Urban Bird has always been a “doodler,” he said, but these days when he puts pen to paper — or rather, paint to canvas — it’s a little more than doodling.
A native of Dalton, Ga., Bird, 83, has been painting landscapes and portraits for nearly 40 years. He moved to Unicoi for a job as a chemist at Nuclear Fuel Services. He left there after 13 years to launch his art career in 1974.
“I started painting and making prints. Right away, the city of Johnson City contacted me and wanted me to teach some classes,” he said recently.
It wasn’t something he wanted to do at first, but he agreed to teach one eight-week class of about 16 students. It turned out to be two classes of 30 students, and Bird has been teaching art for the Parks and Recreation department ever since.
His work is currently on display in the city’s Memorial Park Community Center. One of his original pieces is on loan to him for the display, and he said he asked the woman who owns it to remind him how much she paid for it.
“She said, ‘Three hundred dollars,’ and I told her I could get her 10 times that now,” Bird said. The woman doesn’t want to sell.
These days, an original Urban Bird can run into a five-digit price tag, a much higher price than the five get-well cards his third-grade teacher commissioned him to draw.
“She gave me 30 cents,” he said with a chuckle. It was a lot of money for him in those days, and he treated himself and a few friends to soda and candy.
Bird said he had some artistic training for about three months at Art Students League in New York City studying under Daniel Greene, but his interest in art goes back to his childhood. He can credit two of his older brothers with that.
“I doodle all the time, and what got me into doodling is I had two brothers who drew all the time. They were all the time drawing and they got me started,” he said.
Bird’s art classes are filled with students who have been taking lessons from him for 20 years or more, he said. But as long as they’re learning something, he’s willing to keep on teaching anyone who signs up.
“I didn’t set out to make a lot of money teaching, but to get a lot of people painting,” he said. “I’m charging the same price that I started off in in 1974, and that’s $30. Most people who instruct in art would get $300 for that. But I’ve kept it at a level to where a person could never afford it ... can afford to get started and paint some, and I did that (on) purpose.”
As for his own paintings, Bird said he likes to document historical buildings and places.
“I like things that show history. I like to see history preserved,” he said. “But every time I paint something they lay a bulldozer to it,” he said with a laugh.
The subject of one of his prominent paintings — the Elizabethton covered bridge — hasn’t met that demise, however, and it’s unlikely to ever happen.
Bird said almost everybody has “some talent” and can be taught painting techniques that brings out more of their talent.
“I’ve got some real good students. I’ve got people who’s been in my art classes for over 20 years and they don’t get out. They don’t graduate. They come and they paint,” he said.
For more information about taking an art class from Bird, call the Memorial Park Community Center at 434-5750. Visit the center to view his art. The show will be available until June 1.