Goodbye to Two Artists

Nov 30, 2010

Phil Joanou in his studio with one of his paintings; photo by George Lange

We were sad to have to attend two memorials over the last three days, but honored to take part in the celebration of two wonderful lives. What was so striking about the back-to-back services was how diametrically opposed they were—and yet, deep down, there was a pretty essential similarity.

The first, for longtime Altadena resident Rusty Derr, took place in the smaller sanctuary at Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church. It was filling to overflowing with a diverse range of people: artists, musicians (his wife, Tina Soule, is a professional cellist), college kids, relatives, old friends. Rusty was a woodsman, a poet, a woodworker, and a fan of Wendell Berry’s, so there were a lot of readings of works by Berry and Rusty, and lots of stories about his love for nature and disdain for money and the big city. He also loved Irish music, so his widow put together an exceptional group to play and sing. It ended with a lovely DVD tribute to his life, full of images of Rusty in jeans and flannel shirts, enjoying the outdoors and/or hugging his daughters.

Next was a much larger and vastly more posh memorial at the California Club for La Canadan Phil Joanou, a titan in the advertising industry who helped elect two Republican presidents, marketed a whole lot of goods made by corporate America, and brainstormed and marketed the Partnership for a Drug Free America. The tributes to him were made largely by terrifically successful men (including two former ambassadors) who had worked with or for him over the years. Phil was a man of exceptional focus, drive, ambition and success. No one would dream of attending his service in overalls, which happened at Rusty Derr’s. At the California Club, such an offense is on a par with smoking crack in public.

Rusty Derr as seen by his longtime friend, painter Paul Buxman

Two very different men, and yet, we were struck with powerful similarities. Both had an exceptional degree of what some would call focus and others would call stubbornness; when they wanted something done a certain way, they would not rest until it was just so. Both were devoted to their families: in Rusty’s case, his wife, Tina, and two daughters; in Phil’s case, his wife, Michelle, and their four children and many grandchildren. Finally, and most importantly, both were artists, yet so many were unaware of their art for so long. In Rusty’s case, he read and wrote poetry his whole life, but was modest about sharing it. In Phil’s case, he was fascinated with painting, told no one about his dream of being an artist, and then one day in his 60s decided he’d had enough with advertising, retired early, and went to art school. He refused to show anyone his work for years, until he felt he had produced “a body of work”; until his first show in New York, his friends had no idea he was a serious painter. Since that first show, he maintained a studio in Pasadena and had many successful exhibitions.

The lessons learned from these two fine men and two memorials:

— People first, money/business second
— Character is all that matters in the end
— Hold on to dreams, and take risks to make them happen
— Have some fun
— If your spouse’s career means you have to be in LA, but you love the mountains and hate the city, Altadena makes for a mighty fine compromise
— A man whose wife and children love him wants for nothing—and can do anything

To close, two poems by our friend Rusty Derr:

highway 99

i am as usual
driving too fast
past farmhouses, crops
the ancient land
my restless eyes recording
just a blur till
nudging the speed of light
the ages compress
time strolls backward lazily
and all the creatures
sedimentary layers
and organic promise
deposited in the earth
around me rise up
at my progress


the smooth shell of
blue stretching over me
has cracked
a hawk circles hungrily
and i cannot say if
all hope for the future might
drain meekly out or
with a shout of angels
come pouring in

5 Responses for “Goodbye to Two Artists”

  1. JENNIE says:

    thanks Colleen, a perfect summary. I’m a little weepy… again.

  2. Michelle Joanou says:

    Thank you so much Colleen. I loved the contrast/compare aspect of your piece. Phil would have been pleased being compared to Rusty Derr because for all his success he remained a very basic down-to-earth man with simple tastes and they would have shared those characteristics. And by the way, Phil and I only discovered Wendell Berry this last year and we avidly read many of his books these last few months. Your instincts are amazing!

  3. Jennifer Frank says:

    Colleen – What a beautiful piece. I am honored to have my father compared to Rusty, who I always respected and admired. Thank you so much.

  4. Michele Zack says:

    I got weepy and I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing either man. Beautiful poems. Thanks Colleen, it is wonderful to learn of people living in our neck of the woods whose lives were so well-lived — makes you want to go out and meet your neighbors!

  5. Tina Soule says:

    Colleen – I have just now read this piece and am so very grateful to you for writing this wonderful comparison of the shared essence of these two special men. I didn’t know Jennifer’s father, but I’m sure Rusty would have admired him and enjoyed sharing thoughts about Wendell Berry. Thanks for sharing Rusty’s poems. He would be slightly embarrassed but truly honored that you have so generously, and accurately, written about the things that were important to him.



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