Portrait of an Artist

Art and Adaptability with Palos Verdes Resident Beverly Bigwood

Fresh from New York City in the early 1980s, Beverly Bigwood thought she had made it in Los Angeles when three of her collages were stolen from a Westwood gallery. “They took Miro and Lichtenstein prints, along with my original art work,” she says. “I was honored. I love Lichtenstein, and my work was worth being ripped off!”

In the Palos Verdes home Bigwood shares with her husband, architect Randy Martin, it’s easy to see the appeal. Her Famous Artists series of collages are smart, charming and deceptively simple. Munch, Nevelson, Hockney, Kahlo, Dr. Seuss and dozens of other artists lie on the pool table or hang on the wall. The portraits have just returned from a corporate exhibition, after an ex-fiancé (of which there are many) called to say, “We need art.”  

Bigwood’s art is everywhere in the cavernous modern home she and Martin have recently sold. Vast in subjects and various in techniques, her work has appeared in more than 100 galleries throughout the United States and Europe.  She began her career as an artiste du papier (paper artist) but now creates work in oil, acrylics wood, metal and clay.

Reach for the purse on her bar, and you’ll discover that it’s made of stone, with the label “FAUX” painted inside. Her witty Dog Portrait series is an endless source of commissions. On the walls of her guest room hangs her series on Sin. In her studio, the tribute to her husband, Exactly What I Wanted, hangs over her work table.

Despite her imminent move to the desert, the table is filled with placemats ready for shipment to the Gallery of Functional Art at Bergamot station. “I have a work ethic which is kind of bizarre,” she explains. “I have to be doing something. I have the attention span of a 5-year-old.”

Born in North Brookfield, Massachusetts, Bigwood is the daughter of two school teachers. “I perplexed my parents and overwhelmed my mother,” she says. “By the time I was 5, I knew I wanted to leave, so my strategy was to obey them for 12 years, then I could do what I wanted.” She pauses for a moment, then smiles disarmingly. “I can be infinitely patient.”

Bigwood won a full scholarship to the School of the Worcester Art Museum and moved to New York City, where, she claims, “It’s easy to sell art.” When a friend commissioned an acrylic portrait of her boyfriend, Bigwood got paid $200. “It sounds demeaning to put a price on art, but I needed to pay the rent,” she says. “And it marked a turning point. I knew I could make money doing what I loved.”

At 27, after a bad breakup (“Manhattan was not big enough for both of us”), Bigwood moved to California at the suggestion of a friend who grew up in Palos Verdes. She rented a house above Sunset, on Kings Road, intending to stay a few months, but instead she remained 30 years. “It was tougher for artists back then because it was a movie town,” she says.

Her first marriage ended shortly after Bigwood nudged her husband to alert him that artist David Hockney had just sat down at their banquette at Something’s Fishy in Malibu. His remark, “Who’s Hockney?” proved to be the kiss of death for their marriage. “Isn’t that grounds for divorce?” Bigwood asks.

Eight years ago, just as she was about to move back to New England, she met her current husband online. “I thought I’d just practice dating before moving back East,” she says, with irrepressible frankness. “Instead, I ended up with exactly what I wanted.” Given the huge and flattering portrait Martin painted of his wife, now hanging in the entry of their home, the feeling appears to be mutual.

Soon after I meet this fast-talking, wiry, funny brunette, wearing cadmium red lipstick so intense it looks poured out of a tube, Bigwood’s replies are sounding as if they belong in a ‘40s movie.

• • •

MARSH: “What prepared you for Mii Amo, your 125-square-foot mosaic public installation on Olive Street in Burbank?”
BIGWOOD: I made a trivet in my Learning Annex art class.
MARSH: What about your afghan rescue dogs, which I see portrayed on the side of your house? I don’t see anything in your background related to ceramics.
BIGWOOD: I went to Color Me Mine and made a plate and a mug for my husband.
MARSH: Color Me Mine!?
BIGWOOD: Yes. We fired it twice, and I couldn’t get the colors I wanted, so I took a course at the Palos Verdes Art Center.
MARSH: You’re fearless.
BIGWOOD: Once I get the basics, I can do anything.

• • •

To appreciate Bigwood’s audacious learning curve, you would have to look at the trivet, then see the astonishing mosaic in Burbank. Then look at her pinch pots from the Palos Verdes Art Center and see her elegant ceramic dogs.  Bigwood’s unstoppable curiosity follows a simple Seussian vector: Go, Bigwood. Go! 

The exuberance evident in Bigwood’s art is the very trait that draws her to Lichtenstein. “His work is from the heart and appears childish and simple,” she says, “but there is something beneath the surface.” Bigwood recalls meeting the artist once, after she ignored the gentle discouragement of his agent (“He never writes back.”) Not only did Lichtenstein reply, but he also invited Bigwood to visit while he installed a mural in Beverly Hills. “He was such a happy man, with a twinkle in his eye,” Bigwood smiles. “He did what he loved. He kept working.”
Bigwood looks forward to a new source of inspiration in the desert. After that? “When I met Randy, he said he liked to move every eight years,” she says, “So we’re thinking Paris.”

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