He played Eskimos and Arabs, Indians and Italians. His usual roles were as gangsters or thugs – crude, uncultivated men – but once he got to play the Pope. He received an Oscar nomination as Best Actor for what is probably his best remembered role, as the star of
“Zorba the Greek” (1964), and won an Oscar for his supporting role in “Viva Zapata” (1952). His other Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor may have given a clue about his less remembered side career as an artist. Anthony Quinn (1915-2001) took home the trophy for playing Paul Gauguin in Vincente Minnelli’s classic biography of Vincent Van Gogh, “Lust For Life” (1956).
Acting brought Quinn his niche in the pantheon of memory, but he was always a man with other interests. Born in 1915 in Chihuahua, Mexico, his father supposedly rode with Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution. Once the cause was lost, he emigrated with his family to the United States and eventually became an assistant cameraman in Hollywood. Young Anthony’s early exposures to performance included a stint with Pentecostalist Aimee Semple McPherson, perhaps the most famous evangelist of the 1920s. Quinn later credited her with inspiring some of his gestures as an actor.
Stage and screen, however, had to wait. As a young boy, he sketched movie stars glimpsed while tagging alongside his father on studio sets. He once received a check for $25 from actor Douglas Fairbanks for a sketch the young Quinn sent to the actor’s home. An early interest in sculpting won the aspiring artist an award for his plaster bust of Abraham Lincoln. At age 11, his father was killed by a passing car; Quinn vowed to support his mother, grandmother and sister by finding whatever work he could.
The young teenager worked the odd-job circuit as a shoeshine boy, a migrant farm worker, cab driver, newspaper boy and earned up to $10 a fight as a welterweight boxer. All the while dabbling in art, he won an endowment to study under Frank Lloyd Wright at the great architect’s studio, Taliesin, in Arizona. Wright encouraged the young artist to size up a man’s spirit and build accordingly. To improve his speech, Wright sent Quinn to an
acting school where, taking a part in the school play, he earned great reviews. Shifting to acting, he found work in bit parts on the stage and film. After receiving a film contract, he sought advice from Wright: “Well, I called him and I said, Universal offered me a contract $300 a week. He says take it. You’ll never get that money from me.” Quinn took the money and ran with it, starting with a variety of small roles in several films at Paramount, including an Indian warrior in “The Plainsman” (1936).
Throughout his acting career, Quinn maintained a separate avocation as an artist, honing his craft and expanding his imagination wherever location filming took him. In the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East, he found pieces of wood and stone whose shape and texture fascinated him. He worked them into small sculptures, which he called maquettes. Later, he reworked many of those maquettes into larger sculptures. After visitors to his home repeatedly admired his work, he exhibited the works at a Honolulu gallery in 1981. Every piece sold.
With the success of the Hawaii show, Quinn continued to exhibit at galleries across the United States, and internationally from Ontario to Argentina and France to South Korea. He took up print making and took to it wholeheartedly, producing silkscreens, lithographs and vellum relief sculptures, all published in limited editions, a lucrative enterprise in the 1980s. His style was borrowed mainly from the Cubists and the Post-Impressionists, sometimes with blatant homage to the Masters: “Some days, I paint like an Indian. Some days, I paint like a Mexican ... I steal from everybody – Picasso, Kandinsky ... I steal, but only from the best,” he once commented. His Cubist studies of women, with their angular shapes and robust design, closely resembled Picasso’s. Another genre showcased North American Indian design with a portfolio of prints illustrating native religious symbols and designs, “The Great Spirit,” published in 1986.
In sculpture, he worked with marble, bronze, blue onyx, wood and bas relief. Influences from Modern Sculpture masters Auguste Rodin and Henry Moore are apparent in Quinn’s use of Modernists shapes and design. In oil painting he executed many portraits, especially of himself and often reproduced the self-portraits in print editions. He was incredibly prolific and always made time for his art. “People sometimes say, ‘How did he create all of this in one lifetime?’ Well, he did multiple things at once,” the actor’s widow, Katherine, said in The Guardian, after his death. “When he was working on a movie, he was sketching and sculpting between scenes. When he was in a traveling play, he would get an extra hotel room for his paintings and have a little studio.”
Throughout his life, Quinn became a great collector of art as well, which inspired and influenced his own work. His 10,000 square-foot studio, built alongside his home in Bristol, Rhode Island, houses thousands of Quinn’s own sketches, paintings and sculptures as well as hundreds of works of art he acquired in his world travels. In 2001, Mrs. Quinn established the Anthony Quinn Foundation, its mission to raise awareness of the role the arts play in everyday life. Within the Foundation, the Anthony Quinn Scholarship Program was established to support high school students interested in the visual, literary or performing arts. The scholarship funds are used toward participation in pre-college, summer or after-school arts education programs.
Many cultural organizations and high school groups have visited Quinn’s studio and workshop in Bristol through the Foundation. Active in the Foundation, Katherine Quinn has been a tireless advocate for her husband’s legacy. In 2013, the Foundation was awarded a grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities to organize and catalog Quinn’s extensive collection. The cataloging will make it more manageable for research and scholarly study and will be available for organized school visits. The collection will be digitized and available for viewing online.
Quinn’s work appears at auction with mixed results. Drifter, an impressive bronze abstract form with hollow spaces, reminiscent of Henry Moore, sold for $6,225 at McKenzie in Australia in 2013. A stunning portrait of a stylish woman in a wide-brimmed hat, Lunch Companion (1993) sold for $2,160 at John Moran Auctioneers in California in 2012. The more recent sale (August 2014) at Mroczek Brothers Auctioneers in Washington auctioned the vellum cast sculpture, Child in the Meadow (circa 1980) for $565. Retail market offerings are available through online galleries and secondary market brokers.
About our columnist: Mary Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, Wis.(www.landmarksgallery.com).