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Painting Faces: San Luis Obispo Artist David Settino Scott Pictures 'Women'

The author poses with her portrait by David Settino Scott, featured in the exhibition "Women" at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo. | Chris Daly
The author poses with her portrait by David Settino Scott, featured in the exhibition "Women" at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo. | Chris Daly 

I try to focus on the same spot every time -- a tiny scar just above San Luis Obispo artist David Settino Scott's right eyebrow. That keeps my head from shifting too much as I sit in a lightly padded, slightly dilapidated armchair, relishing the quiet cool of his San Miguel studio.

Small, satisfied sighs escape from Scott's mouth as he squints at my face, glancing constantly from me to his canvas to his palette, loaded with colorful oil paints. As he works, muted afternoon light streams in from a series of skylights. "This American Life" drones quietly on the radio in the background.

I start to reposition myself, then apologize. But Scott, 77, doesn't mind the movement.

"That's why I like painting people live," he tells me. "Working from a photograph, you get a likeness but it's kind of dead in many ways. Here, I'm chasing all those little expressions that are happening in your face. Your mouth twitches a little, or you blink. ...It makes (the subject) come alive a lot more."

Scott indulges his love of portrait painting, and his appreciation for female beauty, in the exhibition "Women," running through August at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo. His subjects -- some portrayed in the nude, others partially or fully clothed -- are a mix of friends, professional models and historical figures.

"These are all women I've been (in) love with on some level," he explains with a chuckle. "I wanted to get closer to them and know them a little better, because when you're in love with somebody you want to see them... understand them."

This portrait of a pregnant woman by artist David Settino Scott is featured in the exhibition "Women" at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo.
This portrait of a pregnant woman by artist David Settino Scott is featured in the exhibition "Women" at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo.

Scott, who grew up in Los Angeles, says his fascination with women began with his mother -- a woman he described in an interview with alternative San Luis Obispo newspaper New Times as "beautiful, nurturing and self-sacrificing to a fault." "She was really adoring to not just me, but (also) my brother and sister. We were lucky," he says.

Scott's father also nurtured that sentiment. "My dad would get really angry with me if I showed any kind of anger or abuse toward my little sister, who is two years younger than me. He was like, "She's a girl. You have to protect her,'" the artist recalls. "That's our job (as men) -- to protect and to serve."

Scott has done just that, in fact. At age 16, he dropped out of high school and joined the U.S. Navy -- a move that coincidentally marked the beginning of his artistic endeavors.

"I used to do lots of (self-portraits) in pencil when I was aboard ship," recalls Scott, who's mostly self taught. "I'd sit on my bunk and I'd have a little mirror and I'd draw myself on (paper) no bigger than a writing tablet I'd write letters on."

A sampling of David Settino Scott's portraits featured in the exhibition "Women" at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo. | Photo: Chris Daly.

Back in California, Scott owned a West Hollywood sandal shop, served as a flight instructor and worked as a special effects expert on "Star Wars" and "Caddyshack" before deciding to focus on art full time in 1982.

He moved to the coastal community of Morro Bay in 1985, setting up shop in a barn in the middle of a bean field before building his current studio in the North County hamlet of San Miguel in 1992.

Scott considers the 2,500-square-foot building, with its lofty ceilings and dyed cement floors, a "sacred space" where he can connect with his subjects one-on-one.

It was here, in 2011, that Scott painted 44 small portraits of his male friends. Scott even let his subjects watch movies while he worked; "The Big Lebowski" proved a popular choice.

"I just wanted to have the close and intimate conversations with men friends... in the studio, where we would cop out to what our hopes and fears and desires (were), just talk about our lives," Scott says. "I wanted to see how they felt about their mission in life, and if it was very different from mine."

"Men don't frighten me. I understand their mentality because I am one," he adds. "But women are a mystery."

"Liza" by David Settino Scott.
"Liza" by David Settino Scott.

When he started working on his latest portraits of women in 2013, "I was nervous and scared the whole time," he says with a laugh. "I had to just concentrate on the work, and not think about (the women) and their beauty and the fact that their physical presence is so powerful for me."

He was also concerned that he would infuriate his female subjects by unintentionally depicting them in an unflattering light. "You can be a little rougher with men," he explains. "With women, since I find them so beautiful, I'm always intimidated. I'm always thinking, 'God, I don't know if I'll be able to get that beauty down.'"

While all of Scott's male portraits were painted from life over the course of two or three multi-hour sessions, most of his female models weren't available to sit for such lengths of time. Instead, the artist opted to photograph the women and work from those images -- a method that, he acknowledges, gave him "a kind of freedom."

"Women" is not limited to portraits of living women. Also depicted are two ancient Egyptian royals: Hatshepsut, whose reign as Egypt's first female pharaoh was "profoundly harmonious and prosperous," and Nefertiti, the famously beautiful bride of Pharaoh Akhenaten.

In Scott's hands, Hatshepsut becomes a plaster-and-wax sphinx whose bare breasts signify her fertility. His noseless bust of Nefertiti, meanwhile, is wrapped, mummy-like, in strands of string.

There's also a series of pen-and-ink drawings of female sphinxes, inspired by the five-part documentary series "The Pyramid Code."

While "Women" is limited, naturally, to Scott's paintings and drawings of women, his portraits range from the personal to the political. "I love painting people. They're the most exciting (subjects)," Scott says. "I'm more attracted to that than (to) landscapes or cityscapes or still lifes, because of the human element."

A recent self-portrait of San Luis Obispo artist David Settino Scott.
A recent self-portrait of San Luis Obispo artist David Settino Scott.

Scott estimates that he's painted about a dozen self portraits in the past 25 years. "I like to do them every once in a while just to check in on myself," the artist says, explaining that each painting mirrors his psychological state at the moment.

"If I'm not feeling good about myself... I could turn out looking like Lucifer, or this downtrodden, beaten-up, homeless alcoholic that you might see on the street. I have to destroy (the portrait) because I don't like seeing myself that way," he explains. "Now I feel better about myself and I don't have that (issue) any more."

On the other end of the introspection spectrum is Scott's emotionally charged series "A Pure Working," which features stylized, sculptural busts depicting Buddhist monks and nuns who set themselves on fire to protest war or injustice. The portraits, which have been displayed at the Fresno Art Museum, the Riverside Art Museum and the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, also pay tribute to the eight American protestors who sacrificed their lives via self-immolation to protest the Vietnam War.

According to Scott, "A Pure Working" specifically draws its inspiration from Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, who set himself on fire on a Saigon street in 1963, bringing attention to the plight of South Vietnam's Buddhist population under the Diem regime.

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When he started working on the sculpture, "It was like he was standing in the studio with me, right there, (looking) over my shoulder. I was like 'Oh my god, how do you do that to yourself?'" Scott recalls. He decided to research those who have chosen self-immolation as a form of protest or martyrdom.

"I started to learn about their love of humanity, and what they were willing to sacrifice to relieve the suffering of other people," he says.

"Doing art puts me in touch with what's really relevant and what's going on in the world, and I can express it in a manner that is nonthreatening to people," he says. 'It's not like I'm up on the soapbox formulating a diatribe or writing a big, long political treatise, because I don't have the knowledge for that. I translate it into some kind of visual poetry."

With "Women," Scott says, he's again accessing a zeitgeist. "I really believe (that), in the next couple hundred years, things will move into a matriarchy," he says. "We're moving into that direction with women's rights, and Hillary (Clinton) being a serious contender for the presidency..."

Adds the artist, "I think I've found my niche. I'm just going to keep on painting women."

"Sphinx" by David Settino Scott.
"Sphinx" by David Settino Scott.

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