OCEAN PARK — To find ways to describe Peninsula artist William Vandorin’s work, it’s tempting to grab a thesaurus and look up “whimsical.”
But there’s no need, because it’s perfectly obvious that Vandorin has put considerable thought into labeling his artistic style.
“Old world meets science fiction with a Victorian flair,” he said, quoting a motto emblazoned on his Loud Silence Studio website
The accuracy of the description is reflected in his portfolio, which includes wood and metal sculptures, drawings and paintings.
For three-dimensional pieces, he favors bamboo and exotic hardwoods. “People like repurposed wood. I use it because it’s beautiful — with age and character.”
The faces of human and animal figures that stare off his walls puzzle and delight in equal measure. In one, called “Batteries Not Included,” a mechanical cat shows its impossibly complex innards, reflecting the precision of the artist’s engineering background.
“Surrogate” is a robot, pregnant with an apparently human baby. The deck-work and rigging of a cutaway three-dimensional wooden sailing ship appear painstakingly accurate; look closer, and there’s a tiny human skull amid the ballast.
Vandorin’s modest Ocean Park home is packed with them, and many are on view at Bay Avenue Gallery in Ocean Park. All reflect his well-traveled, thoughtful 60 years, but always with a twist.
“I would be terrified to live in his head,” joked his wife, Tracey Strader-Heath, his No. 1 fan, in a voice which blended love and admiration. “He does like to ‘push the envelope.’”
“It does provoke a lot of thought,” he conceded.
Like the movie villain in “Quigley Down Under,” Vandorin ponders if he was born in the wrong century. However, his love for British comedies like “Monty Python” — “Nothing is taboo” — reveals a twisted streak that would not have amused Queen Victoria.
Growing up as a non-Quaker in a tiny Friends’ community that barely appears on a map of Iowa, his family’ rugged existence was characterized by no electricity and an outhouse.
“It was like a 1800s lifestyle,” he recalled. “I hated it at the time.”
He embraced Victorian-era science fiction writer Jules Verne’s astonishing prescient insights of the far-ahead space age. “I always thought it was so cool.”
His parents nurtured his talent and soon he was winning art competitions.
“Mom gave me a box of crayons and Play Doh. I didn’t want coloring books, just plain paper. By the time I was nine, I was doing pencil work, graphite drawings of tall ships and trains, and Mom was giving it away.”
When the time came to swap rustic simplicity for Southern California, 8-year-old Vandorin waved goodbye to his often disapproving Quaker neighbors. “We were thinking our last name was ‘Heathen,’” he quipped.
His stepfather’s work with the USO brought him into contact with “Little Rascals” stars and Jack Benny, who lived a couple of blocks away in Beverly Hills; the family knew him as “Uncle Jack.” “I had no idea they were famous,” he said.
The boy artist’s creativity was displayed to visitors, his talent given labels he did not understand. “I thought ‘prodigy’ was something bad — a ‘prodigy child,’” Vandorin smiled.
A vivid childhood memory was being introduced to “elegant” actor Vincent Price. “I embarrassed myself,” laughed Vandorin, because all he could think to say was, “I love you!” like a star-struck fan. “That was the first and last time I saw him,” he recalled.
Six years later, a move to Rockford, Illinois, and Catholic schooling followed, though an altar boy who questioned the nature of sin and other core beliefs was not popular with church authorities. “They asked me not to come back,” he said. The experience, however, shaped his philosophical values. “I do believe in a power of creation and that which all faiths share in common.”
When he joined the U.S. Air Force in 1975, the Vietnam era was winding down, but the Cold War was still hot. Based in California, he served six years, first as a cargo plane mechanic until his advanced aptitude earned him a spot on B-52s, standing by to deliver nuclear bombs.
He recalled his commanding officer failed to appreciate his amused reaction when one of the bombs fell out on the tarmac and terrified personnel close by “squatted and squinted.”
When he traveled overseas to the Middle East and South America, he sought to absorb local culture and history, now regretting he didn’t take a camera along (“I didn’t want to look like a tourist”).
The Air Force also funded educational opportunities without requiring them to be service-related, so while his buddies partied off-duty in nightclubs, Vandorin took full advantage, taking multiple painting and other classes, later augmented under the GI Bill.
He is most proud of his bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the California Institute of the Arts. “I was told that art degrees were not going to earn any substantial income, but I wanted to learn everyone’s style and create anything I could imagine,” he said.
Toward the end of his stint in uniform, his roommate, who had been saving his “doodles,” sent them to the Walt Disney Company. A job interview to replace a retiring artist who drew cartoon villains appeared promising, Vandorin said, in part because he could appreciate the comic side of evil.
But the military would not release him from his commitment, so it never happened.
In 1981, Vandorin rejoined civilian life, working a day job at Winchell’s Donuts (“I was sick of being a greasy mechanic”), while performing nights as lead singer in a rock band called Ravin. The name was spawned from the expression “raving mad”; he described its singular style as ballad-heavy metal.
Poetry which accompanies online photos of his art is, in part, lyrics “with the choruses removed” from his four years with the band.
Marriage and a move to Port Orford on Oregon’s rugged southern coast filled the next 18 years of his life, where Vandorin served on the Parks Commission and City Council, departing with an unusually gushing reference letter from the mayor.
In Seattle, seeking a fresh start alone in a big-city environment, the artist found himself outnumbered. “It’s an astoundingly arrogant aspiration, but everyone and their brother claims to be artists — so galleries are wary,” he said.
He worked as a machinist at an aircraft company and met Tracey online. “I proposed right away, but she took nine years to think about it,” he said, clearly a joke he has made before.
“I thought he was funny. He keeps me laughing,” said Tracey, a 1982 graduate of Ilwaco High School. She has four daughters, all now grown.
“I fell off the map,” said Vandorin, describing how promoting his art took a lower priority during their early years together raising teenagers. At this, Tracey shook her head: “He hasn’t stopped doing stuff.”
After years in the crowded urban setting, both delighted to move to the slower pace of Tracey’s former hometown in 2010. Vandorin worked first as a caregiver, a freelance carpenter and now at an antiques store while continuing to promote his art with gallery and online sales.
Mention Vandorin and Sue Raymond, owner of Bay Avenue Gallery, lights up with a smile. “He’s a true artist,” she beamed. “William is a ‘renaissance man.’ I am totally impressed.”
Her exhibit of his work some while ago showcased two airships and an ice ship; woodworkers, as well as art lovers, admired his precision. “The detail is phenomenal,” Raymond said.
The gallery has several items by Vandorin on its shelves. As well as a striking ceramic whale and prints of his mechanical cat, they include a wooden lighthouse that’s almost 3-foot tall, designed to demonstrate what would remain after a catastrophic windstorm.
Years ago, a mentor offered a twofold philosophy Vandorin embraces: the level of detail is what sets the best artists apart — and don’t worry about the money.
“It’s ‘be a little better than you were yesterday,’” he said.
“People repeat their work. A lot of artists find something that’s marketable and fixate on, and never develop past that.”
Because of that approach, Vandorin has no favorite topic or medium, trying anything that appeals.
Tracey can attest to that. Once when she was cleaning a crab in her kitchen, she said he reached into the messy pile and extracted a piece of cartilage which he fashioned into a tiny quill pen. “Nothing in the house is safe!” she smiled.
Being different and challenging the viewer are two of the artist’s core values.
“It is surrealist, fantasy, but with enough of reality to make it relatable,” Vandorin said.
His website, Loud Silence, takes his name from a visitor’s reaction more than three decades ago.
“When I was showing in LA, a woman looking at my work used the expression. ‘For something that makes no sound at all, it is extremely loud.’ The oxymoron somehow fits me.”
While he takes tangents, “I want to be close enough to reality to at least advance discussion.
“I would like to think that much of my work makes people think.”
For more about artist William Vandorin, check out his website at http://loudsilence.altervista.org
His work is on display at Bay Avenue Gallery 1406 Bay Ave., Ocean Park.
‘It is surrealist, fantasy, but with enough of reality to make it relatable.’
— William Vandorin
Ocean Park artist