His success? Credit luck, and his wife

Joe Tanous stands in the studio of his 92-year-ld Carmel cottage, in front of a painting of “little people”.” (Cred./Dennis Taylor)

Editor’s Note—This story was originally published in the Aug. 25 edition of The Carmel Pine Cone of Carmel, Calif.

Special to the Record

Joe Tannous shrugs off his accomplishments as partly the result of luck. He’s been “a follower,” he claims, tagging along after his wife, Louise (“the brain of our relationship”), who inspired him to get an advanced education (he holds a Master’s degree from UC Davis and a BFA from California College of Arts & Crafts) and then led him to many exotic venues on the other side of the world.

No doubt, his wife of 63 years is a marvel — a Ph.D. with a distinguished career as a linguist and cultural anthropologist — but the humble Tanous has also led an accomplished life.

At 92, he is the oldest active artist on the membership rolls of the Carmel Art Association, still painting regularly in the studio of the stone cottage he and Louise have owned since 1963, two minutes up the hill from the Carmel Mission.

The house was built in 1925 (the same year Tanous was born) by former Carmel mayor/writer/actor Perry Newberry out of decomposing granite boulders from Carmel’s old rock quarry. Its interior is a work of art, beautifully adorned with Tanous’ own paintings and sculptures and the work of many other fellow artists, as well as treasures he’s collected over more than six decades from garage sales and travels. One room is devoted to Native American artifacts. A wall in a hallway is covered with masks from Africa, Mexico, Japan and China. Another section is devoted to an enormous collection of copper. An umbrella holder contains his collection of canes and walking sticks. There are swords from Ghana and Samoa.

A thinking artist

Tanous’ sculptures and paintings have been exhibited in one-man shows at American University in Beirut, Lebanon (where he was an assistant professor), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, UC Davis (where he taught Fine Arts for two years), University of Pacific, Stanford University, and other venues.

“I’ve probably gone through too many phases with my art,” he said. “That’s one of the problems with my whole career: I haven’t paint- ed consistently and developed a recognizable style. I jumped from realism to surrealism to abstract expressionism to abstractions … and I did it without any fore- thought. It just happened. I guess I was a thinking artist more than a painting artist.”

Tanous was one of 11 children born to parents who immigrated from Lebanon in the late 1800s and were among the original homesteaders who founded Hettinger, N.D., a town near Bismarck with fewer than 1,000 residents.

Neither parent had been educated past the age of 9, but Tanous was one of nine siblings who went to college and became doctors, teachers, and business professionals.

His brother Henry, 16 years older, became an artist who attended Minneapolis Art Institute, then worked as a Disney animator for 18 years.

“I started drawing and painting as a child, copying my brother’s paintings,” he said. “I did artistic things throughout my school years and might have been the only kid in our little town who did.”

In June 1943, after graduating from high school, Tanous followed his siblings to Sunnyvale, but was drafted into the U.S. Army two months later.

“I got lucky,” he said, repeating a common theme in his life. “They put me first into the Army’s camouflage unit. When they disbanded that, some of our guys went into the infantry, but I was reassigned to the engineers. They sent me to Guam, where we built airstrips out of coral for our B-29 bombers.”

From combat to cartoons

From Guam, Tanous was sent to Okinawa, where he survived a typhoon with winds that hit 180 mph before the island’s wind-measuring devices broke.

“It blew planes all over the airfield. It tipped over our trucks. It blew our house away. The Quonset hut with all of our mail was torn apart and our letters wound up all over the island,” Tanous recalled. “We spent the night in caves, where we sat on Japanese bombs beside these big, clay pots that were filled with the bones of dead Okinawans.”

After his discharge, Tanous worked briefly at Warner Brothers, helping with animation of Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird and the Roadrunner, but didn’t enjoy the job and quit.

He remembers standing on a corner in San Francisco, unemployed, when an army buddy recognized him and nudged him toward an opening at an advertising agency, where he worked in the print-production department. That’s when he met Louise, a Bostonian with a genius IQ who was working as a coffee shop waitress, hoping to attend UC Berkeley.

“She was part of the beatnik crowd, and she fit in better than I did, but that became our crowd, too. We met Maya Angelou and Odetta, who was performing at the Tin Angel,” Tanous said. “Those were good times.”

He and Louise married in 1954, and raised a son (Mark) and two daughters (Laura and Holly), who gave them seven grandchildren and a great grandchild.

Tanous remembers selling artwork as early as the mid- 1960s (when he was an instructor at UC Davis), but says his career took off in 1971 after he was juried into the Carmel Art Association. At the time, he also was beginning a 20-year teaching stint at Monterey Peninsula College. He became a full-time artist in 1990, after retiring from MPC.

“I’ve led a lucky life, and I’ve kind of stumbled through it. I had no goals. Louise was the leader, and I mostly followed,” he says of his wife, who taught at the University of Beirut, at UC Davis, and at Carmel High. “Fortunately, she knew where she was going.”

Dennis Taylor is a freelance writer in Monterey County, Calif. Contact him at scribelaureate@gmail.com