Not just a painter of bears
“The Picnic of the Pavilion Party” - Inspired by Renoir's painting in 1882 “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” Feight said it represents “as the river flows continuously, our moment for love and a sense of grace is now.” Click here for a short film that brings this painting to life.
Feight is a director of the Eagle’s Nest park on Mt. Oglethorpe where this painting was done. Look for this story online to see a link to an accompanying video.
John Feight, the Big Canoe artist, may be most recognized locally for his “Blackie” series which can be found in regular rotation at the Black Bear Pub inside the gated community.
What viewers may not realize about the artist behind humorous paintings of a black bear in various historical scenes (an ursine Forrest Gump), is Feight has an impressive body of non-bear art, including a show in Paris, a
painting in the Savannah Telfair museum’s permanent collection and he is the founder of the national non-profit Foundation for Hospital Art.
What is missing from the Feight story, however, is the starving artist period.
After graduating from the University of Florida, the advertising major landed a job on Madison Avenue in New York, straight out of school, not fully appreciating the improbability of such a career step. “I didn’t know enough not to apply [to what was the biggest of the big leagues in advertising],” he said. Feight began painting with a set he bought his wife Linda, after seeing a work in the New York Guggeheim Museum “that was a piece of asphalt” hanging on the wall.
His first work, still adorning their Big Canoe home is a copy of a Christmas card, showing Mary, Joseph and Jesus.
After the lucky break on Madison Avenue, the Feights vowed to only spend five years in New York and were able to make the jump back to Atlanta when Feight was assigned to work on the Fresca soft drink account. At the time, before a false health scare, Fresca was a growing soft drink and this was no small job.
Feight, who has never taken more than a night class in art, said he continued to paint regularly, wanting to “learn from mistakes.”
The first place to display his works, oddly enough, was his veterinarian. But the pictures sold, leading him to hang some in a Chastain Park area restaurant.
At this point Feight and his wife took a vacation in Paris, where the painting-fever really developed with him. One night in particular with new friends who later helped him have a show at a “left bank gallery” in Paris, Feight dove in completely to art.
As a young artist, Feight said he had “been quite impressed with himself.” However the prospect of a show in Paris, brought him back to reality and, “scared me to death.” He took 22 paintings with him for the show in 1974 and sold half, which he considered very respectable.
Feight said in Paris, walking the streets alone early in the mornings, he thought of his grandfather, a country doctor in Ohio who was killed on call driving snowy roads. “He died with a smile on his face [serving others and doing what he liked] and I knew I was chasing something and that it could be art.”
He wanted to do more than paint to sell work. “I had the thought that art should be functional. I was not sure what that meant, but it was interesting to think about.”
When he returned from Paris, he was still working in advertising, but also volunteered at Northside Hospital in Atlanta, thinking art must have some application for a hospital.
His first attempt was a slideshow on art, which “bored the patients and bored me.”
Next he decided to paint in front of the patients. “They put me in the psych ward, not sure what that says about me.” But he came across a depressed, drug addict sitting and staring at a white wall.
“I had the thought that you can’t think about two things at once,” he said. “If we have art on the walls, patients will have something else to think about besides their pain.”
So Feight started visiting different wards painting “what is on the other side of the wall.”
The project morphed again when one patient in a pediatric ward, essentially said let me paint too.
Now 40 years later, Feight’s hospital art foundation (operated by his son) has just completed PaintFest, going to 50 cancer centers in 50 states in 50 days.
They work with volunteers to bring canvases, paint, and help patients enjoy creating their own art.
They generally try to create works in a group that will hang together to decorate the wards. Volunteers touch up works as needed to make them presentable, but the real goal is just to have the patients relax and enjoy expressing themselves.
“It goes all the way back to Paris: Art should do something,” the founder said.
Perhaps his early success, lead him to push the boundaries of not only painting himself, but bringing art to others and then having everyone from senior citizens to childhood cancer patients painting through their pain.
“I think the struggle is very important,” he said when asked what pushed him to expand his art. “I am struggling, not in a great way, but in still seeking value of art, not in the brushstroke, but in its purpose.”
Feight is also a director at Eagle’s Rest Park on Monument Road and it also relates back to his desire to involve the public in his artwork. The park on Mt. Oglethorpe was born out of the idea that people would help build a stone eagle on the south face of mountain. The stone sculptures would be an “on-going” art project by having people who visit the park be encouraged to add stones to the 110 foot wide stone eagle. With his local bear art, Feight said the goal here is to see people lighten up.
“I am chasing this thing where I have done good if I can make people laugh. It’s not more complicated than that.”