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84-year-old artist never gives up

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For 70 of his 84 years, Bill Canright has been creating two-dimensional things for people to lose themselves in, or put to use.

“I started as a self-taught painter when I was 14,” he said, “working with my dad’s materials. He wasn’t an artist. He was a landscape architect in college. He left a lot of oils behind, so years later, I came along and did my first oil paintings. I’m mostly self-taught.

“Between my early fine art experience and my more recent experience, I was heavily involved in advertising and graphic design. I’ve been involved in printing, photography, painting and drawing for most of the last 70 years.”

His passion to work in advertising led Canright to get a marketing degree.

“I have a B.S. in marketing,” he said. “For quite a while, my art was only a part-time thing. I enjoyed the advertising business because there was an outlet for creativity. I want to paint because I love to create. I went to school part-time for a bachelor’s degree to use as an entree into the advertising business. When I was about halfway through to graduation, I was already in the job that I was trying to qualify myself for. I finished my four-year degree because I couldn’t imagine feeling like I’d wasted the time up to that point.”

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Canright and his wife Maggie Price combined their mutual artistry with her newspaper background and his advertising background to create a nationally distributed magazine that still serves the art community.

“We started and ran The Pastel Journal,” he said. “We were married 25 years. It was a very good partnership. She passed away about six years ago. She, too, was self-taught and also started painting at age 14. She was pretty well-known as an oil painter when we got together. She got interested in pastels. That led to a long and involved career.

“We taught workshops all over the country, and overseas. We would take a group of 15 to 20 artists to some place like Spain or Italy on a 10-day trip. We’d do outdoor painting. She would do the hard part, doing a demonstration painting. Talking as she worked, describing what she was doing. I couldn’t do that. I usually worked one-on-one when someone had a problem. She would work with the whole class. Sometimes I would demonstrate a particular technique for the whole class, like how to make rocks that look like rocks and not potatoes.”

Canright keeps a book she wrote available to the public. It’s called “Creative Freedom,” and it’s a helpful resource for artists.

“My wife put the book together,” he said. “It’s about what to do when you have creative blocks. It offers a lot of ideas for when someone hits a dry spot. It’s available here at the gallery.”

Canright works at The Gallery, at 223 N. Main St. He enjoys meeting people as they come into the gallery. His eyesight keeps him from doing some of the administrative work.

“I’m a member of the gallery co-op. I greet people and show them around. I work in partnership with Tammy. My vision problems started with a diagnosis of glaucoma. Then I began to notice that I was overly sensitive to light. Too much light or too little light was a problem. It turned out to be cornea photophobia. So far, like glaucoma, they don’t have a cure.

“At one point, I was nearsighted but I had an operation to take care that. Now it’s not like things are out of focus, it’s more like there’s a mist over everything I look at. One of the things many artists recommend to eliminate unnecessary detail is to squint — I don’t have to.”

His vision has not slowed down his creative urge in the least. Canright still makes art.

“I have worked extensively with pastels, recently,” he said. “Before that, I worked mainly with oils. I did some work with acrylics and wash drawing for product illustrations in black and white.

“Pastel is my favorite medium. At times I think about working more with acrylics or oils because framing pastels is a chore. You have to get them under glass and be certain the glass doesn’t smear them. Pastel is a dry medium so it’s easy to smear. Pastel enthusiasts don’t like to hear this, but it’s similar to chalk. It’s a much higher quality pigment and it’s finer.”

He also enjoys explorations with his drawing skills.

“Drawing is a very interesting thing to me,” he said. “I’m particular about accuracy and do a lot of self-correcting. I’m not the kind of artist that does a perfect drawing the first time. Particularly when it comes to doing human figures, I do a lot of correcting before I’m finished. Also with architecture, I find it quite a challenge to get right. Having had some experience in construction, I do better with architectural works than I might have otherwise because I have an idea what’s behind it.

“It’s important for any artist that works in realism. If they can’t draw accurately, it doesn’t matter how good they are with color. We encourage people to start with drawing and concentrate on that before they worry about painting.”

Canright admonishes younger artists to be clear about what they’re creating. It’s a lesson he learned over the years.

“A mistake that many artists make is to paint what they think they know rather than what they’re actually seeing,” he said. “I was taking workshops with very accomplished artists. I would often go through a five-day workshop thinking that I already knew all the stuff, wondering why I was there. But without fail, by the time I was through that class, I would have learned something that made me feel that the whole workshop was worth doing. Sometimes you just learn a new way of handling things.”

Three years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer.

“The cancer was in my liver and esophagus,” he said. “When the doctor got the biopsy report, he said it was one of four possible types of cancer. If it was a particular kind, there’s a possible cure. It turned out to be that kind of cancer and after two months of very expensive medicines, I was just about clear. The oncologist said I was their miracle.”

One of Canright’s most strongly held beliefs is in the power of tenacity.

“I think it’s my nature to not give up,” he said. “At times I’ve almost jokingly said I don’t know how to give up.”

Bill Canright expects to continue not giving up for a long time to come. He’d love to show you around the gallery some time.