with a design group that required me to produce several presentation boards involving Charles Schulz's characters.
I went to the New York Public Library and got everything I could on Schulz. I couldn't understand it. I was just about to give up on doing the project until one day I turned on the projector in my painting studio. … I accidentally had one of Schulz's prints inside my projector and it projected on a 30-foot wall.
Almost everything in the picture was gone except for a few flowing lines of Schroeder's toy piano. … Up close and blown up that large, his lines were very painterly – it wasn't like he was a cartoonist, it was almost like he was a painter.
Halfway through a meeting (in Santa Rosa), he came in and saw the drawings, looked at me, and said, "Why didn't you copy these? Everyone that comes into my studio copies drawings to show me, so they get them right."
I told him … I didn't copy them because I thought they would lose the freshness of his originals.
After that day, basically we started our relationship and it continued for the next 20 years.
Q. Did you go to art school?
A. I did undergraduate and postgraduate at Yale, also studied at St. Mary's College and then I did a year of postgraduate work at Musee de l'Orangerie in Paris. It was all in painting, all in fine arts.
Q. Was anything holding you back from pursuing the "Peanuts" paintings as a career?
A. I was scared the art world would turn on me. … I was afraid if they thought I was going to do a body of work based solely on one cartoon strip, they would, of course, think that's taboo in the art world.
Q. Then something scary happened.
A. In 1988, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon and liver cancer.
I went in for two 10-hour surgeries and then I did a year of chemotherapy. They told me I only had two years to live.
During the chemotherapy, I started experimenting with this body of work. … I had a lot of art books on one side of me … and "Sparky" – that's Mr. Schulz – constantly would be mailing me his strips that would come out five weeks later.
That's when the whole concept finally came together on how to produce this body of work.
I started producing the paintings when I was in chemotherapy in 1989. Then I continued doing the paintings and continued living – surprising everyone.
Q. What keeps you doing it?
A. I always feel like I'm still learning this work, even though I've been doing it this long. I still look at his strips every day. I get new things from looking at his strips. Then again, he had 50 years worth of strips.