Spooning takes on a whole new meaning with artist Dale Strong.
The 78-year-old landscape painter uses a unique tool to create his works: iced-tea spoons. Strong uses the flattened, shaped spoons instead of brushes or palette knives to paint Western landscapes.
I learn about Strong's life on a sunny Wednesday morning at his home in the foothills. I'm greeted warmly and given a tour by his wife, Joan Morris. We talk art, music, accomplishments and memories.
Strong's backstory is as distinctive as his painting method. As a teenager, he received a scholarship to the Juilliard School to study opera. However, the 19-year-old turned down the opportunity to focus on family life with his late wife, Betty, and two children.
The artistic bug resurfaced years later, when Strong developed an interest in photography.
"I went to the New York Institute of Photography and worked at photography quite a bit," he recalls. "The highpoint was that I was selected by Life magazine. I photographed and wrote stories on memorable events.
"Photography was very good, but the thing that bothered me was landscapes. ... When you take a picture, you can't move anything around. There can be piles of garbage, an old rusted car, telephone wires. You can take it out of the picture, but ... it doesn't work well."
When Strong saw his first oil painting, it captured his imagination. He later met the painter—award-winning landscape artist Conrad Schwiering—who encouraged him to learn to paint. Strong took courses at several U.S. art schools but was unhappy with the teaching methods.
"They had Ph.D.s, but they had not really painted. It's hard to learn from someone who has not been accomplished in it."
Strong lived in Europe for two years in the early '70s. He studied at art schools in Florence and Paris, where, he says, "They don't teach you how to paint; they teach you how to see. That's really a revolution."
Strong created his own method and style. First, he painted with brushes, but found it limiting because you have to wait for paint to dry. Then he used palette knives, which provided more flexibility, but the short knives jabbed into his palm. A meal at a restaurant was a turning point.
"One day, I was having iced tea. I looked at the spoon and thought, 'Wow, look how long that is. If I could figure out how to flatten it and grind it into shape, that would be ideal.'"
Strong took his spoon to the closest railroad track, taped it down and waited. "When the train went by, it flattened it out perfectly." That was in 1972.
In the years since, Strong has won awards at international expos in New York, Geneva and Madrid, among other cities. One of his works hangs in the National Archives in Helsinki, Finland. His works hang locally at Gallery 2402 and Artists at Work studio.
Strong's paintings capture the West, with majestic mountains and landscapes depicting places he has been. His works have graced the walls of famed performers, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Johnny Carson.
He met them during his day job in the '60s, working for Norman Petty—whose recording studio was a starting point for Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly and others. Strong's job was to sell finished recordings and get radio stations to play the records.
These days, Strong gets a lot of pleasure out of teaching students privately, at Yavapai College in Prescott, and here at Pima Community College. At least two first-timers have had commercial success; one sold a painting for $500, and another won second prize at the State Fair.
"They are so amazed when they get done with the class. They want to kiss and hug. She goes along to protect me," Strong says, gesturing toward his wife.
Morris recalls a friend of Strong's who took his class and was amazed at her accomplishment. "She stood back and said, 'I do not believe I've done this,'" says Morris.
Strong's class is appropriately titled "You Thought You Couldn't Paint." He offers to teach me his method, saying about 60 percent of his students have never painted. I am in this category; my artistic skills have been limited to stick figures.
Memories of feigning illness to avoid art class fill my mind, but I take Strong's challenge and agree to pay for and take the class. After all, he says no student has failed yet.