By Meagan Friberg
“I suppose I am a maverick,” Harold Spencer said as he sat sketching trees at his desk at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles.
Spencer, or “Spence” as his friends know him, spends most of his days sketching and painting and loves to talk with visitors about his artwork and the history behind it.
“I keep busy here,” Spencer said. “It keeps me focused and keeps my mind occupied.”
The 90-year-old moved to Paso Robles with his late wife, Editha, in 2002 from Connecticut. Spencer was on the faculty at the University of Connecticut, teaching the History of Art for 20 years. Born in Corning, New York, the artist said he was raised “all over.”
“My family moved a great deal, and at one point I went to live with my grandparents on their farm,” Spencer said. “I was a regular gypsy, attending nine different schools as I was growing up.”
Spencer met Editha when he was enrolled with the Merchant Marines before the start of World War II. When he came back to the academy for advanced training, he went to visit an old roommate who lived in the East Bay and his family invited Spencer over for dinner. A copy editor was also at the dinner and showed him some artwork from her magazine and discovered Editha was the artist.
“I came to a page full of snapshots,” Spencer said. “In the upper right hand corner was this lovely brunette with a brush in her hand and I voiced some high approval of this lovely young lady.”
After an introduction in 1944, Harold and Editha were married in 1947, celebrating their 63rd anniversary last year.
“I had only a few dates with her before I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her,” Spencer said. “I proposed to her one night while we were out dancing at the Hotel Claremont. She didn’t reject me but she said she just wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment.”
Spencer returned to the sea and eventually studied at U.C. Berkeley after his time with the Merchant Marines.
“I was a student at U.C. Berkeley when she finally accepted,” Spencer said. “We’d been out on a date and she looked at me and said, ‘Spence, the answer is yes’ and I went to my college digs walking about three feet off of the ground. We had a great life together.”
Harold and Editha, also a Berkeley graduate and artist, had four sons together. Two of their sons are currently living in California, one in Davis and the other in Visalia. The other two sons live near the University of Connecticut.
As an artist, Spencer said he “moves from literal representation to abstract as the mood strikes me.”
He said he started out years ago “back before World War II” painting literal types of images. After the war, he enlisted at the University of California at Berkeley where one of his instructors had studied with the German expressionist, Hans Hofmann. The American Abstract Expressionist movement was in full swing at the time.
“I began to see all of that work in museums and galleries in San Francisco and I hated it at first,” Spencer said. “It was so foreign to what I had been accustomed to.”
Being surrounded by this new type of art, combined with the instruction he received at Berkeley, Spencer soon found the art to have “an exceptional amount of vitality” and decided he needed to explore it in more depth.
“For many years I worked in the abstract vein,” Spencer said. “I did other works in a more literal fashion but mostly I was working abstractly.”
The artist has reached a point is his life where he feels comfortable combining the two elements.
“Finally, I’ve reached a point where I’ve really put the two together,” Spencer said. “There’s a very abstract form to my work and at the same time I’ve tried to melt the two together.”
Spencer explains how he “got onto these layers” in his paintings years ago while he was in his studio.
“I was thinking about my life and all of the layers,” Spencer said. “My life was like that, so I thought ‘why not organize a painting in layers?’”
The spectrum of the rainbow and this range of colors has become a kind of signature for Spencer.
“To me it is the analogy of life,” Spencer said. “You break the light into prisms, and you get all this color. Without light, without the sun, there is no life as we know it. When I put it into a painting, it is a representation of life.”
Spencer loves the Paso Robles area and said it is the perfect location for family to visit. He enjoys being centrally located and likes to take the Amtrak train to visit his sons in California. Spencer has connected with numerous people in town, “especially the other artists at the Studio.”
“It’s been wonderful,” Spencer said. “Paso Robles is a great location. I love this place and the fact that it is so close to the coast.”
When his sons come out to visit, the family likes to “hang out and visit” and they also go out to the coast to visit a ranch near Ragged Point where Editha stayed at when she was a teenager.
“We like making the trip up there,” Spencer said.
The artist has three grandchildren and said the family is expecting their fourth great-grandchild soon.
Keeping busy with art is just one way that Harold Spencer is enjoying this time in his life. Near his sketchpad, the artist keeps two photos of Editha and he glances over at her constantly. Editha passed away in December of 2010.
“We just enjoyed everything together so much, the art, the music, the literature,” Spencer reminisced. “It was all just perfect. I miss her tremendously.”
Stop by and say hello to “Spence” in his studio at Studios on the Park, 1130 Pine St. in Paso Robles near the downtown park, Thursdays through Sundays. For more information, call 238-9800 or visit the Studio website at www.studiosonthepark.org.
Ninety-year-old Harold “Spence” Spencer paints at Studios on the Park.
Photos of Harold Spencer’s late wife, Editha, sit among the shelves of his studio.
An oil on canvas painting by Spencer is reminiscent of a Hawaiian holiday the artist and his late wife, Editha, took several years ago. The painting is a reminder of the rich and full life the two artists had together. “We just enjoyed everything together so much, the art, the music, the literature,” Spencer reminisced. “It was all just perfect.”
And finally, “Tocatta Per Tempore” Harold Spencer’s oil on canvas painting highlights the colorful way the artist thinks about life. “I was thinking about my life and all of the layers,” Spencer said. “My life was like that, so I thought ‘why not organize a painting in layers?’”