Though he was born in Massachusetts, Gregory Kondos is regarded by many as the seminal painter of the Central Valley. The son of Greek immigrants, Gregory came to Sacramento – what he affectionately describes as a “cow town” – in 1927, when he was only four years old. His father was a barber, while his mother worked in canneries, and both parents instilled in him a work ethic that has carried through his remarkably prolific career.
“We weren’t wealthy people, you know. But we had love in the family, and I adjusted to the area because my parents were wonderful people. I thought that if I could make a go of it here, that I could make it any place. But the weather is also a big factor; I have that Mediterranean blood in me…”
Kondos showed a knack for art early on, and hoped to pursue it after high school. But he had to put his dreams on hold for a few years when the U.S. entered World War II. Kondos served three years in the Navy, where his canvas was primarily the hull of the aircraft carrier on which he was stationed.
“In the Navy I was drawing people’s dogs or wives – or whatever that would come up for a couple of dollars. I’m telling you the truth, I’m not making it up: it was a couple of dollars! And it extended to, where being on an aircraft carrier, I was asked to paint the so-called Japanese flags on the bridge if we had a kill. The captain called me an artist one time and I said, ‘Well, that’s not bad…’”
After the war ended, Kondos took advantage of the G.I. Bill and enrolled in the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. He also studied at Sacramento City College – and in 1956 began teaching there himself. His teaching career lasted nearly a quarter century, and when he retired, an on-campus exhibition space was renamed the Gregory Kondos Gallery.
“I went to Art Center in ‘48, and that’s where the discipline came in. They taught me how to face up to a problem and do the best I could. And they taught me the techniques of going into space through perspective, and color theories. Then I came home and decided to be a teacher.”
Kondos’ art is immediately identifiable, due to his bold use of colors and the physicality of his brushstrokes; looking at a Kondos painting, one can imagine the sweep of the artist’s arm as he works on the canvas. Some admirers have dubbed him the “Boss of the Blues,” due to his signature skies. Though he has painted throughout the country, as well as in Europe, he is most famous for capturing the unique qualities of Sacramento’s rivers and delta.
“Cezanne is my mentor, for sure. I even got a chance to work in his studio in France one time, and I did a lot of drawings. And I also have to give credit to people like Willem DeKooning; he taught me how to move across the canvas in a fast manner. Instead of sitting there picking away at the canvas, I was like on a skateboard when I got through with him!”
Kondos is often linked to another “favorite son” of the Sacramento art scene: Wayne Thiebaud. The two became friends early on in their career, before either had achieved the fame they now enjoy, and often painted side-by-side as they were perfecting their craft.
“Thiebaud extended himself in many cultural things: poetry, music. He can play guitar beautifully if you ever hear him play it. Not me; I’m not a jumper from learning this to learning that. I’d love to learn poetry but I never gave it a chance. I should – I’m of Greek heritage, you know!”
Gregory Kondos continues to paint, both here in California and in his family’s native Greece. He has studios in Clarksburg and at the Art Foundry here in Sacramento, where he lives with his wife Moni Van Camp.
“I’m going to have a show in Mt. Olympus next year, and that’s going to be – not the crowning of my career, but here I am in my 80’s and I’m going to pay back my father and my mother by having a show in Greece, a big show for me.”