Late to the Legacy

Gail Stahl. Photo by Leslie Agan

A weary couple wanders out of the noontime heat and into the Quorum Art Gallery in Laguna Beach. "Come in and rest a while," says artist Gail Stahl as the woman removes her hat with a sigh. "Sure is hot today." Stahl's voice is steady, direct and welcoming.

She asks the couple, who look to be in their early 60s, if they have children. They nod.

The 72-year-old painter waves toward her works. "You know they're like your kids, your babies—I mean, you want them to turn out good, right? But they don't always turn out so well!" The trio laughs.

A self-effacing sense of humor has served Gail Stahl well—especially since her father was the legendary painter/illustrator/author Ben Stahl. Her older brother, who lives in New York—a very accomplished artist who shares their father's famous name—her half-brother and half-sister were always encouraged to pursue careers in art. Not so with Gail.

"I was constantly being told by my mother that I was never going to amount to anything, that I should never even think of doing art, and I would never grow up to be anything like my father," Stahl says. "I should just give up now."

Good thing she didn't listen to her mother.

Norman Rockwell once proclaimed of Ben Stahl, "We are but illustrators; you are among the masters." Hardly surprising, then, that his oldest daughter balked at following in his footsteps. She did not find the courage to fully commit herself to painting until her early 60s.

She has but a few memories of her estranged father. He was busy creating art for Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Esquire and the Saturday Evening Post. In 1948, he co-founded the largest art school in the world, Famous Artists School in Westport, Connecticut. He also wrote a little book called Blackbeard's Ghost (1965), which Disney made into a successful movie in 1968. This was followed by a sequel, The Secret of Red Skull, in 1965. Also that year, Stahl opened the Museum of the Cross in Sarasota, Florida, for which he produced 15 paintings called The 15 Stations of the Cross—each measuring 6 feet by 9 feet. Mysteriously, all 15 paintings were stolen in April 1969. It has been called the second-largest art theft of that decade, and to this day, the paintings have never been recovered.

Gail Stahl has had quite a history herself, as a model, teacher and, in her later life, a refined painter who has grown and developed into her own talent. Every Monday, she can be found at Quorum Art Gallery, where she has displayed her work for the past 11 years. (Quorum also houses the works of 12 other local artists and includes a "visiting artist's" wall.) The first Thursday of every month, the strip springs to life when the Art Walk takes place with local artists and residents mingling over wine and hors d'oeuvres.

Stahl's "babies" have turned out just fine. She describes her style as "Impressionist inspired"—the brush strokes appear almost whimsical at close glance, yet they are executed with great precision—creating the grand illusion of depth and realism. Just as daily life inspired the Impressionists of old, it continues to inspire Stahl: the beach. Children. Animals. Flowers. Even the most seemingly mundane subject matter gets her going each morning.

Most of her work is on canvas, but lately she has experimented with painting onto small pieces of glass; her works are growing more and more defined. "I wanted to see if I could paint in the same way my father did, if I could paint with more realism and detail," she explains. "I knew I had to do this before I die. My arm just aches to paint!"

She must be doing something right, as Ben Stahl once fondly noted about his daughter when Gail was just a young girl: "She has more talent as a child than I ever had at her age!"

It might have taken her a while to explore that talent, but, as she says, poking the air with her finger, "It is never too late to follow your dreams."

Gail Stahl at Quorum Art Gallery, 374 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-4422; Open daily, 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m., except major holidays.

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