La Jolla artist offers provocative glimpse at past 70 years during August exhibit at Pannikin


If you go


‘6.6 Decades: 33 Drawings by Christopher Canole’


Aug. 1-31 (opening reception 4-6 p.m. Aug. 3)


Pannikin Coffee & Tea, 7467 Girard Ave., La Jolla


(858) 454-5453


By Pat Sherman

As an artist, actor, screenwriter, photojournalist and former UC San Diego fencing coach, La Jollan Christopher Canole has seen a lot during his 6.6 decades on Earth.

Now, Canole has amassed close to 1,000 unforgettable images of the people and events that have shaped the world during that time, as rendered by hand in pencil and charcoal, for a retrospective of his work at Pannikin Coffee & Tea during August (with an opening reception 4-6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 3).

The central focus of the installation is a series of seven 18- by 24-inch collages, each representing a decade in Canole’s life, from the 1940s through the 2000s.

Each piece took about a month to complete, and includes about 130 images, chronicling everything from World War II and the birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll to the digital revolution and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Roots as an artist

Canole learned to draw while earning his undergraduate degree in physics at UCSD, taking an art class with John Baldessari, the revered artist who taught there, 1968-1970, and went on to produce many groundbreaking works, including “Brain/Cloud (with Seascape and Palm Tree),” one of the public art installations in the La Jolla Community Foundation’s “Murals of La Jolla” project.

During his time at UCSD, Canole honed his chops sketching iconic images such as Peter Fonda in the 1969 counterculture classic, “Easy Rider” (the dominant image in Canole’s collage of the ’60s).

Canole followed Baldessari when he left UCSD to teach at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Valencia.

“That’s when my life really turned around and went in that direction,” said Canole, who would go on to do design the exterior of the “Fortress of Solitude” in the 1978 “Superman” movie.

Canole’s seven decades will be displayed linearly along the rear wall of Pannikin, inviting people to look closely for details and subtext, such as the images of black musicians in his collage of the 1950s. The unsung African American progenitors of rock music appear to be segregated in the lower left corner of the piece, below the dominant image of Elvis Presley and a Sun Records 45-RPM.

Each piece has such a dominant image. For the ’70s, it’s a yin-yang symbol blending the era’s iconic smiley face with that of President Richard Nixon. For the ’80s — a decade Canole said he found puzzling — it’s a three-dimensional Rubik’s Cube puzzle.

“It became a metaphor for trying to fit everything together that was going on,” Canole said.

Naturally, the dominant element in the piece representing the 2000s was the World Trade Center, as seen while the towers were engulfed in smoke and flame.

“I really wanted to sort of remind people that that’s going to influence us for the rest of our lives,” said Canole, who started by drawing the towers as seen unscathed in a photograph taken from the New Jersey Shore, with the Statue of Liberty in between.

After completing the towers, he then had to destroy them with sandpaper and other artists’ tools.

“That was about the most emotional that I ever got during this whole process,” he said. “Remember how much paper rained down on the street? I wanted it to physically (represent that).”

About 50 of the images appear in more than one of the collages, including Lady Liberty.

“It’s not an overt visual connection because I want each decade to stand out by itself,” Canole said, noting that the person who can identify the most duplicated images will win a print representing the decade of their choice.

The exhibition will also include about 33 single image drawings, including everyone from Junior Seau and Mahatma Gandhi to Peter O’Toole, Michelle Obama and the late La Jolla actor Cliff Robertson (whom Canole met while the Academy Award recipient was serving as grand marshal of the La Jolla Christmas Parade). Canole would go on to become Robertson’s close friend and personal photographer in the latter years of his life.

These days, to subsidize his artistic and literary pursuits, Canole is caretaker for the home once inhabited by UCSD’s founding chancellor, the late physicist, Herb York (his widow, Sybil, still lives there).

Canole can be found regularly doing sketches on the Pannikin patio, where he said he enjoys speaking with elder La Jollans about their “marvelous lives.”

“I just love sitting there and having them relate their stories to me,” he said. “If I do drawings, it sort of opens the door to them being more chatty about their lives and revealing what’s going on.”

Also at the Pannikin during August, Canole said he can be found sketching his next montage — this one of famous San Diegans (for which he is seeking suggestions on his

Facebook page

). He said some likely contenders include: Marcus Allen, Jim Croce, Cameron Crowe, Robert Duvall, Marshall Faulk, Tony Gwynn, Tony Hawk, Dennis Hopper, Joan and Ray Kroc, Adam Lambert, Phil Mickelson, Gregory Peck, Steve Reeves, Sally Ride, Cliff Robertson, Frank Zappa and others.