About the Artist authored by Jim Garvey for Augusta Magazine

            Fields of light.  The tree line, the sky, the thick air.  Randy Lambeth drives around in his van searching for them almost every day, his sketchbook by his side, his watercolors in the back.  He has no game plan, tomorrow is a mystery. “I’m not in control.  You can’t coerce creativity,” he says.   All he knows is he will paint.  He paints every day, every day—good paintings and bad paintings, spontaneous paintings and problem paintings—“and I just let God sort it out.”

            It’s hard to live in Augusta and not see a Lambeth painting.  He exhibits in  restaurants rather than galleries, in the Partridge Inn penthouse, Le Bistro 491, La Maison on Telfair, the Summerville Ace package store, and even the Petro gas station across from the Uptown VA on Wrightsboro Road just around the corner from his house.  He makes a good living, owes not one penny to anyone, pays for everything in cash, owns three vans and two boats, and most of them work most of the time.

            Yet he hesitates to call himself a professional painter.  “I’m still an art student,” he insists.  When he’s at his best, he’s a little boy in a field amazed at the light all around him.

            That little boy grew up in south Augusta at Lumpkin and Richmond Hill roads.  He started school a year early, so he was a target for the bigger boys and bullies.  His escape was the fields.  “I’d go out in the fields in the late afternoons at the end of a hot day and feel the breeze, look at the tree line, the sun getting low and shining through them, see all around.  There were plenty of fields in Augusta back then in the early ‘60s, with big Victorian farm houses with their own water tank, and I’d look toward the sun and see the bugs in the air and the light shining off the grass.  I felt very comfortable like that.”

            A smart and curious kid who was always trying to figure things out, he especially took to science, so when eventually he went to Augusta College, he majored in biology and minored in chemistry.  Today that scientific curiosity is still much in evidence when he starts talking about medicine or viruses or physical phenomena, firing off a technical vocabulary complex and Latinate at machine gun velocity.

            After graduation, he worked at MCG “incarcerated in cellblock D on the research and education wing,” as he puts it, behind a green door in a hall of green doors in a lab.  He wore a lab coat, had short hair, a steady paycheck, a comfortable future and a fiancee, ...and he was seething inside.  Just before their wedding, she called it off.  The removal of that goal made the job seem pointless, and he traded in his lab coat for the psychedelic lifestyle of the early ‘70s.  He drove a truck for a while till he caught “white line fever.”  Then he moved up to Memphis, sold encyclopedias, and fell in love.  Suddenly, unexpectedly, his sweetheart was dead from a diabetic attack. He came home to Augusta, traumatized and lost.

            “I was a wasteland in my brain, scrubbed clean.  All I wanted was to stop being depressed.”  His friend Jim Lyle and he tried their hand at painting houses for a while.    Another friend had a better idea.  He’d just returned from Knoxville where a guy was teaching students to paint pictures with watercolors.  He was making money doing that!  And it was easy.  Here was a book, You Too Can Paint Watercolor Landscapes, that had everything they needed to know.  Jim and Randy started going out to Freeman Schoolcraft’s farm in Evans and taught themselves using Zoltan Gzabo’s book.  Jim already had an academic backgournd in art and Randy had the drive.  They were good for each other.  Soon people who had lent Randy money, as much as 35 bucks sometimes, would say, “Why don’t you just give me that painting, Randy, and we’ll call it square.”

            “Freeman had a barn, a shack, then fields with tree lines and clouds.  First my paintings were of the barn and shack, because that’s what you did, you needed a focus for your painting.  But then I’d look around and paint my impression of the wind blowing on the field, the sun shining, the bugs in the air—try to do that.  I was right back where I was when I was a child.  I didn’t know how to paint but I knew how to observe, and I knew I wanted to paint the wind and the sun and the rain coming.  No center of interest, no plow or building, just the air on the fields, the humidity, not the sun but the light from the sun.”  So were born what Randy calls his “field paintings.”  In time he learned just to do annotated pencil sketches in the field which he’d then use as the basis for paintings in the studio.  Sometimes he’d just drive around in his van till he saw something that said “Paint me,” and on his knees in the van do a quick painted drawing. 

            In 1974, when Ed Rice was director of the Gertrude Herbert Art Institute, he suggested that Randy submit a couple of his paintings to a show there.  It was the first time he exhibited his work in public. The night of the opening he arrived two hours late on his motorcycle, wearing jeans and a vest, his long hair flying, pretty much an unknown to the art community.  Except one of his paintings, one he did on his knees in the van, had been voted Best of Show.  

            That recognition changed Randy’s perception of himself and triggered what might be called the “swelled head” stage of his career.  “It corrupted me,” he said.  He started taking commissions, painting for money rather than for art.  “There’s a big difference.  One is satisfying, the other is nerve-wracking because you’re painting for Them with a capital T.  You had to satisfy Them because they were your customer, and you had to meet their specifications.”  

            He escaped to Canada for three years and met other artists, living and dead.  In Montreal, where he lived, he studied a group of turn-of-the-century artists called The Group of Seven, whose landscapes focused on unremarkable features—clouds, stumps, burnt trees—just like his own field paintings.  He hitched down to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City where, in the basement, he found preliminary sketches and unfinished works of the great masters.  He discovered that the way they went about creating was very much like the way he did.

            But for him there was nothing to paint in the North.  He needed to come home.  When he did in the late ‘70s, he saw Augusta in a new way.  He discovered the Harrisburg neighborhood and started doing urban field paintings there.  He loved the textured shadows on the old mill houses, the afternoon sun in the home gardens, the atmosphere of neighborhood landmarks such as the Eve Street Market.  Then he bought his house off Wrightsboro Road and started painting portraits to pay for it.  He paid off his mortgage in eight years.

            Randy still looks and acts like someone who has lived hard.  He talks too fast and laughs too loud.  But with age he has mellowed.  He swore off motorcycles after a couple of spills. He drives the speed limit.  He’s learned that even one drink messes up his technical skills, and since he has to paint, booze is out.  He’s learned the discipline of painting every day whether he feels like it or not.

            Despite the raucous appearance, he’s gentle with people.  A lovely profile portrait of a girl reading in a chair illustrates.  “She was a Jehovah’s Witness girl.  Every Saturday she’d knock on my door to tell me about Jesus.  So one day I said, ‘Why don’t you just read to me about Jesus?’  So she’d sit there in my living room, always in that same blue dress, and she’d read from Matthew’s Gospel.  By the time she finished, the whole family knew me.  I went to her high school graduation.”     

            After his bad experience with commissions, Randy won’t take a downpayment for a painting.  If you want him to do a painting of yourself or your kids or a landscape, he considers it “an opportunity to paint,” and when he’s done, if you like it, he’ll sell it to you for the same price as a non-commissioned painting.  Otherwise, he simply paints things that strike him—scenes, children, places--and if someone wants to buy, fine.  Plenty do, and that arrangement has worked out better for him both artistically and financially than painting commissions.   He finds some support in the business world as well.  First Bank has sponsored his exhibitions for the last three years; and on Nov. 19,  the Pinnacle Club will host an exhibit of his recent works.

            He is painting a lot of babies and children now.  “Their skin is so translucent.  It captures the surrounding colors of their environment.  I use the natural light from windows.  I like the way the light shines through their ears.  When I do children I want to capture not just a moment, but their personality.  I make several visits, I talk to them (and the things they talk about have nothing to do with the adult world), I ask them what they’ve been doing today—that’s all they think about, today. I show them some of my paintings and I ask them to show me theirs.  All children are creative artists.  I do quick sketches and I videotape.  Kids can’t pose for 10 seconds. I like their look of wonder.  The way they look around with such amazement reminds me of when I was a child.”

            He has also developed a reputation for figure painting.  There’s nothing prurient about his female nudes.  He is meticulously professional when he paints them.  It’s all about light and form, color and line.  “I want the paintings to be evocative, not provocative,” he says.  They all show the same fascination with natural light as it pours through the window, reflects off surfaces, and creates the shadowed changes of plane and color.  “It’s like landscape,” he says.

            His best work always comes back to landscape.  There the focus is not so much an object as it is the atmosphere through which we see.  He calls it “painting an effect.”  “Compared to outer space, the atmosphere we move through is practically a solid.  Light travels through that atmosphere in time.  In my best field paintings, the edges vibrate with the atmosphere and light, the sun is out of sight but it wraps itself around the bark of the trees, it gives a halo effect, space and time running through sunlight.”

            Still looking for those fields of light, Randy’s had a much higher perch to search from for the last few years.  In addition to his home studio, he has a studio in the penthouse, designed by I.M. Pei, on top of the Lamar Building downtown.  He takes the public elevator to the 15th floor, pulls out a key, and the private elevator with clear  sides  carries him the rest of the way up outside far above the Savannah River and the Carolina hills.  The penthouse studio, with its glass walls and ceiling, is nothing but light falling on marble floors.  Way up in the sky above Broad Street, the sun shines and the rain rains and the air is thick and Randy is in the middle of it, taking it all in. 

           

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