The Color of Monet

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.

But overwhelming fools a lot of people. This is Cline's genius and the secret of his success. When he speaks of his staff artists, he describes them as "fine artists such as Richard Hall and J.D. Parrish." They may be unknown, even nonexistent, but when Cline pronounces them masters, they become so in the eyes of his clients. It's like the haberdasher, who while draping a suitcoat over the shoulders of a customer, turns to Freddy, the assistant manager, winks, then says, "This is the latest style by the famous designer Fredi. You read about Fredi last week in Time magazine, of course."

The customer always answers, "Of course."
@body:Harriet Hilburn, executive vice president of Accent Fine Art, says, "When you come here, you're coming to the John Douglas Cline school of art."

While lawyers with art collections can discuss the philosophy of compromised versus pure art from the comfort of their salaried positions, most working artists of any sort realize that the real challenge is to be creative within the parameters of a given format. In this case, the format is a business that produces artworks. Many artists never realize that one can have convictions and still work with someone else's ideas.

"It's better than flipping burgers and then going home and being tormented," says Jay Hall, a Phoenix Art Press principal artist.

Cline literally molds artists in the styles he wants. Starving artists are a dime a dozen; he can hire them at $5 an hour, watch them, shape them and discard those who don't want to take direction.

For example, Cline noted that he and Harriet Hilburn were recently talking about a promising new disciple.

"We've got his ego developed," Cline told her, "now let's start on his art."
Making it through Cline's basic training can be lucrative. Principal artists working on successful lines can make upward of $100,000 a year. Richard Hall, one of Phoenix Art Press' top artists, has been there for ten years. He had an art degree and had been selling his work at art fairs, and was so impressed with John Cline that he took the only job available at the time, in the framing shop. Now as a principal artist and art director, he commands a salary in the six figures.

But sometimes egos collide. One artist who left Cline's stable within the last year is grateful for the training he received and the money he made, but reluctant to let his name be used for fear it will ruin his reputation.

"I'd rather not have it known that I worked for the place," he says. "To the serious art dealer, it's kind of considered the prostitution of the art world."
But as Andy Warhol so unashamedly said, "Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art."

@body:"You have to have the right mindset," says Dennis Smith, a production supervisor for Phoenix Art Press, to produce "work that might go above a couch and have to match a fabric swatch."

Indeed, from season to season, Cline plans the line partially around the textures and fabrics that will be showing up in fashionable new furniture lines.

The content of the artwork is assembled from a repertoire of predictable elements as in those pornography factories in which a writer is handed a manuscript that another writer left off the day before and told to write 20 more pages that introduce a French maid and her poodle and use the words "throbbing" and "turgid."

"They would find a picture in a book and say we like this look, come up with something like it," says one former artist.

When principal artists leave, someone else just picks up the brush and the style. "There's a guy there that I trained and his work looks similar to mine," says one former principal artist. "And I've heard things to the effect that a client will order several of my works, and they'll just pack up this other guy's work hoping they won't notice."

When Teri Guy Skrdla got out of art school and moved to Phoenix, she found a job as an artist's assistant with Phoenix Art Press. She was excited to be working around other artists, and had never seen a supply cabinet so full as the ones she could take her materials from. She had assumed that she would be learning from another artist--then, to her surprise, found that she was essentially a copyist. Skrdla would work from a photograph of a work already painted, and learned to extrapolate from the muddier colors of photography what the original looked like. A number of signatures in the line are pseudonyms and represent not one artist's work, but a series of paintings with a particular feel, executed by a design team. In the company catalogues, each artist has a biographical page telling who he or she is; for the pseudonymous lines, the bio reads, "a studio-directed style designed by John Douglas Cline and a studio of apprentices." How the paintings from those lines are marketed beyond the wholesale transaction to a furniture store or gallery is anyone's guess. Several former artists claim that they routinely painted copies of the work of principal artists from start to finish under the artist's signature. "There were times when [the artist] wouldn't touch the canvas when I did it," one said.

Once on a visit to Las Vegas, Teri Skrdla saw several Phoenix Art Press paintings in a gallery. As she pointed them out to her husband, the gallery owner came by and asked, "Do you know Richard Hall?" When she said that she did, he pointed to one of Hall's paintings and said, "That's his masterpiece."

Skrdla stifled a laugh and left, wondering how much of it Hall had painted. Teri Skrdla quit after six months. John Cline was disappointed because he had high hopes for her and he told her so. "I would hope [my artists] would not leave," Cline says. He doesn't think they could get a better opportunity than to work for him. One artist has said that Cline and Grassia act as if the artists are their family and their children. And when the children stray, Cline freely admits, he feels betrayed.

When asked if he can't think back to his own art school days and identify with the disillusioned young artists who have walked out of his employ, he answers with a single word.

@body:The notion that artists are pure and ethereal channels of creativity and inspiration is a modern one. Michelangelo was not a starving artist; he had the wealthy Medici family as his patrons and was commissioned by the Vatican. Velzquez worked for the king of Spain. And many of the great masters claimed the work of their students as their own.

Indeed, in this half of the 20th century, Andy Warhol called his studio the Factory because his assistants worked at his bidding creating works of art that he art-directed.

While Warhol dealt in a realm of outrageously nonconforming conformity, Cline's realm swoops closer to the furniture market.

The art-furnishings business is a cutthroat one. Cline worries that competitors in the furniture business will pilfer the designs of his frames and finishes, that art firms will copy his designs, and that people will even try to bring cameras into their High Point showrooms.

"Every one of these pieces is copyrighted because I want to protect them from being knocked off," he says. "I just want to stop it."
Even when it involves his own employees. Every employee signs an extensive--but probably unenforceable--noncompetition contract upon being hired, stipulating that he is doing work for hire and that everything he learns while working at Accent Graphics is proprietary. If an employee's art shows up at a local gallery and it has an "Accent/Phoenix Art Press" look to it, the employee is summarily fired, and can expect to receive a letter from Cline's attorney.

A former frame finisher named Gary Butler, for example, set up a display of his framing talents at a gallery on South Central, and within days, a color photograph of the display was on John Cline's desk.

And two weeks ago, an artist still in Cline's employ called an art-gallery owner at home at night pleading with her to take down the show of his paintings scheduled to open the next day. He was petrified that something would be deemed too similar to the work he did for Phoenix Art Press and that he would be fired. "We had him long before Art Press did," says the gallery owner. "I'm crying over it. He's lost his soul."

@body:John Douglas Cline is fully aware of what people say about him and about his company. He becomes irate with artists he suspects look at his line as "decorative crap for the wall."

As he sits at lunch at Lombardi's restaurant in Arizona Center, he points to his half-eaten bowl of risotto with calamari and says, "I could lacquer this and call it art--but I couldn't sell it."

He goes on to say that some people cannot accept pictures of flowers as art or think that filling a machine gun with colored lead and spraying it into a wall is art. Then, speaking of the furniture show in High Point that he had returned from late the night before, he says, "I just came from a place where duck pictures and dogs jumping over fences is art."

Jon Glimpse, who once worked for Cline and now makes custom furniture, takes the other side. "Philosophically, I believe there's very little difference between what they do and fine art. Most of the animosity you're picking up on has to do with the misexpectations we're all taught in art school."

And if the critics and the art school professors do not take Cline's side in the argument, the market does.

Next month, the John Douglas Cline School of Art will be moving into a building ten times the size of the one it now inhabits. The 72,000-square-foot former American Express office near Indian School Road cost $5 million to build; Cline and Grassia picked it up from the Resolution Trust Corporation for less than $800,000.

As Cline paces the still-uncarpeted floors, and points out where the frame shop, the offices and the galleries will be, one sees only art, the kind that Warhol talked about--the art of business.


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