In 1955, Slidell abstract artist George Dunbar was selected as Art in America’s “New Talent” of the year.
More than six decades later, at age 91, Dunbar no longer thinks of himself as a new talent.
But he is as productive as ever in his studio on the banks of Bayou Bonfouca, coming to work every day in the belief that, “my best work is yet to come.”
Dunbar’s latest creations — he calls this his “Surge Period” — will be on display in November in a new show at the Callan Contemporary Gallery in New Orleans.
But before that, some of Dunbar’s best previous work will be part of the St. Tammany Art Association’s annual "Selections from New Orleans Museum of Art" show at the STAA’s Art House in Covington.
The show opens Oct. 6 and runs through Nov. 17. It’s the first St. Tammany Parish show featuring Dunbar’s work in three years.
“This is my home,” said Dunbar, who in his earlier days developed many of the subdivisions in Slidell, personally digging out the canals. “So, I love having my work shown here.
“But I’ve also got to show it where I can make a living.”
After such a long and distinguished career, Dunbar jokes about holding out hope that his work might still be shown in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City because the value of those pieces would be in excess of $1 million.
And, having outlived his contemporaries (Dunbar is the only living artist in the STAA show), Dunbar he also jokes about the value of his work is likely to increase after he’s gone.
Dunbar, however, considers himself blessed to be remarkably fit, thanks in part to regular visits to Cross Gates Athletic Club where the Navy veteran of World War II still displays the swimming skills first developed as a salvage diver in the Philippines.
Following cataract surgery a few years ago, Dunbar needs glasses only for reading, keeping his eye for color and detail sharp.
Arthritis in his wrists does require the aid of assistants Lizzie Shelby, Ryan Gianelloni and Gae Lynn Cavalier to mix some of the materials for his work. But the ideas are still all Dunbar.
His mind is as creative as ever.
“We all worry about dementia,” Dunbar said. “We want to have our marbles until we die.
“But I don’t really think about age. I just want to keep going until I can’t.”
And by keeping going, Dunbar means not standing still as an artist.
“You’ve got to constantly reinvent yourself,” he said. “You’ve got to do different things because you don’t want to become a one-trick party.”
Dunbar, who uses a variety of media, has been through more periods than he can recall (12 according to his website).
His latest is inspired by the marsh grass bordering his home and studio and the way the shapes, textures and colors vary in the reflections of sunlight.
But Dunbar also prides himself in maintaining his own thumbprint, no matter the style or period, and never becoming derivative, as he views many of those who remain colonized in New York.
“The best compliment I can get is that somebody can see different types of work I’ve done and say, ‘That’s a Dunbar,’” he said. “I’d never want to be thought of as copying someone else.”
Dunbar credits his longevity as a working artist — and for remaining a distinctive one — to the decision he made years ago to return to Louisiana rather than join the art scene in New York, one primarily made so he could remain with his terminally ill mother in New Orleans.
Dunbar and his family were able to lead a regular life, horseback riding for the kids on the 9-acre tract he created out of marshland and coaching Little League teams for several years.
Dunbar’s early days of developing subdivisions (“That was my morning job; I painted in the afternoon,”) in and around Slidell were the basis of his current energy level, one that he says would have been difficult to maintain in a loft in SoHo.
And it’s one he doesn’t feel has declined despite the passage of time, either physically or mentally.
“I still feel passionate about my work,” Dunbar said. “Some people may dread getting up in the morning, but I get up and look forward to doing something.
“To me, it’s still like mining for gold and feeling that I’ve just scratched the surface. I’ve had a very good life.”