Portraits of Summer



Two masters of the canvas share with California Home + Design Creative Director Liddy Walseth how summer inspires their palettes. (ABOVE, Eric Zener, A Launching Into)

I have long admired the work of both Eric Zener from Sausalito and Danny Heller of Palm Springs, two artists whose paintings of cool, turquoise blue pools and idyllic summer scenes transport me to a relaxing vacation. I recently uncovered why this season is the driving force behind their work. 

Eric Zener – Sausalito, California (ABOVE, Eric Zener, Under The Brilliant Light of Summer)

Walseth: While some associate water with fun, your paintings often imbue it with a deeper meaning. What are the emotions you are hoping to convey in these scenes? 

Zener: I have always approached the subject of water metaphorically as an examination of renewal and at times, escape—escaping through nostalgic feelings of youth and the ephemeral transformative sensations one can feel beneath the surface. Immersion in water, away from the noise and stress of daily life, offers us a brief reprise from the world above. I also enjoy the egalitarian aspect of crowds of people in a pool or at the sea. There is a universal connection to water that all ages and cultures relate to.

Walseth: Do you find living in the Bay Area and being surrounded by water helpful for your inspiration? (ABOVE, Eric Zener, Splash)

Zener:  The variety of bodies of water in the Bay Area certainly are a great source of visual inspiration. Whether it is a summer pool, a calm part of the bay, or the nearby beaches, the abundance of water is a constant draw for me.  

Walseth: Are the pools and water scenes you paint set in a specific location? 

Zener: I prefer the location to be ambiguous rather than apparent. I would rather the viewer reflect on a memory or imagine a place they would like to be than me placing them in a specific place that I see.

Walseth: Does water provide you with a therapeutic experience?  (Above, Eric Zener, 8)

Zener: Absolutely. I get a sense of agoraphobia when I am too landlocked. I grew up surfing and spending a great deal of time swimming for pleasure and exercise. Even standing in front of the vastness of the sea is quiet and humbling.

Walseth: The theme of escapism has been discussed in your paintings. What do you hope people feel when they gaze at your work? 

Zener: I certainly don’t want to “lead the witness,” but I do hope they feel a sense of peace. Water is great place of vulnerability and adventure as we sink into the abyss. It gives us peace with joyful folly, and peace with its transformative nature.

Walseth: What is your version of a perfect summer day?

Zener: Floating on my back in the warm clear sea with friends and family.

(ABOVE, Eric Zener, How to Disappear Completely, BELOW, Danny Heller, Eichler With Convertible)

Danny Heller – Palm Springs, California 

WALSETH: You have a long history of painting Mid-century architecture and surrounding scenes. Do you feel like you were born in the wrong era? 

HELLER: I tend to gravitate toward the older, historic aspect of things, so maybe I was born in the wrong era. I absolutely love the feel of things with a deep backstory: architecture, music, and objects. However, I am in awe of new technology and the ways that contemporary designers and artists are taking hints from the past.  

WALSETH: You have said that growing up in SoCal affected your aesthetic. What is it about this region that made you want to reinterpret with paint? 

HELLER: My painting professor in college, Hank Pitcher, always said, “Paint what you know.” This is a good motto to live by, since those who focus on foreign subjects tend to bungle them, often coming across as fake. Growing up in the SoCal suburbs, that was what I started painting because that was what I knew. I realized that the stereotypical bland suburbs were actually quite exceptional. There was a culture to the clusters of tract homes, with (then) green lawns, backyard pools, and a car in every driveway—it was the American dream. The transition from these token suburban houses to the more sleek Mid-century modern homes was natural.  

Walseth: Your paintings are often very idyllic with beautiful skies and glowing sunlight. Do you feel summer is the season best suited to modernism?  (ABOVE, Danny Heller, Pink Pool Inner Tube)

Heller: In my opinion, modernism was tailor-made for summer.  Floor-to-ceiling glass, atriums, and indoor-outdoor living are the touchstones of modern design and summertime. I think that’s why the style has done so well in the sunny environment of California as you want to live outdoors and these homes accommodate that lifestyle.  (BELOW, Danny Heller, Jaffe House)

WALSETH: Do you live in an Eichler yourself or just prefer the canvas version?

HELLER: I grew up a few blocks away from a well-known tract of Eichler homes, the Balboa Highlands. I was around them while unfortunately not actually living in one, but they captured my imagination and led me to plunge into the world of modernism. While I am no longer near the Balboa Highlands, I am now next to the famous Hotel Lautner, designed by John Lautner in 1947.  

WALSETH: The pool scenes you paint look like backyard paradises. Was summer by the pool a part of your suburban childhood? 

HELLER: I think summertime at the pool has always resonated with me. I remember my grandma’s house in North Hollywood had the coolest pool, with a miniature tropical house that covered the pool equipment. We would make orange juice from the orange trees in her backyard and then jump into the pool. It was like a Sunkist ad! I think that always stuck with me, so now I associate turquoise blue pools with the SoCal lifestyle. Which is what my paintings are all about. (BELOW, Danny Heller, Pool and Palms)

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