I am a patron of Doug Rankin's art. Maybe his biggest patron, if not in terms of dollars spent, surely in terms of hours spent. Hours spent listening to him tell his stories, giggling with his wife and kids as he leads us through the journey of a California surfer boy who moved out West. Way out West.
Doug has lived on Saipan since about 1966. I have to say "about" 1966, because no one knows for sure. The record of Doug's entry into Saipan was lost, and Doug's stories often have malleable factual underpinnings - in the sense that the actual facts are irrelevant or easily insertable at a later date. Whatever date it actually was, a two-week visa was all the law allowed, unless you were training your replacement. Doug's paperwork fell through the cracks, but that didn't matter, because Doug was home.
About five years after Doug moved to Saipan, he got a job at a filling station. Almost immediately, he was picked up by immigration authorities. Of course, Doug knew the arresting officers, and they told him, "Hey, we thought you were Peace Corp till we saw you pumping gas. Man, everybody knows: Peace Corp don't pump gas."
Through this portion of the website, I hope to introduce you to the art of Doug Rankin, and to the man himself. Please bear with me, as this section slowly evolves. It's taken Doug almost ten years to tell me this story. It's going to take me considerably less (I hope.)
Doug Rankin is a painter who makes his own paint brush, and in so doing, he has invented his own art form. He calls it Banana Painting.
For centuries, the creation of visual art has developed around Cardinal Rule Number One: "Paint is to be applied to paintings by use of a stick with hair glued onto the end." The ubiquitous horsehair paint brush. The tools of Michaelangelo and Rembrandt, Picasso and Dali. If it was good enough for them, it should be good enough for us. Every painter must have an arsenal of dozens of different sizes and shapes of these items in order to properly and adequately convey the painter's artistic vision. If you're not using this stick with horsehair on the end of it, you might as well be drawing with crayons, because you're not a painter. A fingerpainter, maybe. A wood block carver/stamper, perhaps. But you're not a painter unless you use some form of that "paintbrush" they sell down there at the art supply store.
Doug has turned that notion on its head with his Banana Painting. Doug carves pieces of the trunk and leaves of the banana tree into his "brushes." He then applies paint to the pieces, and stamps, rolls or blots the paint onto paper to create stunningly accurate representations of the natural land and seascapes he chooses to portray. To help explain his art to the Japanese tourists who comprise his core market on Saipan, Doug drew a color diagram of his painting process, a copy of which is glued to the back of every print he sells, and which actually describes his process way better than my words ever could.
The concept occurred to Doug back in the early 1980s, while he was cleaning up banana trees that had blown over during a typhoon. As his machete cleaved through the soft green trunks, he noticed the spiraling, swirling, multi-sided shapes of the cells that comprise the trunk and leaves of the banana tree. In those opened up tree trunks, Doug imagined that he saw images. First he saw crab legs, palm leaves, fish parts, and lobsters. And he painted them with his hand-carved banana tree brush.
Later, he realized he could make coral shapes and tree trunks and waves and beach scenes and waterfalls. After a while, Doug realized he could paint anything with his new "brush." He moved away from the simplistic one-stroke image toward complex landscapes and underwater scenes. He can paint any image he sees, as long as he's got some banana tree, acrylic paint, and a sharp knife.
Banana painting is especially effective at creating the simple elements that make paintings come alive, such as making sure every leaf on a tree is the same shape and size, and perhaps the simplest element of them all: a perfectly straight line - something many painters labor over for years. Doug can carve straight down the edge of a piece of banana trunk, dab it into some paint, and voila, he's got a brush that can paint as many perfectly straight lines as he wants. Let's say he wants a straight line with a subtle gradation of color across the length of the line. To do that with a conventional brush would be possible, of course. Theoretically, one could apply the different colors to different sides of the brush, and then roll the brush evenly while dragging it along a straight line. You might do it once, but you'd never do it even close to the same way again.
With banana painting, however, Doug can mix colors along the length of his banana tree brush and the resulting image is flawless. And he can repeat it, with subtle variations, of course, until the brush dries out. The same goes for sunsets and other backgrounds and skies. He can recreate those subtle gradations of color that make sunsets so unbelievable. He creates paintings that would be impossible to recreate with a conventional horsehair brush, no matter how fine or how accomplished the artist holding it.
Doug has represented the CNMI at tourism trade shows in Japan and Korea, he's been written up in numerous magazines in the Asian world, and he's been featured twice on NHK, the Japanese news network. He drew the first CNMI emblem - with the mwar around the taga stone. He inspires artists wherever he goes.
He loves to tell the story of when he was in Cheju, South Korea, at a tourism convention, and two ceramics artists from Greece stopped by his booth. After they'd spent an enthusiastic few minutes watching him work, the men began smacking themselves upside the head and high-fiving each other, as if the solution to all their problems had just been shown to them. Doug expected that they'd want to shake his hand, which they did, but not until they had congratulated themselves for having the good fortune to meet Doug Rankin. Once you start to understand Doug's work, especially in the context of his unique philosophy, you'll find yourself slapping your head and saying, Eureka! Why didn't I think of that?
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Check back here occasionally to learn more about Doug's art, his decades of history on Saipan, his philosophy, and his secrets to contented living. If we could all live like Doug, we could all live a whole lot better than Doug.
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