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WWII vet revels in connections through art

CARLSBAD —Nearly every weekend on the corner of State Street and Grand Avenue, one man carefully sets up a table, an umbrella and neatly dots his table with art and coloring books.

Gil McCue, 91, has spent his life embedded in the arts, whether its paintings, writing books and even teaching. The World War II vet is a welcome sight outside the door of the Viz Art Gallery, which is where he trades stories with people strolling in and around the shop while selling his paintings and coloring books.

Greg “Via” Visintainer, who owns the gallery, met McCue about seven years ago during a street festival and felt an instant connection. So, he invited the former Navy rescue diver to set up outside the shop, and Visintainer soon realized McCue was the one artist he could count on to be there nearly every weekend.

“When I was young, I realized I had a talent,” McCue said. “I started at the farmers market and then I met Gregg and I’ve been with him ever since.”

Born on Dec. 26, 1928, in Queens, New York, McCue was taken by art at an early age when he drew a picture for his brother and sold it to him for $0.20. McCue realized he talent and the transaction piqued his interest in art as a potential career path.

However, his father told him he couldn’t make a living as an artist, so McCue put those dreams on the back burner for several years and joined the Navy. He served from 1945 to 1948 and then earned a full scholarship to Long Island University as a swimmer. In high school, he was a national champion.

He married his wife, Norma, in 1953 and after several years of living in New York, the couple moved west to San Diego County settling in Oceanside. They were married for 63 years until she passed away in November 2015.

Life as an artist took off as McCue’s work was selling, while he also landed work teaching at five colleges and universities in the county. He wrote eight books, seven of which center on art, plus a fictional work titled “The Encounter” and a memoir thanks to encouragement from Visintainer.

“This is Gil’s last-place showing his work,” he said. “It’s going to be the end of an era.”

His work has led to other encounters and memories. He met President Jimmy Carter, taught at Comic-Con in the early years and nearly won a national contest in 1964 for the $0.05 stamp memorializing President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in November 1963.

Also, he sold hundreds of his coloring books, featuring iconic landmarks in North County and along the coast, to the San Diego International Airport, which sold out in weeks.

And while McCue has lived a colorful life, he continues to set up his modest stand every weekend, although it will come to an end in January. The building was bought and the gallery is closing its doors, thus leaving McCue facing the next chapter.

While he said he is likely to hang up his brush, gallery employee Victoria Trickle isn’t so sure. His presence will be missed, she said, adding his soft and friendly demeanor is endearing to all those around him.

“He’s such an artist at heart, he’ll still be creating for himself,” Trickle said. “He’s an amazing guy. When he comes in, he will literally not let me help him with anything. People are just so amazed by his work.”

As for McCue’s presence, he reconnects with longtime customers and those who have bought his art. Kim Kelly bought one of McCue’s paintings of Carlsbad, which now resides in her daughter’s dorm room.

She said it reminds her daughter of home, to which McCue replied is the reason he continues to create.

“You can’t get a better compliment than that,” he said. “She lives with my painting. It brings back certain memories and that’s what my art does to people.”