Work of art, little else

If you’ve driven past the 1400 block of Las Vegas Boulevard South in the last year, you’ve seen Wendell Edwards’ artwork.

Two of his murals adorn a wedding chapel there, both works recognizable as his from the simple, rounded shapes and figures, the strangely lush desert scenery and the bright, warm colors.

Those scenes depicting newlywed bliss contrast with his own tumbleweed life, which has been short on both bright spots and warmth. Pretty much his only constant has been his painting.

“Without my art, I probably would be doing something stupid,” he said recently in front of another of his murals, a seascape on a wall inside Civil Wedding Services on Charleston Boulevard.

“But the art keeps telling me, by not having a lot of money and those things, it just gives me more time to do art.”

Edwards started this year with what he says was his only period of homelessness in his 50 years. Although to be accurate, he hasn’t had homes so much as places where people allowed him to stay for a while. He’s ending 2008 with a place of his own and the beginnings of what could become a stable painting career.

“I don’t feel like I’m 50,” he said. “Fifty is, like, you’re retired. But I feel like I’m just starting something.”

Edwards remembers drawing as a boy growing up in Cincinnati, even getting kicked out of math class because he concentrated on pictures, not math problems. He moved to San Francisco with his mother when he was 11, and the Pacific Ocean blew his mind.

“I thought, ‘This must be the center of the world.’ “

He later studied art at Laney College in Oakland. That’s when his ramblings really began.

He got a chance to spend a month in France to study works of art there. Entranced, he ditched his plane ticket home and stayed for six months, couch-surfing, painting for food, stretching his sojourn as far as he could.

Finally, his friends there pitched in to send him home. He ended up with his mom in Portland, Ore., earning an associate degree in the then-emerging field of computer chips.

When she went back to Ohio to care for grandchildren, Edwards was on his own again. He landed on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, painting. Then it was on to San Jose, where there was a woman and, eventually, two children, but little domestic bliss.

That set up the central conflict that’s with him even today, Edwards said. He’s little suited to do anything but paint, which makes him happy but ends up putting him at odds with anything — family, a steady job, regular bills — that gets between him and a canvas.

The woman moved to Las Vegas some years ago, and he eventually followed and at least made an effort at fatherhood, Edwards said. He cared for his kids. He painted on the street in the west Las Vegas Valley, earning as much as $600 a week, he said.

But then he had to move out. He blames domestic squabbles and a dedication to his art. But Edwards also acknowledges regret that he couldn’t be what his family needed him to be, and that he didn’t do more once upon a time to prepare himself for at least a less-itinerant artist’s life.

“That eats at me. It’s just a real bad blank spot there that I have to learn to live with,” he said. “If I had it to do all over again, I would’ve taken up business or law. I would put more into a business degree, so I could open up the baddest art gallery in the world.”

As it was, Edwards ended up staying with an elderly man he met while painting on the street. That was last year. The man died while Edwards was visiting family, and when he returned to Vegas, he was on the streets.

He found some work and a semblance of a roof over his head while painting the murals at the Las Vegas Boulevard chapel. While there, he met Rudy Aguila, who commissioned two murals from him for Civil Wedding Services, gave him a place to stay and eventually helped him find a studio apartment.

“I’m just trying to find him some focus,” Aguila said.

Through Aguila, Edwards has found work doing portraits for special occasions — holidays, quinceaneras — and in the New Year there are plans to market his work on eBay.

“I have seen this thing take me up and down, to where I don’t even worry about the financial aspect any more,” Edwards said. “I know what it’s like to not eat for three days because you spent your last money on some umber or some burnt sienna.

“I don’t have a lot of things, but not having things allows me to caress my art even more.”

Contact reporter Alan Choate at achoate@reviewjournal.com or 702-229-6435.

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