Arco Tung-Sol: Painter, Sculptor and Bon Vivant
Arco's interests seemed boundless
Since 1982, I’ve been living in midtown Sacramento, California, a bohemian pocket of Victorian homes, family businesses, mom and pop grocery stores, art galleries, nightclubs, bistros, coffeehouses and gay bars. Perhaps the of hub of midtown is by the corner of Twentieth and K Streets.
At one of my own midtown, backyard parties, I met Arco Tung-Sol one hot summer’s night in 1986, when the planet Mars burned so large and bright that I thought it was a UFO following me from place to place. Was this apparition of the red planet the dawn of a new era? For me it definitely was, because becoming Arco’s good friend certainly enriched my life in the coming years.
When Arco arrived at my party he seemed very polite and courteous, especially with the ladies. Tall, lean, clean-shaven and topped with mop of thick, short blonde hair, Arco, at 49, was about 14 years older than me. Because of this age difference Arco seemed an avuncular figure, and once we began talking it soon became apparent that we shared many interests.
We certainly hit it off, as they say; in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a man with whom I’ve had more in common. Also, Arco seemed very interested in what I was doing with my life, which I found very flattering. In fact, almost every time I saw Arco, he told me how appreciative he was of my friendship. How many people do that with their friends?
From that point until Arco’s death in April 2003, Arco and I always had something to talk about.
I soon discovered that Arco was an artist, primarily a painter and sculptor, though I soon learned that he was capable of doing just about anything in the realm of fine art, commercial art or merely the artsy-craftsy. Amusingly, whenever somebody uttered the word “artsy-fartsy” to Arco, he winced as if poked with a stick.
Also, Arco could draw just about anything he had ever seen or imagined, a feat which impressed me greatly. Incidentally, he was left-handed, which I found intriguing. Left-handers use a different side of the brain than right-handers.
Furthermore, Arco, like many artists, was very good with his hands. He seemed able to do just about anything with tools, even repair cars (including the body work), tasks which I find very difficult, if not impossible. But to call him a handyman would definitely be an understatement. Marcelle Wiggins, Arco’s third wife, said that Arco could fix or build anything. As far as I could tell, Arco was a mechanical genius.
By the way, Arco’s birth name wasn’t Arco Tung-Sol. On February 20, 1937 he was named James Hargrove Gibbs, born in a boxy, white, antebellum house on Gibbs Road in Cherokee, Alabama. At the age of 17 Arco moved to California in 1954. Over the years, Arco was married three times and fathered five children, two boys and three girls.
Marcelle Wiggins, also an artist as well as a college professor, told me that Arco changed his name in 1975, when she and Arco lived in Leucadia in San Diego County. Arco was a reference to the well-known chain of gas stations and Tung-Sol referred to a kind of storage battery that Arco saw at one of these stations.
“Arco, like the arena?” people would ask when they first met Arco. (For many years the Sacramento Kings played at Arco Arena, now called the Power Balance Pavilion.) “Yes,” Arco would answer very seriously, never making a joke about it. He seemed to find his name very important, but not to the point of being pompous. Incidentally, I usually greeted him by saying, “Arco, me bucko!” This was an allusion to pirate talk, I guess. You know how guys are with their silly male bonding routines. Ha!
During Arco’s life, he worked as a surveyor in Palo Alto, California. He also worked as an art director and typesetter for newspapers, made electrical parts and constructed cabinets.
Arco began working as an artist in 1960. At an art show in San Diego in 1972, Arco described his style of painting as “pararealism.” In the late 1990s, he told me his style was called neo-Abstract Expressionism, a contemporary spin on the work of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning.
Arco painted primarily in oils and acrylics on canvas, paper or wood. Some of his paintings were realistic depictions of animals, particularly bees and horses. He also painted people, of course, especially female nudes, for which he definitely had great talent. One large work of his on paper shows a naked blue-eyed blonde shooting a curl at some beach in Southern California. Arco always favored blue-eyed blondes! For a time, Arco lived in Southern California, where he would often hang five or ten, while gawking at the beach babes, I'm sure.
A friend of Arco’s named Myke Smitely had this to say about Arco’s fascination of nude women: "He and I loved 'naked ladies' in the same way. Other than my brother, Jan, Arco is the only man I’ve known who could truly appreciate nude females with that particular focus: naturally and thoroughly appreciating them as erotic delights in a man’s reality, and simultaneously appreciating them deeply as sacred vessels of Universal Yin in a soul’s reality—this spiritual perception being experienced as a keenly felt aesthetic and poetic appreciation touching awe and bordering reverence. Over the years he occasionally shared with me how a particular nude painting came into being, and his deep perceptions of Universal Yin are shyly hidden in each one."
But the artworks I enjoyed the most were Arco’s “cosmoscapes,” as I called them. These abstract vistas of time and space were mesmerizing, as well as “psychedelic,” as many people back in the 1960s and ‘70s may have called them. These paintings resembled depictions of space vistas, complete with fluorescing gas, frothing clouds of plasma, scintillating hot white stars, gamma ray beams and shooting rogue asteroids. Arco’s passion for astronomy was definitely evident in these pieces. One of them, my favorite, had a purple velvet curtain in it. What this curtain meant I’m not sure, but I definitely found it fascinating!
Sculpture was also a specialty of Arco’s. He would construct a metal armature and mount it on a wooden plank, and then use Bondo (the same kind used for body work on cars) and other materials such as plaster or Styrofoam, and then assemble these pieces into futuristic spacecraft, alien creatures or surges of energy, and finally spray on a layer of paint. These were sometimes comprised of two or more pieces assembled into a whole. (See the black and white photo of Arco with one of his prized sculptures.)
Arco also produced mixed media works mounted on wooden panels and designed to be hung on the wall. I called these “cosmic eyes,” because Arco usually placed an opalescent, eye-like orb in the middle of each; he often used metal grid work on these to great effect as well, creating an overall futuristic look that was fun to contemplate.
And his metalwork didn’t stop with small grid work. Using iron rods, Arco built statues as big as an adult man. There were stylized statues of men in humorous poses, one of which had an erect, retractable “member” for humorous effect. At times, Arco had a bawdy sense of humor.
Arco was greatly influenced by science fiction and fantasy. Many times, when Arco and I would get together and have a few beers, I would cajole Arco into doing pencil and paper sketches of sci-fi scenes based on some of the screenplays I was writing at the time. One of these sketches I labeled “The Magnificent Seven,” a photo of which is included in this article. I also paid Arco $20 apiece to produce posters for some of the jam sessions my friends and I had back in the 1990s.
Regarding music, Arco played some acoustic guitar, mystical-sounding stuff with the instrument tuned to D. But he mainly liked to beat on drums, getting his “ya-yas out” as he called it. For this purpose, Arco made his own drums, using steel barrels to which he affixed drums heads, complete with tension screws and bolts for tuning the skins. They didn’t sound bad for homemade drums. We certainly had many high times playing with Arco’s drums on Friday or Saturday nights!
Arco and I often ventured to the Second Saturday Art Walk in Sacramento. Galleries in the Sacramento area, particularly downtown and midtown, opened their doors to the public, showing the works of local artists, sometimes offering free food and drink. Arco certainly appreciated the free libations, a bibulous fellow he definitely was!
Arco’s last abode was a two-bedroom house near Thirty-Sixth Street and Second Avenue in Oak Park. This house was crammed with much of the stuff Arco had collected over the years. He must have had half a dozen TVs, including one I had given him, as well as boxes of tools, electronic devices, magazines, books, musical instruments, building materials, appliances, art supplies, auto parts and a little bit of everything else. I figured Arco had forgotten at least half of what he had there.
Certainly a man of many interests and passions, Arco had a particular interest in ancient history and archaeology, mainly as these related to the Mycenaean Greeks, Mesopotamia, the dynasties of ancient Egypt and Mesoamerican cultures, particularly that of the Maya.
Relating to the Maya, when charged with sci-fi imagery, Arco and I liked to imagine Mayan-like pyramids on Mars, where chimerical creatures battle laser wielding commandos and spaceships strafe armies of “bugmen” scurrying up stairways. Ha! We had so much fun doing this, I can't begin to tell you!
Late in life, Arco suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, a condition which got so bad that he had to have his left shoulder replaced. After the operation, Arco struggled for a year or more to learn how to draw and paint again, but he finally managed it, producing a little more artwork before his eventual exit from this plane of existence.
Arco also had severe back trouble for which he took strong pain killers, enabling him to walk for a block or two at a time, a situation he enjoyed very much, because he didn’t like staying home all the time, much less languishing in bed all day or night. After all, he was indeed a bon vivant!
Then on April 18, 2003 Arco was found dead by a nurse who had been looking in on him from time to time. He was 66 years old. An autopsy showed that Arco had little in his system at the time of his death except Pepsi. Congestive heart failure was listed as the cause of death.
Arco Tung-Sol should be remembered as a man who loved art, science, literature and the female body, though not necessarily in that order. Moreover, he enjoyed exploring the universe by both looking through telescopes and also creating art that revealed his inner landscape in a provocative, sometimes humorous way. He was a multi-talented man, certainly a genius, and one who never lost his thirst for the unknown.
I miss Arco very much and hope to once again experience his spirit face-to-face.
Oh! As for Arco’s dark side – and we all seem to have one of those – he once told me that “women are evil.” Arco also suffered from bipolar disorder, which may have been responsible for some of his manic highs and self-effacing lows. And two of his favorite curse words were “fuck-o” and “shit-skee.” For cussing, I always liked those two!
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© 2010 Kelley