If you have spent any time in La Jolla, California over the last decades, you might have seen Chris Canole in one of his many incarnations. This year, for the entire month of August, a series of drawn portraits and illustrations by this local polymath was on display as a one-man show at the Pannikin cafe. A playful conceptualization on the term retrospective, the artist used the show to look back on his life and inward as well.

We all have key people for whom we are grateful, but Canole emphasizes that it’s doubly true for him. His parents died when he was 11, and his aunt and uncle raised him. Throughout his life, he says, many things have materialized for him due to the kindness of others, so he sees other people as the source of great things.

The exhibit featured 32 drawings and a montage series depicting iconic figures and events encapsulating each decade since the 1940s. Ambitious to attempt to survey everyone you could consider to have influenced your psyche over your lifetime. Luckily the list was somewhat constrained to individuals the public might easily recognize. Though, a few portraits of friends and locals were included.

Iconic, brilliant, noble and courageous people of different eras intermix. I recognize Albert Einstein and President Obama. There’s Sophia Loren, Frida Kahlo, Leonardo da Vinci and Yasunari Kawabata, whom I did not recognize.

The mimetic and fine-lined illustrations were done on paper using Caran d’Ache headstone, which as Chris told me, is graphite stone created on a lathe.

The Pannikin has long been a La Jolla institution. You could argue Chris deserves that title too. Not that he hasn’t left town. He has. Many of his award-winning screenplays are optioned for production. He has spent time in front of the camera as well. (See his list of film and television serial credits.)

Born in Oklahoma, as a physics undergrad at UCSD Canole took chemistry with Linus Pauling. He went on to graduate from Cal Arts. He was “an American in Paris,” chosen to represent the U.S. as an artist in residence in les arts plastiques, i.e., sculpture, in France many years ago. He once established the Guinness World Book Record for longest conversation. (Like many Pannikin regulars at the time, I reserved a 15-minute slot as one of his many interlocutors.)

I first took note of Christopher Canole as a teenager. Those were his more bearded days. (He seems to have lost the beard.) He’d just returned from his artist’s residency in Paris around when I became a regular visitor to the now defunct and much missed Mithras bookstore on La Jolla Blvd near Pearl, now a Lamborghini dealership.

Recently, Chris reminded me that, yes, he was “that guy” who sat behind a counter there in the bookshop in front of the theater wearing blousy shirts.

The Mithras bookshop had a kind of hidden movie house in the back, the Unicorn Theater, with an entrance through a doorway at the back of the shop. The Unicorn ran movie marathons that spanned an entire weekend. To a teenager, it was a magical and wondrous place.

An old-style thing on wheels churned out popcorn that warmed the lobby and permeated the air. And, of course, there was Canole in one of those blousy shirts.

I also remember him as this helmeted fellow making his way through traffic, pulling up and parking in front of the Pannikin. Everyone could id him right away, even with a motorcycle helmet. His self-designed café racing motorcycles and his signature black leather garb were kind of a give-away.

Then suddenly he’d pop up all dressed in tight white garb with a mask on the University of California playing fields. After captaining the UCSD fencing team he became coach for two years. (He’s still available for anyone who might need to film a fencing scene.)

Canole’s work is fundamentally about relationship. Aptly, while he worked on the pieces he often had something of an audience: café goers, friends, strangers. He drew them into the process. Perhaps their curiosity was also part of this artwork.

The artist donates most of the drawings he does to charities, sometimes gifting them to organizations related to the work the subject is known for or one of their causes. He has sent others as gifts to some of the people he has drawn.

The project was also self-therapy. In his earlier years, he was involved in projects that took him outside of popular culture: studying the Tao, sculpting, and other involvements. This means that he has waited to re-experience some of this stuff for the first time by looking back.

He has found that he can appreciate these lost decades–maybe regain them–even if through a prism of abstraction, through reading, reminiscing with others and, of course, drawing.

To get a sense of the La Jolla man’s talents and pursuits—a curious intersection of multiple domains—take a look at his website: canole.com. Or, ask him yourself. He’s quite open and, to be sure, he’s almost always ready to chat. He’s his own real life walking Facebook profile, ready to “friend” anyone to learn their stories. But face-to-face is more his style.

Although he is no longer facing his show deadline, you may still see him at work sketching away at the Pannikin on Girard. Though it is more likely that he has struck off in a new direction, devoting himself with great fervor to some new project. I have observed over the years that is what he does.

Katherine Relf-Canas

Katherine Relf-Canas splits her time between freelance writing, teaching and other projects. She also volunteers for PSE, an NGO that runs a unique school in Cambodia that serves and supports children and families in poverty. She is now involved with the recently established American Friends of PSE. She has written for blogs and contributed to literary sites and parenting magazines since 1996. Katherine began writing about the healing power of art for this site in 2012, and dedicated the project to her mother, Connie Relf, who worked as an artist and died in 2010.

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