The Color of Monet

The word at Accent Graphics will never be in a museum. So what? It sells.

Beneath an unassuming building on Central Avenue, in a labyrinth of studios, dozens of artists labor over worktables and at easels and printing presses, churning out watercolors, paintings on canvas and etchings in practically every style known to art history: abstract, cubist and a neoclassical figurative style one could call "If the Ancients Had Been Impressionists."

John Douglas Cline is master of the maze, and he moves easily among the artists, chatting with one about colors, picking up a brush to demonstrate a technique. He passes a young woman who is simultaneously painting six identical figures in a vaguely Picassoesque style, going from canvas to canvas painting in a bright orange circle, methodically filling in one element at a time.

Cline is an elegantly handsome man, with a fashionably spiked buzz cut and a dapper mustache. He's in his 50s, but looks to be in his 40s. He is co-founder of Accent Graphics Incorporated, this multimillion-dollar enterprise that specializes in original fine art, works that ultimately may sell for as much as $20,000.

Whether they can truly be considered "fine art" or even "original" is debatable. Each work is done completely by hand and hung in a custom frame--but then reproduced as many times as Accent's sales reps can sell it. It's an upscale, multimillion-dollar version of those entrepreneurs who back a van up to vacant lots near Paradise Valley Mall to unload a couple of hundred framed posters that people buy to hang over the couches in their apartments. Accent's clients, however, are hanging their works in law offices and fine restaurants. Cline's staff spent years creating artworks for Donald Trump's Taj Mahal resort and the Trump Tower.

Accent's paintings may not have deep allegorical meaning, but they have a rich and important look to them--classical nudes romping among Doric columns--with moods and colors dictated more by Cline's uncanny commercial vision than by artistic inspiration.

"Artists do not understand what sells in the market," says Harriet Hilburn, a company executive vice president.

John Cline does.
@body:"I don't remember the Sixties," John Cline jokes from his office, but he went to art school at Arizona State University back then and emerged a surrealist. "I did awful paintings," he says now, "very tight, dot to dot." But he lived the life of the artist both in Phoenix and Los Angeles.

He's got the relaxed and self-confident air of a successful man. He's witty, well-spoken and, by most accounts, likable. Artists speak fondly of the palpable energy that beams out of him when he's giving direction; when he's displeased, the building temperature seems to drop 20 degrees.

In Phoenix he met Joseph Grassia, who was just getting out of the Air Force and starting a job as a sales rep. They have been business partners and have shared a house for more than 20 years, although Grassia declined to be interviewed for this story.

The business started when Grassia offered to sell Cline's paintings out of the back of his Ford Pinto. In 1970, the two bought a building on Buchanan Street, hired a couple of artists, and that was the start of Accent Graphics. They turned out small framed paintings of butterflies, and when Grassia scored a $25,000 sale to Bullock's department store, they became manufacturers of art.

In 1979, Cline and Grassia bought an abandoned auto showroom on Central Avenue just north of Van Buren. It had truck-size holes in the ceiling, but they set to restoring it, did the drywall and painting themselves, built studios and showrooms and set aside part of the basement as a gallery that hung avant-garde shows and featured performance artists.

But as the business grew, the artiness had to make way for product. Cline and Grassia have more than 100 employees and a line that includes 700 to 800 different pieces at any one time that wholesale for prices as high as $10,000. Accent Graphics splintered into two distinct companies, Phoenix Art Press, which caters to art galleries and interior designers, and Accent Fine Art, which caters to furniture and department stores. According to documents filed with the Arizona Corporation Commission, Accent Graphics consistently shows a net worth of more than $1 million, and Cline admits to gross profits of more than $5 million annually. "We are entitled to make a living," Cline says. Indeed, he lives the business. He keeps a home in High Point, North Carolina, where he stays for months at a time at the semiannual furniture shows which provide the bulk of his income. And at the end of his Phoenix workday, he retires to a Scottsdale home that he and Grassia bought for $30,000 in 1971. With help from their staff artists, they rebuilt it and redecorated with ornate and heavy antique furnishings to resemble the classical locales of their product line. A promenade of columns (that one magazine gushingly described as Pompeian, but that Cline confesses were made in Mesa for $125 each) leads from the back door into a garden so full of plants and statuary it could inspire an epic poem. The house is literally overwhelming, but it would take a taste more refined than that found in puff pieces by local design magazines to say so.

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