Painter and Poet: Top UC Davis honors go to Wayne Thiebaud and Gary Snyder

Wayne Thiebaud and Gary Snyder
Wayne Thiebaud and Gary Snyder

Poet Gary Snyder and painter Wayne Thiebaud, whose art defied convention and defined an era, have been awarded the UC Davis Medal, the highest tribute bestowed by the university.

Snyder, a professor emeritus of English at the University of California, Davis, and Thiebaud, a professor emeritus of art, received the honor Tuesday evening in a ceremony in the ballroom of the campus Activities and Recreation Center.

"Gary Snyder and Wayne Thiebaud are luminaries, arguably UC Davis’ two most famous people,” said Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef. “Yet they have remained devoted to classroom teaching throughout their careers, thrilling hundreds upon hundreds of students and elevating the campus by their presence. We are so fortunate, and so grateful, to have them as members of our UC Davis family.”

The award recognizes individuals of rare accomplishment. Past recipients have included Michelle Bachelet, president of the Republic of Chile; Cruz Reynoso, the first Hispanic to serve on the California Supreme Court and a professor emeritus of law at UC Davis; and President Bill Clinton.

Remarkable parallels run through the lives of the latest UC Davis Medal recipients. Both Snyder and Thiebaud are farmers' sons whose early years were shaped by the Depression. Both emerged amid avant-garde art movements of the 1950s and '60s -- Snyder during the Beat poetry movement and Thiebaud alongside Pop Art. Both grew beyond these early roots to become among the most celebrated of contemporary American artists. Both had long careers at UC Davis, and continue to teach and make art.

Snyder was born in San Francisco in 1930 and raised in the Pacific Northwest, where he worked as a youth on the family farm and seasonally in the woods. After earning an undergraduate degree in anthropology and literature from Reed College in Portland, Ore., in 1951, he pursued graduate work in linguistics at Indiana University and in East Asian languages at UC Berkeley. While in the Bay Area, he associated with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and other poets and writers interested in altering consciousness and overturning writing conventions. From 1956 to 1969, Snyder lived in Japan and studied Zen Buddhism and East Asian culture. He joined UC Davis in 1986.

Snyder's more than 20 books of poetry and prose have swept literature's top prizes. "Turtle Island" won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1975, and "No Nature" was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1992. His many other honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, Bollingen Prize, Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Grand Prize, and Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. He is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2003.

"What came to fruition and influence in the Beat waves of the Fifties and Sixties has stood the test of the cynical decades that followed," British literary critic Ian Hamilton writes of Snyder's body of work in "The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English."

The reference book characterizes the thematic range of Snyder's body of work as "love and respect for the primitive tribe, honour accorded the Earth, the escape from city and industry into both the past and the possible, contemplation, the communal, peace, and the ascetic."

A resident of the northern Sierra Nevada since 1970, Snyder now devotes his time to environmental and cultural issues with a focus on the Sierra ecosystem. Although he officially retired from UC Davis in 2002, he continues to teach on campus with a focus on creative writing, ethnopoetics and bioregional praxis.

Thiebaud was born in 1920 in Mesa, Ariz., and grew up in Long Beach, Calif., and Hurricane, Utah, where his family's farm failed during the Depression. Before enrolling in college under the GI Bill (he drew a cartoon strip for the base newspaper during a three-year stint in the U.S. Army), he was a designer and cartoonist at Rexall Drug Company in Los Angeles. He received his bachelor's degree in 1951 and master's degree in 1953 from California State College in Sacramento, now Sacramento State. He joined UC Davis in 1960.

In the decades since, Thiebaud has established himself as one of the most important contemporary American artists -- although he prefers to be called a "painter." He is best known for his renderings of the everyday -- pinball machines, pie, lipstick -- and for his vertiginous San Francisco cityscapes and lushly colored Sacramento Valley riverscapes.

Today his works are on display at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, the Chicago Art Institute, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among many other prominent institutions.

President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 1994. He is an elected member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, an academician of the National Academy of Design, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is also a recipient of the National Arts Club's Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award, the American Academy of Design's Lifetime Achievement Award for Art, and many other prestigious honors, including five honorary doctoral degrees.

Although he nominally retired from UC Davis in 1991, Thiebaud continues to teach classes on campus, and is an active volunteer adviser to the university. He and his family have made generous gifts to the campus to support art teaching, including more than 60 of his own works and several hundred works by other artists.

He continues to paint in his Sacramento studio -- and continues to earn critical acclaim. Six years ago, his exhibition of riverscapes at the Allan Stone Gallery in New York earned a glowing review in the New York Times. Critic Grace Glueck talked of canvases "juicy with paint," from which one "can almost sniff the whiffs of spring." "At 82," Glueck wrote, "he is still one of the best athletes of paint around."

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