Phil Dike: At the Edge of the Sea

Phil Dike, Wave Echo, watercolor on paper, 1972, 21-1/2 x 29-1/2 inches, The E. Gene Crain Collection

Phil Dike: At the Edge of the Sea
June 25 – September 24, 2017

Philip Latimer Dike (1906–1990) grew up in Redlands, California, and studied at the Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles from 1924 to 1927. There, he met artist Millard Sheets (1907–1989), who would become a lifelong friend. Dike went to New York in 1929 to study at the Art Students League. He also studied in the studio of artist George Luks (1867–1933) and exhibited with Luks’s students at the New York Water Color Club. Returning to Los Angeles, he taught at Chouinard for a year before traveling to Europe and studying for a year in France at the American Academy of Fontainebleau. He resumed teaching at Chouinard in 1931; then, in 1935, he became a color coordinator and story designer for Walt Disney Studios, contributing to such animated classics as Fantasia and Snow White. His tenure with Disney lasted until 1945. With an educational background that was grounded in realism, Dike was a prominent member of the California regionalist movement of the 1930s and 1940s.

Bustling beach and harbor scenes dominated Dike’s subject matter in the 1930s and 1940s. He first came to Newport Beach with his father, a real estate developer. One of his best-known interpretations of the area is California Holiday from 1938, which is in the E. Gene Crain Collection. Published in Life magazine in September 1941, according to the artist he painted it from numerous watercolor sketches he made on Labor Day. Of the painting he said: “This is the entrance to Newport Harbor. . . .The pageant of continuous activity, with more than the usual pictorial setting, has made it an exciting place to look and contemplate, if not to paint. . . . Maybe the exhilaration of wind, sun, and sea—sunburn, sailboats, and hot dogs may recreate moments for some of us.”

During the 1940s Dike began to change his approach to painting, abandoning a strictly realist approach to incorporate semiabstract forms. A close friend of artist Rex Brandt (1914–2000), the two founded the Brandt-Dike Summer School in 1947 at Brandt’s home in Corona del Mar. In 1950, Dike joined the faculty of Scripps College and the Claremont Graduate Schools. By the late 1960s, his work had reached nearly pure abstraction. The dominant subject matter of his work remained the same—the sea and man’s relationship to it. He established a summer home and studio in Cambria, California, and began painting bold, semiabstract paintings of the rugged central and northern coast of California.

By the 1970s, as his work became more abstract, the human elements were reduced to mystical forms, and the elements of sky, sea, and sand were reduced to striated, textured patterns. These works—collectively referred to as his Waves series—represent Dike’s mature style and powerfully express his passion for the sea.

Dike retired from teaching in 1970 but continued to make his home in Claremont. As a professor emeritus, he influenced many young artists long after his retirement. In his last decades, Dike, a sensitive man, also wrote poetry that expressed his feelings about the sea and man’s relationship to it.

“The days I walk on the beach,” he said, “are not just a search for a subject to paint, or to fill a notebook of facts and ideas, but to somehow reawaken the sensations of pleasure and wonder that I have felt for the sea in the years I have been painting. There is a deep satisfaction in the rhythm of the waves, the light, the smells, the sand and rock pieces that change from day to day…”

The exhibition at Laguna Art Museum will be a retrospective, showing paintings in oil and watercolor from the 1920s through the early 1980s. It will be accompanied by a full-color book, which will highlight versatility of this native California artist, reproducing not only the works in the exhibition, but additional works in all media—prints, drawings, paintings, and murals.