An artist’s life unveiled

A showcase of paintings by Ron Oden, who crafts his art in stolen hours

“Tormented Man” is a self-portrait of the artist.

“Tormented Man” is a self-portrait of the artist.

The canvases stacked against a wall in Gallery 516 owner Jack Hoyle’s storage area could have been painted by half a dozen artists. Sedate classic nudes in muted colors are juxtaposed with vibrant, angular works. A whimsical cartoonish pooch is parked next to a mystical guitar-playing female. Both of these paintings are revealed after Hoyle moves aside a large, photorealistic rendering of a woman with, um, inviting curves.

“It’s just such an incredible variety,” Hoyle said of the paintings. The works will be displayed through March at Gallery 516 after a reception with the artist on March 9. The title of the show is Femme Vitale: Studies of Contemporary Women.

And no, these aren’t works by several artists with diverse styles. These works represent a portion of the paintings that Ron Oden, the head of the Reno Gazette-Journal’s graphic arts department, does in what he calls “stolen hours.”

Variety isn’t the only aspect of Oden’s work that surprised Hoyle. One of Oden’s co-workers brought in some samples of the professional illustrator’s work to see what Hoyle thought of the work.

“I was very impressed,” Hoyle said. “I asked where this artist was showing and was surprised to hear that he’d not had a show. What a surprise to find a person of his age and skills that’s not showing his work.”

OK, I have to admit that I’m not the most objective art critic. I worked with Ron Oden at the newspaper for a year or two. So I already had a feel for his artistic genius.

If you’ve read the paper much, you’ve seen his illustrations, too. Oden painted portraits and scenes from 29 towns around the state for the paper’s millennium series. This work was compiled into a book, Stories from the Sagebrush.

I met with Oden to talk about his work on a windy Saturday morning. I almost blew right past Java Jungle where the artist waited at a table, sketchbook in hand.

Oden said he doesn’t care for the wind. Snow and rain are fine. But not that incessant blowing.

“But I’m kind of like the wind,” he said, “going everywhere and bothering people, agitating them.”

<i>Femme Vitale</i> isn’t merely paintings of females.

Oden, 48, says that his use of many styles frustrates the art world. Once, an art critic looking at his work complained that Oden seemed to lack a discernible style. But for him, it’s an integral part of his self-expression.

“I use styles like a color palette,” he says. “However I feel is how I paint: realistic, abstract, not objective. The key ingredient to it all is that it’s real.”

This first gallery show represents only one facet of Oden’s work—depictions of women.

Since the age of about 12, he’s done hundreds of paintings and thousands of sketches and drawings—for himself, friends and admirers. That’s in addition to countless professional illustrations on everything from how the Internet works to nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain to the recent green monster chasing an actress, violinist and painter on the cover of last week’s RG-J Sunday Life section.

As a 16-year-old growing up in Los Angeles, he was already working professionally—mass-producing nudes for a company that sold inexpensive commercial art.

Now, though he puts in some long hours at the newspaper and teaches media graphics at the University of Nevada, Reno, he still keeps to his schedule of painting about five hours a day.

When does he squeeze this in? Usually he works from about midnight until 5 a.m., though sometimes he gets an early start and kicks off at 3 a.m.

“I try to fit three days in one day,” Oden said. “When it’s my turn to kick over, I will have lived three lives.”

Though the show, Femme Vitale, is focusing on women, it’s also a look at a body of Oden’s work that spans three decades.

“What you’re looking at is a thread of life,” Oden said. “It chronicles a changing life through visuals.”

For a further twist, not all the paintings are women. Oden is also showing a couple of works that he considers self-representations. The brusque geometric “City Dog” is one such piece and so is the gnarled coils of muscle and flesh that make up a Picasso-esque piece titled “Tormented Man.” (This is a good title, by the way, but a piece this psychologically disturbing and wracked with stress might be better called “After a Tough Day at the Paper.")

Oden said he hopes one day he can devote more than mere stolen hours to his art.

“Everyone wants to be a smashing success," he said, before we headed back out into the wind. "I just want to paint with freedom. Success is about doing what I want every day. For me, that’s painting."