When Sir Elton John glanced at Bernie Taupin's computer screen a few weeks ago, he noticed a vivid red and white painting with light shades of blue popping out from the background.
"'Is that one of yours?' he asked me," Taupin recounted. "When I replied, 'Yes,' he said, 'I've got to have that.'"
The painting in question is "Winter Rain," a 36-by-36 creation that had, until recently, been part of Taupin's retrospective "Beyond Words."
Coming to Coast Gallery in Laguna Beach from Feb. 7 to 10, this exhibition reflects Taupin's 20-year commitment to the visual arts.
"I'd have loved to start painting a lot earlier on, but I lived a very transient lifestyle and was constantly on the move," said Taupin, 62, who penned the lyrics for "Tiny Dancer," "Crocodile Rock" and other John classics. "It was a progression of sorts — tiny steps toward a place where I could concentrate on this other side of my life."
Growing up, Taupin developed an early appreciation for the arts, thanks in no small part to his mother, who was discussing literature and poetry and showing him J.M.W. Turner portraits before he could walk.
It wasn't until the '70s, however, when Taupin came to the United States and spent time visiting New York City museums, that he fell in love with the abstract Impressionism of the '40s and '50s. He was also deeply influenced by icons such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Dominated by chaos and movement, the pages of Taupin's sketchbook are constantly being filled.
"At that time, I discovered a connection between art and what I did, literally," he said. "For me, it was a continuation of creating stories, just visually as opposed to sonically."
A resident of the San Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, Taupin spends 80% to 85% of his time working in a studio that was constructed from a converted racquetball court. Its generous size lends itself to the artist's creative process and affinity for large canvases, sometimes spanning five or six feet.
While past exhibitions have been hugely gratifying and well received by audiences, a priority at upcoming shows is to switch out older pieces for newer ones that reflect Taupin's evolution in style.
"A lot of my earlier paintings would be considered experimental because I was trying to find a form that satisfied me, with the hope that I'd improve and find my foothold," Taupin said. "I feel like some of the earlier works were too thought out, since one of the hardest things about painting is knowing when to stop. Especially in the abstract impressionist field, there is a tendency to over-paint or over-stack, and I think now my work is becoming much simpler and brighter."
What Taupin labels a "drastic change" in his work is a progression from muted and toned-down to eye-catching and interesting. His abstract impressionist and pop art paintings comprise color blocks, urban landscapes and edgy combinations of materials including cardboard, wire, string and metal.
Having shown his work in Texas and Florida, Taupin's next pit stop is Laguna Beach. The lyricist and painter will attend the opening reception from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday.
Coast Gallery Director Wayne Heller, who said Taupin's agent approached him about doing the show, called it a unique opportunity to see another side of a musical legend.
"That is the other artist in him, the one with the brushes and paints; the one that creates emotive canvases," he said. "[These are] contemporary works of art that dually speak to one's intellect and one's emotions: rich in color and expression — a cryptic social commentary captured in multi-media form."
When faced by the question, "What were you thinking of when you made this?" Taupin subscribes to the Warhol adage, "What does it mean to you?" According to him, it's much more interesting when viewers form their own connections with his paintings.
"I love when people get it," he said.
His next visit will be to Nashville, where John will be performing. Taupin met the singer via a musical ad in 1967 and embarked on a nearly 45-year partnership with the British pianist and singer.
"Both songwriting and visual art come from the same place — the imagination," Taupin said " I feel that you are giving the viewer or the listener something to look into — with a song, you are telling a story that you hope affects people, and the same with a painting. What you are striving to achieve is something interesting that people can pick up on, which will, in turn, stimulate their imagination."
If You Go
What: "Beyond Words"
Where: Coast Gallery, 540 S Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach
When: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Feb. 8, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Feb. 9, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Feb. 10
Cost: Free, but RSVPs requested
Information: firstname.lastname@example.org or (949) 376-4185