By Jim Carnett
(Jim was an Orange Coast College student in the early 1960s. Now in his 36th year as Director of Community Relations, he is editor of Coast-to-Coast. This is a regular column that focuses on OCC’s history and distinctive characteristics and characters.)
Victor Casados will retire next month after spending an amazing 40 years as a professor of art on this campus.
He leaves with a host of accomplishments under his belt, and many “firsts.” Nothing, however, can top what he pulled off in 1985. It’s the Matterhorn of a career strewn with many lofty peaks. In 1985 he made international headlines that rocked the art world.
“It was my 15-minutes of fame,” he says modestly. “Every now and then I get a new student who’ll say to me, ‘My mom says you’re the guy who deciphered Michelangelo’s drawing.’”
It all began in 1983 when Casados was in Europe on sabbatical. He spent a day at the British Museum in London, and asked for permission to go into the archive section to view original drawings.
“I was denied access because I had no credentials,” he says. “Two years later, when I accompanied Don Jennings to Europe on his ‘Art of Western Europe’ tour, I was admitted to the archives because I had a letter from the college president saying that I was a fully qualified professor of art.”
He was ushered into a room at the British Museum with a large table…and a very large, uniformed guard. He was given carte blanche.
“I had the Magic Kingdom Card!” he jokes. “I requested to see a portfolio of Renaissance drawings by Michelangelo. They brought in the portfolio, opened it up, and I was able to leaf through the drawings…under the constant gaze of the guard, of course. I was thrilled! I was looking at originals of drawings I had only seen in books.”
Casados was able to take notes – in pencil only – of what he was viewing. The drawings were accompanied by a catalog that fully explained each drawing.
Victor came across Plate XXX, titled “Lazarus Raised From the Dead, Supported by Two Figures.” He remembered seeing the drawing in art books.
“I’d talked about this particular drawing in my classes,” he says. “Also on the page were four separate renderings of Lazarus’ left foot. I would tell my classes, ‘See, even the great Michelangelo had his off-days and felt frustration when he couldn’t quite get the foot right.' In those days, an artist would use every scrap of paper he had.”
In the bottom right-hand corner of the page was a small “scribble” in black chalk that the catalog noted as not being “discernable.” Casados looked at it and knew exactly what it was.
“I’m an artist and I’ve spent my career teaching life drawing. I knew what it was. It was an anatomical drawing of a human right shoulder, as seen from above. I’ve drawn that same sort of sketch when doing a life drawing or painting. Michelangelo did it to remind himself of the anatomy of a shoulder…as a reference. Most likely he didn’t have a real model to work with at that moment.
“I looked at the ‘scribble’ and could see a clavicle, scapula, deltoid muscle, and a view down the spinal column. We talk about those features all the time in class.”
Victor was so excited that he could hardly contain himself. He immediately called out to the woman who was the Keeper of the Drawings, seated behind a nearby desk.
“There’s a Michelangelo scribble on this page that I can identify,” he told her.
“She had a look of surprise on her face,” he says. “She hopped out of her seat and came and stood by my side. She saw exactly what I saw as I described it to her. She became excited as well. She said, ‘Write what you’ve just told me in this catalog.’ I did, and I signed it.”
Victor Casados (2nd from left) and Ted Baker (right) with artist friends.
Casados returned to campus a few weeks later and told his friend, former officemate and dean of the Fine Arts Division, Ted Baker, about his discovery.
“Ted was very enthusiastic and encouraged me to immediately write a letter to the ‘Keeper of the Drawings’ at the British Museum,” Victor says. “He said it needed to be officially documented.”
Casados sent his letter and five weeks later received a reply from the Assistant Keeper of the Drawings.
“The correspondence was a bit reserved,” Victor laughs. “No doubt museum administrators were taken aback that an American had identified what their European experts could not. Over the centuries, hundreds – perhaps thousands – of art historians had seen the scribble without realizing what it was.”
“I was most interested to note your observation that the small scribble on the bottom right corner of the drawings is a study for a human right shoulder,” the Assistant Keeper wrote…his typewritten manuscript drenched in superior Britannic intonations. “You are of course correct in this observation which does not seem to have been noted elsewhere…”
Hmmmmmmm. Seems not!
“…and, I would further point out that this must be an alternative for the right shoulder of the man seen at the top of the drawing leaning over the figure of Lazarus. Such alternative studies for details of figures drawn in a main study are of course frequently to be found in the drawings of Michelangelo and, indeed, on this sheet there are also four alternative studies for the left foot of Lazarus.”
No feint, Falstaff! “Experts,” of course, had been able to decipher the four left-foot alternatives. My 13-month-old granddaughter could have done no less. The fact that they are ankle sketches – how do I say this tactfully? – is…SELF-EVIDENT! What they hadn’t a clue about was that pesky “scribble” in the lower right-hand quadrant.
Leave it to Orange Coast College art professor, Victor Casados, to resolve the conundrum! His contribution is now noted in the museum catalog for all to see for ages to come.
After Victor received has notification from the Assistant Keeper, I sent out a press release announcing Casados’ accomplishment.
“It came out in many newspapers, and I did television and radio interviews,” he recalls. “I got calls from New York…from all over. It was lots of fun. My moment of fame!”
Born in the vibrant arts community of Santa Fe, N.M., and the product of original Spanish families that settled the region, Victor is proud of his heritage.
“The first mayor of Santa Fe was a Casados, from Cadiz in the region of Andalusia,” he says.
His mother’s side of the family hailed from Madrid.
“We were raised speaking Spanish and English. Like many people in New Mexico, we would often start a sentence in Spanish and finish it in English. We spoke ‘Old Spanish,’ the language necessary today to read ancient manuscripts.”
Casados’ uncle was the first Eagle Scout in Santa Fe. Victor, himself, became an Eagle Scout, though he was living in California at the time.
Victor developed a love for drawing at an early age. He attended a Catholic elementary school and, while in the first grade, the nuns recognized that he had an unusual ability.
“I remember being bored with school. I made a little USA symbol out of red, white and blue clay and showed it to a nun. She was so impressed that she gave me a candy bar. It was the first piece of art I was ever paid for.”
He was immediately advanced to the second grade.
In the third grade, he moved with his family to Henderson, Nev.
“My third-grade teacher – Mrs. Cowan – was very upset with me because I wasn’t getting my work done, and she was always scolding me. All I wanted to do in class was draw. One day she caught me drawing a picture, and she was very angry but also quite impressed. I soon became the teacher’s pet, and she had me draw special art projects for her.”
Victor’s father had been a professional baseball player and had batted against legendary pitcher and Baseball Hall of Famer, Satchel Paige. Vic strove to be an athlete himself at Burroughs High School near China Lake, Calif.
“My freshman year I was a five-foot-two-inch, 118-pound offensive lineman on the B football team,” he says. “The starters all wore green and white uniforms, our school colors. I was so bad – so far down the line – that I was relegated to a violet and yellow jersey.”
Not a bad choice for an artist.
“I rarely played that year. I remember one game late in the season my coach shouted at me on the sideline, ‘Hey Casados! Want to go in?’ I looked at him for a moment and said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’”
Victor didn’t realize that his father was standing within earshot on the sideline.
“Boy did I hear about it when I arrived at home that evening,” he says with a laugh. “My dad was very disappointed. He wanted to raise a man.”
His sophomore season, Casados earned a letter.
“I came home one afternoon from school and my dad was reading the paper. Without saying anything, I just walked over and dropped the letter in his lap. He looked down and a big smile crossed his face.”
As a 5-8, 158-pound senior, Victor was a starting guard on the Burroughs High varsity.
“By then, I had developed a bit of a mean streak. I’d learned by that time that I could intimidate guys bigger than me. On kickoffs, I would always run down the field and look for the biggest guy to hit. Against Antelope Valley, the guy opposite me on the line weighed more than 200 pounds. On the first play of the game I hit him as hard as I could, and he went down. For the rest of the game he was afraid of me, and I moved him all over the place. I learned an important lesson in that game. If life knocks you down, you get up and keep fighting. ‘I will never give up’…that’s been my credo for life.”
While a high school student, Casados was the artist of the school’s yearbook. Evenings he would lie on the living room floor, listen to the radio, and draw.
“My English teacher encouraged me to go to college. In an essay I wrote for him I said that I was totally dedicated to art. He said I needed to continue my education, and my dad agreed.”
Casados went to Bakersfield College and earned an A.A. degree.
“I took lots of art classes but, honestly, I didn’t learn much. I’ve never forgotten that experience and, for all the years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve started each semester vowing that ‘My students are going to learn something in my classes this semester.’”
Vic applied to the Art Center College of Design.
“I wanted to go to a top-notch school, and Art Center was it. I submitted my portfolio.”
But Casados neglected to spray his charcoal works, and a number of the drawings in the portfolio became smudged. He received a rejection letter.
“My dad – who wanted me to be an engineer, but who finally acknowledged my artistic talent – drove with me to L.A. and we talked to the dean and I was able to submit a second portfolio. We drove back to Los Angeles a week later with my portfolio in hand. I showed it to the dean and she looked at the first three drawings in the stack and said, ‘You’re in.’ She started to put the drawings back in the portfolio but I said, ‘No, wait, I want you to look at all of them.”
Victor found the Art Center to be a challenge.
“Everyone enrolled at the center was the best artist in his or her high school or junior college. It was difficult – and I knew nothing about art – but I began to show improvement.”
He received scholarships that paid for his first two years in the program. Following his second year, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. His captain in basic training noticed on his records that he’d attended the Art Center. He spent two years as an illustrator for the quartermaster at Fort Lee, Va. Following his discharge, Victor returned to the Art Center where he completed a B.P.A. in story illustration.
Just before his final two years at the Art Center, Victor learned something significant about himself. He’s colorblind. No one at Orange Coast College has known that fact to this day! Now they do.
“They weren’t going to allow me back into school after my military service, but I managed to convince them that my colorblindness is rather mild. I have a red/green problem that many men have. One of my professors told me, ‘Victor, use your own colors. You have a very good sense of color. Don’t copy from others.’”
He worked in several jobs. He did finishing work – landscape, trees and people – for architects’ renderings. He was employed by an aerospace firm and did top-secret illustrations for Project Mercury. His illustration skills were excellent, but he felt he was weak in design. He enrolled at Otis Art Institute and completed B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees, with honors, in design.
As part of his final project at Otis, he created a mosaic mural of the California missions that is still on display at the St. Francis of Assisi Church in Los Angeles. Famous artist, Millard Sheets, offered him a job. Sheets created many celebrated murals, including murals for the Detroit Public Library, the Mayo Clinic, the dome of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C., and the Notre Dame University Library. The library mural includes a depiction of Jesus that is visible from Notre Dame Stadium.
Victor tuned Sheets’ offer down, however, and became an illustrator with EMC Corp. He did backgrounds for animated movies, Biblical slides for the Lutheran Church, and illustrations for an American history textbook and slide series.
“A lot of movie stars and celebrities came into EMC to do studio work. One day I saw Elvis. He looked great! I also talked with Mel Blanc. He asked me for a nickel so he could use the payphone. And I met Herb Alpert. Comedian Jonathan Winters wandered into our studio one day and asked, ‘Are you guys artists?’ He then did a hilarious riff on what it was to be an artist. His handlers had to come in and cart him off.”
Victor was living in Westminster with his growing young family and commuting to Los Angeles. In 1965, he began teaching an evening art class at Golden West College. Soon he was teaching night classes at Cypress, Fullerton and Long Beach City colleges, and at Cal State Long Beach. He taught art and advertising.
He was hired full-time at Orange Coast College in 1967.
“I interviewed with Bob Krieger who was the Art Department chair. We hit it off from the start. He felt I was a solid professional and he hired me.”
Victor taught commercial art techniques, lettering, and printmaking. He introduced a story illustration class into OCC’s curriculum, and, in his second year, converted the college’s figure drawing class into life drawing. He later taught life painting.
He is perhaps best known in these parts for his life drawing classes. Those are the classes that feature nude (not naked…never naked!) models.
“When I came here we were teaching figure drawing, with models wearing bathing suits. You must realize that at that time they sold anatomy textbooks from under the counter in the Student Bookstore. Nudity was considered pornography at OCC.
“But our bathing-suit figure-drawing classes didn’t transfer to many four-year schools. I felt that our art students needed to gain the skills necessary to get them work. They needed to have life-drawing experiences.”
The class started a bit of a stir.
“We’d have students – and even faculty and staff members – stand by the door just to get a peak. They’d also try to look in the windows. I remember one OCC dean who walked into the classroom one night, ostensibly to see me. With his eyes riveted on the model, he walked right past me…he didn’t even see me.”
Soon other art faculty members, like Donna Sharkey and Ted Baker, began to teach life drawing.
“I became the model coordinator and hired all the models for our classes,” Casados said. “I did so for 38 years – without extra pay. We’ve kept it very professional. I always begin a modeling session by giving a lecture. Then the model comes in and disrobes. Students are not allowed to talk to the model, and the model doesn’t talk to them. If anything needs to be communicated from student to model, it goes through me.
“We have female models, male models, young models, old models, attractive models and unattractive models. Art students need to draw all body types and shapes. If you can draw the figure, you can get work. We have some models who have worked for us for 20 years.
“I once had a lady who came to me and said she wanted to model. I hired her and she came into my class and did an excellent job. After class, I told her I’d like to get her more bookings on campus. She looked at me and smiled and said, ‘No thank you, I just wanted to see if I could do it.’”
Casados teaches “ideal proportions” in his life drawing classes, but not all models bring those dimensions to the table.
“Our students have the right to make changes…artists have been doing that for centuries. If a student wants to give a model slimmer ankles, he or she has that prerogative. We’re not making a photographic record here.”
When does a person officially BECOME an artist? Casados has some strong opinions about that.
“Some people think that you’re born an artist. If you like to draw, you’re an artist…baloney! You’re not born an artist anymore than you’re born an airline pilot or a diesel mechanic. You learn how to be an artist. And you’re really not an artist until you’re working in a studio and you’re told that you need to have an assignment finished by four o’clock…and you get it done. And you collect a paycheck. Now you’re an artist!
“I became an artist when I knew what the heck I was doing. I guess that’s true of any field.”
While a member of the faculty, Victor served on the college’s Curriculum Committee for more than a decade.
“That was great for me. I was able to get to know people from all over the campus. Previously, I’d only associated with people in Fine Arts. It gave me a broader perspective of the college.”
He was Art Department chair for a number of years. In the 1980s, he was sent to China as part of a government exchange program. A talented muralist, Victor created sacred murals for Catholic parishes in Southern California and Texas.
Last semester, for the first time in his career, Casados taught several students who were the grandchildren of young students he’d taught 40 years ago.
“That stunned me,” he says with a shudder. “Where had all the time gone? But I’ve loved my tenure here. I’ve met really nice students and, today, I run into those students all over.”
He recently received a phone call from former OCC model who is working in Paris.
“She said she’d met a young man on a train who said he’d studied art in the States,” Casados says. “She asked him where? He said Orange Coast College. He said he’d taken life drawing, and she said, ‘You must have taken it from Victor Casados.’ He said he did. They both agreed that this is a pretty small world.”
Consistently throughout his career, Victor has created his own art. For many years he’s had a studio in Costa Mesa. He specializes in still-lifes, landscapes and figure studies – and he’s sold many paintings.
“I love painting everything,” he says. “I always have several paintings going at the same time. I particularly enjoy doing watercolor landscapes, and I still love to do the figure.”
He’s had many solo and group exhibitions, and when he’s in “work-mode” he can churn out two paintings a day.
Victor plans to retire to Costa Rica…and paint – full-time.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he says. “I’ve loved my time at Coast but now it’s time for me to go do what I love doing more than anything else, and that’s paint. I’m ready.”
The buzz on the street all these years amongst students and members of the community has been: “You’re going to study art at Coast? Take Victor Casados…he’ll teach you to draw!”
“I’m thankful that I’m thought well of in art circles. Teaching students to draw has been my life's passion.”
The little kid who caught the ire of nuns when he drew pictures in first grade has come a long, long way!
WE GET LETTERS….
As usual, great Coast to Coast, with the even greater article on Phil Riddick (“Retiring Support Technician Had First Brush With OCC’s Campus in 1943,” Orange Slices, May 10).
OCC History Professor (1956-90)