Kingston Artist Larry Decker
In the Decker family, you learned to read, you learned to write, you did art. Your parents made sure your desk was filled with art supplies—but there was not much discussion about art; it was just something the whole family did.
So it was ironic that Larry Decker’s artistic talent vexed his high school art teacher. He wanted to be a farmer and a botanist. The art teacher gave him a low final grade and said, “I want to make sure your parents don’t force you into studying art at college, since that’s so clearly not what you want to do.”
Then, despite Decker’s high mark on the Art Regents exam, his high school diploma was a skimpy “Degree in Science.” He took it to the office to complain, and they took out a ball point pen and wrote in “and Art.” Lovely.
Enter the rocks. Decker was waiting for the late bus to come pick him up. His Long Island school was surrounded by white quartz stone, polished pure white, very smooth. He had his India ink and pen from art class and was bored, so he started drawing a tree on one of the stones. Something clicked. It worked, and he felt an unfamiliar surge of pride.
Cue Sonny and Cher, in 1969. Decker wanted to do something to show his appreciation for them as entertainers. He and his sister Lynn waited outside the stage door at the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island so that he could give them one of his painted stones. “It was pandemonium there,” he says. “There were all these people with large portraits they’d painted and lavish gifts. I felt like an idiot standing there with my stone.”
At first, the singers breezed past the fans into their limo, but then Cher looked through the window at Decker, got back out, and took his stone from him. He says, “I decided this was how I could express my appreciation to the entertainers that gave me so much enjoyment—but without gushing. And I always included a letter with a return address.”
He left hundreds of stones with celebrities and their assistants, and began to get a reputation on Broadway as the “lucky rock artist.” Dorothy Loudon told him that the painted stone he gave her was very special and then she sang him a number from Annie. Dionne Warwick said she never went anywhere without hers. Carroll O’Connor dragged him around at a party to meet his friends. The evening that Larry left stones with the doorkeeper at the Debbie Reynolds performance of “Irene,” Reynolds invited Larry and his Kansas State buddy Lenny Arias to sit in the front row of her show and come to the after-party with the star and her daughter Carrie Fisher. Arias says, “There’s a sweetness about Larry and his view of the world that came through his painted stones. I saw many celebrities respond to his playfulness.”
Like so many of his generation, Decker was crazy about the Waltons. He arranged with Richard Thomas’s mother to send a box of stones to the TV show set. When Decker and his sister Lynn went to Hollywood for the first time, they called up the studio; just then, Ellen Corby walked by and said, “Is this about a box of rocks?” She invited them to the set and for two years thereafter, Decker became a sort of honorary Walton, hanging out with the cast. He made forays back out into the world in his VW Bug only to come back to the Walton hearth. “Stories from my travels—that was something I could bring them,” he says. “And they loved watching my cat climb around the set.”
Passionate about all animals, he followed the work of Jane Goodall with great interest. In 1975 he painted images of chimps nesting in trees—reflecting Goodall’s discovery of this aspect of chimp behavior—and sent them to her care of the Gombe Stream Research Centre in Tanzania. He says, “She sent me back a lovely two-page letter and a photo. That was the start of showing my appreciation to other people I admired, not just entertainers.”
In 1981, Decker met Rick Foster, who would become his partner of more than 30 years. Amazingly, they’d grown up in the same small town of Northport, Long Island, three years apart. Their siblings were friends with each other, and they realized shortly after meeting that they had the same best friend, Maddie. All their childhood reference points were the same. They both had flying squirrels as kids—we’re talking kismet of the highest order.
Initially, he kept his Broadway stone exploits on the down-low, not wishing to have this part of his life affect his budding relationship. “Wait here,” he said to Foster, when they went to New York City for the first time together. Foster watched him dart down an alleyway and fretted about his new boyfriend. Was he dealing drugs?
When Decker came back, he had to explain; Foster got included from then on. A highlight was when Geraldine Paige saved tickets for the two of them to see her in Agnes of God.
But there came a point where Foster tired of the pen and ink illustrations. “He was pushing me to go beyond the stones,” Decker says. “They started to annoy him because I’d found a comfort level and I was getting recognition for it. I was truly afraid of giving that up, of taking risks.” Foster, a therapist and social worker, kept after him.
By this time, Decker was also doing pen-and-ink cover illustrations for magazines like National Parks, but this started to feel like assembly line production. “If I tried to break out of the mechanical way I was drawing, I was told I was ‘too stylized’. But what I later realized was that when someone tells you that, it means that you’ve found yourself as an artist. You’re creating for yourself at that point. And when you do that, others can look at your paintings and recognize them as yours—no signature needed.”
A trip to Sedona, Arizona in 1991 spurred the jump to color and canvas. Decker took a photo of a group of pine cones and red rock. The photo haunted him, and he started to understand the desire to have to paint a scene. Yet, back home in Albany, it didn’t come to life. “I thought, well that’s it. I’m not an artist,” he says.
Foster came in to look at it and asked what’s wrong. Decker: “I feel like I want to paint a thick black line around everything.” Foster: “Then that’s what you should do. What do you have to lose? You don’t like the painting now!” With the outlines, now one of his signature elements, Decker’s painting jumped to life. “It was exactly what I felt inside,” he says.
Therapist Janne Dooley bought the painting. She had a spiritual connection to Sedona, too, and had been friends with Decker since his pen-and-ink days. “I knew the transformation the painting represented,” she says. “There is a whimsy to it and all of his subsequent paintings that enters your subconscious in a playful way.” Dooley says that when she attended services at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Poughkeepsie, where Decker and Foster are members, “It was powerful to sit in the sanctuary surrounded by his art.”
His subject matter has ranged from cactuses to Cape Cod lighthouses. In 1997, Foster, ever the advocate for Decker, took photos of his partner’s paintings to the Jacob Fanning Gallery in Wellfleet, Massachusetts to show Bimbi Jacob and Lee Ann Fanning. “Larry and I both love art, we look at a lot of art, and we collect art whenever we can. I wouldn’t have taken mediocre work to the gallery. I really believed he had it,” Foster says.
Jacob and Fanning responded to the bold, often fantastical color choices in Decker’s work. Jacob says, “Larry’s paintings brightened up our studio. I remember when he brought in a colorful painting of houses on the beach side of Wellfleet. I said, ‘But aren’t these the ugly brown houses on Route 6a?’ Larry said, ‘I’m a painter, not a photographer.’” Jacob bought a painted platter of his with a tree as its subject. “I only regret that I didn’t buy the painting of the same tree,” she says, then gets quiet. “Damn, why didn’t I buy that painting?”
Lee Ann Fanning recalls that one couple made an annual pilgrimage to buy a Decker. Only after some years was it revealed that the husband was color blind, but he could enjoy the paintings because of the large, differentiated shapes and bold use of color. Among Fanning’s favorite paintings of Decker’s was a series of fresh takes on windows and other architectural elements. “I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with the landscapes and architecture of the Hudson Valley,” she says.
Decker is grateful to Jacob and Fanning for their nurturing and gallery space. “Galleries aren’t just stores,” he says. “The gallery’s personality and vision has to match the artist’s personality and vision. You shouldn’t want to be in a gallery where you look like the odd duck.”
Artists sometimes complain about the commission the gallery takes, but Decker sees it differently. “It takes talent to hang and display paintings in their best light, and there’s a lot of outreach that goes into marketing them,” he says. “Galleries work very hard to sell your work and they pay the rent; they earn every penny.” When one of his early paintings hung at his then workplace, Barnes & Noble, it didn’t fetch the $300 he asked for it. The same painting sold for over $1000 in a gallery.
Even after 11 years of steady gallery sales at the Jacob Fanning Gallery, the old insecurities flare up from time to time. This is one of the reasons Decker took a studio space in the old T-shirt factory on Cornell Street in Kingston. He says, “When you meet artists at shows, you see their finest finished work, work that has established value among gallerists. That can be intimidating. I wanted to meet artists in the studio context, where we are all in the middle, figuring things out.”
Decker has a specific technique that helps him figure things out. His studio shelves are lined with VHS tapes of movies he knows intimately, like Harold & Maude, On Golden Pond, and Peggy Sue Got Married, and early sitcoms like I Love Lucy. Something about having these familiars playing in the background keeps his analytical, planning mind occupied and entertained so he can just … paint.
Like the artists and authors he profiles for his job as a film producer for Scholastic Book Fairs, Decker surrounds himself with personal mementos (including two huge binders of signed photographs and letters from “the stone years”) and vintage knickknacks. “I’m always fascinated by how artists surround themselves with things, with emotional triggers that bring you back to a place that a photograph can’t,” he says. As a little kid he carried around a small print of El Greco’s Toledo. “I was captivated by the excitement of this painting,” he says. “The blue and green combinations, the way the light hit the city—it was both dark and very bright, and had a lot of action in it.”
Blue and green combinations, topography, plays of light and dark on mountains—these were qualities he and his partner missed when they lived in Florida from 2001-2008. “Florida was one-note for me,” he says. “As an artist seeking inspiration, I was dead inside. The sunsets were fantastic, but I couldn’t paint one without it looking phony.” Decker missed the textures of mountains, pine trees, snow, and rocky beaches.
So he and Foster moved back to the northeast in 2008, settling in Port Ewen, and his drive to paint is back, too. You can find him in his Kingston studio, fully healed from those high school slights and rejections, fully inhabiting his Artist self. Oh, and what did he study at college? Agronomy, Wildlife & Fisheries Biology, and Elementary Education.