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Art In Motion
Vol. 6, No. 3
June/July 2003


Painting the Good Life  

by Roland Gilmore
photo by Dana Edmunds
art courtesy Guy Buffet

Guy Buffet, at home in West Maui.

There’s a story Guy Buffet tells about a summer day from his childhood. His family had traveled from their home in Paris’ Montparnasse district for a vacation at coastal Le Tréport. Out walking one morning, he was trans-fixed by an old man painting a seascape. Later that day, standing on a cliff overlooking the sea, he had a vision. "I was young, middle-aged and old," he recalls today. "I was in places that I’d never seen. I knew then that I wanted to spend my life as an artist."

It was the morning after his 60th birthday when Buffet related this story, watching from his dining room table as a rain squall pushed in across the West Maui coastline. Half a century and many thousand miles from that defining moment, much of his premonition has now come to pass: He has covered most of the world and, in the process, so has his creative output.

Buffet’s paintings sell almost as fast as he can produce them—to the tune of more than $1 million per year, according to Lahaina Galleries president Jim Killet, who has represented Buffet since 1978. He has toured China as a guest of the Peking Arts and Crafts Council; was commissioned by the French government to create art for the bicentennial of the French Revolution; was the official artist of the 1998 World Cup soccer tournament; and paints under contract for famed champagne giant Perrier-Jouët. His artwork graces everything from ocean liners to salad plates, museum walls to a poster announcing this year’s Napa Valley Mustard Festival. In short, life is good.

acrylic, 1985

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Seeing his talent and desire, Buffet’s mother removed him from regular school at fourteen, relocating with him to the Provence region so he could study at the Beaux Arts de Toulon. A year later, she returned to Paris, but he continued on, boarding in a private home and working weekends at a restaurant to pay his rent. His first sojourn outside of France came just after graduation ... when he shipped out as an eighteen-year-old gunner’s mate aboard the heavy cruiser De Grasse. His job was to carry and load ammunition, "but then I would paint portraits of my fellow crew members and officers," he recalls. "It made me quite popular with the crew."

Though he’d sold his first piece of art to an American tourist while still a pre-teen, Buffet’s first true commercial success came when the De Grasse anchored at Tahiti in 1962. While hitchhiking around Papeete with some of his shipmates, he was picked up by the town’s mayor, who proceeded to show them the sights. When the mayor subsequently visited the ship, Buffet returned the favor by showing him the paintings he’d made while at sea.

The mayor liked what he saw, and with his help Buffet’s first exhibition was arranged. While the De Grasse made a brief tour of the nearby Tuamotu Islands, the gunner’s mate stayed on shore in Tahiti, producing his first fifty Polynesia-themed watercolors in time for his opening at Papeete’s Gallerie Mourareau a few weeks later. Priced between $50 and $100, every one of those paintings sold.

A year later—following exhibitions in New Caledonia and, finally, France—Buffet found himself in Hawaii. Still an enlisted sailor, his job description had nonetheless changed somewhat by the time his new ship, the Jean D’Arc, made port in Honolulu. "They asked me to do paintings of the tour, for a book at the end of it," he says, noting that Hawaii was not meant to be a major port of call. "We spent most of the time in French Polynesia, in Tahiti. But when we got to Honolulu, I said, ‘This is where I want to be.’"

Acrylic, 1991

While in Honolulu, he made a fortuitous contact in the form of Stephen M. Cooke, who wrote the introduction for Buffet’s first Hawaii exhibition. Stephen also introduced him to other members of the Cooke family—a wealthy, longtime kamaaina clan that included Anna Cooke, who founded the Honolulu Academy of Arts in 1927.