WHITEFISH — Three years ago, as artist and professor John Rawlings packed up his office at Flathead Valley Community College after 20 years as its art director, he pondered what the future might bring. Surrounded by boxes full of items from a career spanning five decades, he promised himself that it wouldn’t slide into a boring and meaningless retirement.
“If I thought retirement was all about drinking beer at home, it’d kill me,” he said at the time. “Because when you run this fast, you don’t just stop.”
But last week, on a perfect summer afternoon at his home in Whitefish, it was clear that Rawlings, now 71, hasn’t stopped. While putting the finishing touches on some new sculptures, Rawlings was talking about his recently published book, Siamo Foresti, about his travels in Venice, and an upcoming art show he’s working on with his wife, Souheir Rawlings.
“I’m busier than I’ve ever been,” he said, walking through his studio, showing off his recent work. “Teaching was fun, but what I’m doing now is even more fun.”
Rawlings was born in London after World War II and moved to Australia when he was young. He began teaching art in the 1960s and later went to University of Guanajuato in Mexico to earn his master of fine arts degree in sculpture. Afterward he taught at schools in South Dakota, Wyoming and Alaska before landing a part-time position in 1988 at FVCC, where he taught painting, drawing, design and life drawing. In 1993, he became director of the school’s growing art program. He stayed in that position until he retired in 2014, the same year he was named the Association of Community College Trustees Faculty Member of the Year for the North America Western Region. He said at the time he was ready to take on new projects.
One of the biggest was writing a book about his extensive travels to Venice over the last 35 years, including a five-month visit to completely immerse himself in the city’s culture. Rawlings said he has always loved Venice and has tried to shed the title locals give to visitors, “foresti,” which means “outsiders.”
“Venice is like no other place on Earth,” he said, “and it’s never what it looks like. There is a backstory to everything. Some of those stories are dark and some of those stories are light.”
Rawlings said he never set out to write a book and that it all started a few years ago when he would email his family in the United States with tales of his travels. Occasionally, they would tell him that he should preserve a particularly interesting story for posterity. After gathering enough of those stories, Rawlings decided to sit down and produce a book, albeit reluctantly. At first, he just wanted to write it for himself, but with the encouragement of friends, he decided to publish it. The book dubs itself a “a cross between a sightseeing guide, travelogue and history book.” But, Rawlings warns, if you’re looking for recommendations of things to do and places to see in Venice, this volume isn’t for you.
“When people ask me, ‘Where should I go in Venice,’ I always tell them to ‘go and find out yourself,’” he said. “Create your own experience.”
Beyond writing a book, Rawlings has thrown himself into his artwork. This month, a show titled “Fiskardo Shadows” opened up at the White Apple Gallery in Whitefish. The show features abstract paintings inspired by mornings spent at a little harbor in Fiskardo, Greece.
“Every morning I would sit on a balcony overlooking the tiny harbor and draw the fishing boats,” he said. “But one morning I realized that the shadows cast by chairs, tables, plants, and railings were much more interesting.”
His next show will be a collaboration with his wife titled “Sacred Images” that will feature John’s sculptures, for which he is known, and Souheir’s paintings. They hope to complete the project later this year.
The husband-and-wife team is also now running artist-in-residence programs with month-long sessions in New Mexico and Venice. Souheir said the program offers artists of many different backgrounds an opportunity to connect with each other and their own work.
It’s a great chance for artists to slow down and refocus,” Souheir said. “It’s just a magical experience.”
Three years after his retirement, Rawlings said he doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.
“I’ve got a lot going on right now and I’m so grateful for that,” he said.
Rawlings will be signing copies of his book at the White Apple Gallery on June 29 from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, visit www.artandsoulinternational.com.