In October 2010, Larry Saxton sat rapt, entranced by a performance presented by Cirque du Soleil called "OVO."
He was so deeply affected by the artistry, the riot of color and the overall visual richness, he felt compelled to try to transfer the ephemeral feelings coursing through him onto canvas.
The experience – at the National Harbor in Oxon Hill – energized Saxton and caused a spurt of creativity. By that Christmas, he had finished 15 paintings – acrylic and tissue paper – in a series commemorating different elements of what he had seen.
"The colors, the music, the environment: It blew me away, man, it blew me away," he recalled during a recent interview. "The colors killed me. I couldn't sleep. I was awakened at night; I couldn't get it out of my head, so I worked it out on canvas. That's how I'll go through a series. Sometimes it will hit me and I'll work it until I'm exhausted. Sometimes it may be 15-20 pieces or three or four."
Saxton, 61, has been painting most of his life. Art is an integral part of his existence, and he always knew he wanted to be involved in the medium, he said.
On the walls of his well-appointed District home hang paintings Saxton had created as well as an African mask and an intricately carved antelope head with long curved horns, paintings by some of his favorite artists, Sam Gilliam and the late Charles Sebree, Charles White and Aveille Jacobs, and artwork by Rothko and Kandinsky. Saxton's representational abstract of the Buffalo Soldiers sits above his fireplace and a slightly grizzled self-portrait greets guests in the dining room. Saxton's studio is comfortable, filled with finished pieces, others in various states of completion and all the accoutrements of his craft – including a large easel, paint brushes, pens, pencils, crayons, and paint of all hues. One thing Saxton can't do without is his music. His sound system offers a soothing aural accompaniment to his musings or a pleasing backdrop as he brings a canvas to life.
What wafts through the speakers could be anything from Duke Ellington to Michael Jackson's Thriller. As long as Saxton has his art, music, especially jazz, golf and his family, he's a happy man.
Every room in the house holds Saxton's personal artwork, including oil paintings, pen and pencil drawings, his wood and stone sculptures, as well as other artworks he's amassed over the years.
"I collect mainly African American art so I can pass it on to my kids but I wish I could afford Rothko and Kandinsky," he said. "If I saw something I liked, though, I wouldn't not buy it because it was done by someone who wasn't African American. Kandinsky and Rothko were artists who deal with a lot of emotions in their work. Their work centers on colors, feelings."
Saxton is compact, his gestures smooth, spare, measured. But his facial expressions and mannerisms make a noticeable shift whenever he ruminates about art and music. Saxton's eyes light up, he becomes animated and his body seems charged with a passion and energy that illustrates his deep and abiding passion for his craft and vocation.
The Kansas City native has come a long way from the days when he was a wayward young man, more prone to partying hard and hanging out with friends and associates than focusing on the more serious aspects of his life. He credits his time in the Navy with changing his direction.
"I was drafted to go to Vietnam and I decided to go into the Navy," said Saxton. "The Navy gave me that discipline, they gave me a job. Either you did the job or you'd end up in the brig. I was in communications – as a Navy radioman. They gave me confidence."
In high school, Saxton said, art "helped me significantly."
"I always knew I wanted to be in art. In my yearbook, I said I wanted to teach art and go into the military. Art helped me," he said. "From the aspect of popularity, everyone knew me. I did the posters and banners for big games. Art has been a very big part of my life."
Fresh out of the Navy in 1975, Saxton worked at the Pentagon with the Chief of Naval Operations for about six months and then decided to plunge into art fulltime.
"I went to two art schools and worked odd jobs. I was a messenger for the American Petroleum Institute and sold ads for the Washington Informer for about six months," Saxton said. "I realized I needed to get a portfolio together so I took art classes. I was out of money and had nowhere to live. My mother was worried about me. I was this close to leaving D.C. and I went to a party and a guy I met said he could find me a job."
Saxton became a teacher's aide at Grant Elementary School in Northwest. It was there that he met his wife Tanyna. The couple recently celebrated their 30th anniversary.
As he mapped out his artistic future, Saxton decided that he wanted to study at the Corcoran School of Art.
"I had pen and ink drawings of Freddie Hubbard, Duke Ellington and Martin Luther King, Jr., and I showed them to Tony Taylor and I told him I wanted to go to the Corcoran," Saxton explained as Michael Jackson's Thriller played in the background. "I had a bad experience at a liberal arts college and I knew Corcoran was the art school."
Taylor was the founder of Let 'Em Play, a jazz foundation that helped young people get involved in the District.
Saxton earned a Ford Foundation scholarship after his first year which he said made all the difference in the world to him.
"It really helped me because it allowed me to focus completely on my art and not have to worry about working. It really was the best time of my life," the father of two daughters gushed.
Saxton earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Corcoran and he completed a year of master's level work at Howard University.
He counts Gilliam, Lou Stovall, Jacob Lawrence and Sebree as among those who have been his guideposts.
"Sebree is an influence. As I grow older I see the importance of those conversations," Saxton said. "When I think back to the conversations of how you work and what you should be concerned with in your work, it still resonates with me."
Sebree, who died in 1985, was one of many noted artists to come out of Chicago's black arts scene in the 1930s and 1940s. Tanyna Saxton remembers Sebree for his connections to and stories about the Harlem Renaissance and said she has great affection for Sebree the artist and the man.
"He was quite a character," she said as she pointed to her favorite painting of his which is a print of his Madonna which Sebree gave to the couple as a wedding gift. "I love his work. He was such an interesting person."
Sebree also willed Saxton all of his paint materials and an unfinished color painting of another Madonna when he died.
Saxton said he met Jacob Lawrence through a mutual friend and was fortunate to have spent time with him. He said he has also met Gilliam and other artists, all of whom helped him become a more accomplished artist.
"I am fortunate to have been in their company and talked to them," Saxton said.
Saxton said he has been drawn to Kandinsky and Rothko for the color and feelings that emanate from their work and said he would likely describe himself a 'constructionist.' These artists painted around the time of the Industrial Revolution when machinery was coming into being. Their paintings were abstracts with movements of lines and shapes, similar to the art of Paul Klee and Kandinsky.
"I'm drawn more to the traditional when I paint or draw. What I think about is harmony, rhythm and balance," said Saxton, who last held a one-man show in 2008 at Bar Rouge in Northwest. "I like the eye to move, I love rhythm, harmony and color. That's very important to me."
"Matisse was very much into color but if you talk about color, Van Gogh is the ultimate. When you see his work in color, your jaw drops. I see why (his work) lasts forever."
Saxton said jazz is always in his art and that is reflected in the various jazz series of graphite on paper he's created. He has about half a dozen different jazz series completed so far.
He said that some who know him have suggested that he embrace and stick to one style.
"... It's all about how it comes to me. I don't want to be locked into one thing. That's why I also sculpt. Art comes to you and it can take many forms," Saxton said.
"I want my art to represent my life and my life has been all over the place. Sometimes, I'm a golfer, sometimes I'm a writer, sometimes, I'm a church trustee. Trying to pigeonhole myself into one style would not be fair to me. I have sold quite a bit of art but I don't know what the 'powers that be' think."
These days, Saxton's day are spend helping out at The Washington Informer, creating art, playing golf, and 'honey dos' – taking care of chores or other requests his wife makes of him.
Saxton said that he feels he has many good years left and feels nowhere close to the end of this particular arc of his life.
"When you're working on a piece of art, it's really a challenge to know when to stop," he said. "You keep on working. Art is fascinating, man, fascinating. I believe everyone has that within them."
Readers interested in viewing or purchasing Saxton's artwork can visitsaxtonsart.com