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Stephen Frank Gary explains what inspired a landscape painting. After years as a lawyer, he feels at home as an artist. His work hangs in the new civic art gallery at the Encinitas Community Center. Photo by Jared Whitlock
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Going from cases to canvases

Lawyer gets back to his artistic roots, work featured in new exhibit

ENCINITAS — A self-described “surf hippie,” Stephen Frank Gary fits the look with his flowing hair and beard.

Part artist, part surf hippie, in reality, Gary spent the better part of the last two decades in an office and courtroom as a worker’s compensation lawyer.

“I was working 60 to 70 hours a week,” Gary said. “I was completely stressed and it took a toll on my health.”

A few years ago, though, he moved back to North County and returned to his roots as an artist.

“I need that outlet; it’s my identity — who I am,” Gary said. “It’s a lesson for younger folks, do something that makes you happy, because you feel much better.”

Recently, Gary was tapped to display his works for the new civic art gallery at the Encinitas Community Center. It’s the first sizeable show he’s taken part in since 1988.

Gary, who was hooked on painting and drawing from a young age, earned a Bachelors of Fine Arts from the University of Texas. Art remained his focus for years, but he eventually went to law school to pay the bills.

After finishing, he moved to Los Angeles, began wearing a suit and tied his hair into a ponytail when in the office. And painting took a backseat to his career.

“I was showing some of my old art to a judge, and she asked, ‘why are you a lawyer?’ I told her, ‘because I like to eat.’

“Art to me isn’t something you make money with — it’s a personal thing,” Gary added. “I became a lawyer to support my art, but the gig ended up taking over my life.”

To reduce his stress and go back to a simpler life, he bought a house in Vista in 2009. The area, he said, is his muse.

“North County to me is a special place — there’s something almost spiritual about it,” Gary said.

A Texan with a passion for surfing, his connection with the region stems from long surf trips in the 1970s to Encinitas, where he lived for a time.

After getting reacquainted with North County five years ago, Gary began creating more and more works, everything from paintings to mixed-media pieces, losing himself in the process.

“When I get involved in a painting, I get totally immersed in it,” Gary said. “I lose track of time. It’s cathartic.”

His process, often spontaneous, begins without an idea of what he’s going to create.

During a trip to Yellowstone National Park, he was struck by the scenery during a hike.

He pulled out a Walkman, blasted Jimi Hendrix, grabbed a piece of metal and started painting on it.

The resulting landscape, which is part of the collection hanging in the Encinitas Community Center, sticks out as one of his favorites.

Plenty of his work depicts sweeping landscapes, but social commentary defines others.

I’m an environmentalist and worried about the military industrial complex,” Gary said. “But I don’t try and be overtly political and I don’t believe I have a lock on the truth.

“I just paint whatever is going on in my own little world and those viewpoints come out,” he added.

Gary still takes the occasional case as a lawyer, but he plans on retiring soon. It’s safe to say, he’s glad that canvases, not case files, make up his days.

“I’ve always been on the eccentric side,” Gary said. “Being an artist seems to really fit my temperament and what I’m about.”

The new civic art gallery, featuring works by locals, will change every six to eight weeks, year round. Along with Gary, Jim Hornung and Eva Connell are part of the inaugural exhibit.


1 comment

Stephen Frank Gary February 15, 2014 at 8:54 pm

Dear Jared and Coast News:

Thank you so much for the kind story in your publication. Much appreciated, and enjoyed reading this. Its funny to read about ones self. Someone even recognized me at a restaurant and I told them I had not yet seen it. They said look behind you and there it was. I took 4 copies. Hope you don’t mind. If you haven’t seen the show, its a good one. I don’t often get to see my work where the place is big enough to hold it, but I don’t like painting small. Anyway, thank you and I hope to see you at some art gig in the future, or maybe see Jared in da water.


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