With classical music flowing steadily from speakers, Jack Saylor puts the tip of a skinny brush in one of his paint colors he has in smudges on a mirror, and then continues fleshing out the fine details of a hyper-realistic painting of a scene we are so familiar with – a towel blowing in the wind on a porch of a house on the water, seashells lining the front steps and a boat idly drifting with the tide. The painting teases the edge of a home that could have been any local residence. Instantly the viewer creates an inner dialogue for the piece based on a particular frame of reference, which is what Saylor intended from the beginning. We all see a bit of ourselves and our history in his works. They are, after all, largely influenced by summers on the Crystal Coast.
Though Saylor now calls Morehead City home, he has traveled the world and learned from many cultures. Originally from Winston-Salem, he moved to Wilson at 15. He enrolled at what was then Atlantic Christian College, but today the school goes by Barton College. He graduated in 1983 and enrolled in a continuing painting program in the south of France.
“I was going to travel to Europe and continue my studies. The summer before I went to France, I was asked by a local home furnishings company there in Wilson if I wanted to do some temporary design work. The first couple of projects I did with them were very successful, and they offered me a job. They said, ‘We will send you to Europe and you can still paint.’ So when I was 24, they sent me off to Spain and Italy. I lived in Florence for a year and painted, and studied and designed home furnishings. I traveled all over both countries with our agents and worked with all the artisans. So at 24, my eyes were opened so big, to not just the greatest art in the world, but cultures,” he explained.
Over his 10-year design career, Saylor traveled to Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, and took sabbaticals to the Caribbean and a small Spanish fishing town called Estepona. He said his first stop was in Barcelona, where he experienced the sea in a different color. Being on the Mediterranean, living that different lifestyle and meeting other artists made him more determined to become a full-time artist. “I was going to live by the sea and I was going to paint the sea. So life just continued.”
Saylor’s passion for the sea is evident in his paintings, and that passion stemmed from a childhood of family vacations to the beach, and his last name. As a kid, his family would come down to Atlantic Beach for vacations.
As a result, he would go home and draw all the things he experience, like the shrimp boats, the clouds and the ocean. As he got older, he began to bring his sketchpad with him and started drawing at the beach.
“I always had an affinity for drawing. The wires in the brain just got connected really early. Art and sea. My last name is Saylor, and growing up as a kid, I was always Captain Jack or Jack the Sailor-man, and it just felt like the sea was a birthright, you know? It was in my blood. The connection was made.”
While his connection with the sea was fostered at a young age, his desire for art and painting also had some early influences. While living in Winston-Salem, Saylor’s family would order takeout from a restaurant owned by a Greek family every Saturday. The inside was decorated with tufted leather booths, wine bottles coated in dripping wax (which Saylor admitted he found romantic), dark lighting and huge oil paintings of the sea over the cliffs of the Mediterranean. He remembered being so fascinated with the big paintings.
Another Saturday event, the Wide World of Sports, also stuck in Saylor’s mind. One of the sponsors of the program was Dutch Masters Cigars.
“They would have this ad, this commercial, where they had these guys dressed up in 17th century Dutch garb and they would all stand together and form like a Rembrandt pose. Then the camera would take a picture of them, and then open the cigar box and you’d see the illustration of these Dutch Masters smoking pipes or something. For some strange reason, as a very young kid, I remembered that. I don’t remember Old Spice ads or anything like that, but I remember the Dutch Masters and I remember these big oil paintings in that restaurant. So I guess these connections were all happening as I was young. Why I remember those things, I cannot tell you. It was some mystery.”
After leaving Europe, Saylor met his future wife, Ann, also from Winston-Salem. They married after a year of dating, and were soon tasked with deciding where to start their life together.
Around the same time, Bob Timberlake, a well-known North Carolina artist, had started a furniture program and was looking for a designer. He contacted Saylor and asked him to come work in Lexington. Saylor worked for Timberlake and continue to paint – so for four years, Saylor said, he had the best of both worlds.
“It was kind of like going to work for Walt Disney because he’s so hugely successful and he’s an immensely creative person. It was really like going to work at Disneyland; it was magical. After four years of that, I had built my skills and my following on the artistic side to a point where Ann and I said, ‘Let’s do it. If we’re ever going to make a move to the coast, let’s make the leap now.’ We bought a little house in Otway, right on the marsh. We lived there for seven years. We eventually moved into Beaufort and lived there for another nine or 10 years, and ultimately ended up in the Promise Land. I’ve been very fortunate to intersect with certain people at certain times in my life and try not to mess it up. Fate has been working in my favor and I try not to get in the way sometimes. It’s been a good experience so far. Ups and downs in this business, but we’ve been fortunate. We love it here. Carteret County and this part of the coast, there’s just nothing like it for us. It resonates with us, and for me with the childhood memories, it’s just so familiar,” Saylor added.
Since leaving his position with Bob Timberlake, Saylor has been a full-time artist painting scenes and still-life that inspire us all to walk down the beach. During his time with Timberlake, Saylor became more acquainted with Pennsylvania artist Andrew Wyeth. Wyeth was a truly regional artist, painting only the area where he was born in Pennsylvania and where his family vacationed in Maine, Saylor explained. Being a regional artist resonated with Saylor.
“I kind of have those same connections. It got me looking deeply into my own childhood experiences and recollections of this place, knowing I wanted to paint the sea, knowing nothing really about Europe other than my recent experience there, which is totally superficial. But this is a place that ran deep in me. I remember as a kid, not only the shrimp boats, but the color of the rust on the shrimp boats. That all goes back to a childhood memory. I’ve painted European stuff, and they’re pretty paintings. But there’s nothing really deeper beyond the surface. These are things I experienced as a kid, and those are the things you never really get away from. I think the Andrew Wyeth thing is what tipped the balance for me, combined with Ann. Ever since then, it’s been trying to go deeper and trying to get better as an artist and in my interpretation of the experience.”
Over the years and experiences, Saylor’s perspective in his paintings has changed. He said he paints what he feels, rather than what he sees, giving him a different perspective on things. He doesn’t like to pack all the content within the frame or border, but rather to suggest what lies beyond the edge of the canvas. He’ll only give you bits and pieces so you have to engage your own imagination. While his early works were massive and grand, he now finds that same grand sea in smaller things. He said his vision is just as big, but the view became smaller.
“I don’t know if it’s a personal statement that I started feeling smaller in myself or I found more comfort in my work and didn’t need to paint everything. I could just give you a little nudge and let you go with it. A bit of Andrew Wyeth is still showing up. He just gave you the essence and let you fill in the blanks with your own experiences. We all experience a place differently. I’ll give you little bit of sun, a little bit of wind and give you some sea shells to tell you where you are, and the rest is up to you. It’s a place I love, and I’m not painting to end up in museums. If I was painting to be in a museum, I couldn’t paint what I love, I’d have to paint what I thought the critics would love, and to heck with that,” he continued.
Saylor admits that he has a great life, and that work and life are seamless for him, sometimes unfortunately. He has to always live his life like he’s in a painting.
“I think another critical component to being able to capture perspectives like this is you have to live in a painting all the time. You have to have that part of your brain engaged always, because if you’re not, and you’re preoccupied, you’re going to miss 99 percent of it. But if I’m always a painter, if I’ve always got my shutter open, taking it in, I’ve picked up a lot of stuff that way.”
Saylor said he has a great art dealer in Charles Jones at Carteret Contemporary Art, and this fall, he’ll begin showing some pieces at Morris & Whiteside Galleries in Hilton Head, SC.