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From ‘Spaceballs’ to Leopard-He Tells Stories Through Art
Wednesday, November 24, 2021


Bellevue artist David Rau is probably best known for his paintings, especially his somewhat photo-realistic portraits of horses and salmon.

But Rau, who will be among artists taking part in an Artists Holiday Open Studios tour this weekend, has a storied career that includes makeup artistry for Hollywood and unique sculptural pieces for elegant homes around the Wood River Valley.

A building contractor for 30 years, he has added his artistic touch to finish work, creating wine racks with leftover floor pieces and metal-wood stairway railings that evoke the futuristic look of the Jetsons’ spaceship.

And he’s also created some unique pieces, such as PVC pipe tubes resembling telephone wires emanating from a fake wall socket and snaking through a kitchen, painted in multiple shades of red, blue, yellow and green hot rod paint.

“The client wanted something squiggly and I wanted it to appear like it was alive,” said Rau. “I like doing both paintings and metal and wood pieces. It’s all artwork, really.”

Rau launched his painting career as a third-grader painting a mural of zoo animals on the wall of his elementary school. He since has created other murals, including one on a climbing wall that featured belaying monkeys.

The Southern California native studied sculpture and photography at the Laguna School of Arts, even taking an anatomy class that honed his attention to fine detail.

When he was 22, he began to receive commissions to paint action portraits of sports stars like Los Angeles pitcher Steve Garvey and players for San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Lakers. When he painted a portrait of the daughter of a Hollywood film industry mold maker, the mold maker invited him to join his staff.

Rau created sculptures of a silverback gorilla and an alien to show union representatives he was capable of doing special effects. And he soon found himself creating the scars covering Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body and other special effects for the movie “Predator.”

“Everything was done by hand then. Now it’s all digital,” he said.

Rau served as art director for “America’s Most Wanted.” He worked on MTV videos for the likes of P. Diddy, Snoop Dogg, Madonna and Shaquille O’Neal. He also worked on commercials for such clients as McDonald’s and Taco Bell.

His favorite was Mel Brooks’ “Spaceballs,” in which he created the head piece for John Candy and Pizza the Hutt.

While he loved the work, he found it difficult to live in Los Angeles and so moved to Sun Valley, where his grandfather had taken him skiing as a youngster.

“I was living in L.A. in the middle of the Rodney King riots. I got robbed in the middle of the day—a neighbor saw someone taking the TV out and stereo out. I couldn’t believe someone would do that,” he said.

Here, Rau has worked as a building contractor for 30 years, adding his artistic touch to fireplace covers and even mirrors.

When not working with hand tools, he’s got a paintbrush in hand, creating sweeping strokes with glazes, acrylics and oils. His work, which has been featured in galleries and private collections in Idaho, California, Washington and even Japan, includes a myriad of red sockeye salmon portraits and horses, perhaps owing to his daughter Sarah’s passion for barrel racing on the rodeo circuit.

This being the Wood River Valley, he’s also painted his fair share of sheep.

“I try to come up with a story in each painting, rather than just paint a portrait of an animal,” he said. “One of my paintings shows a border coolie leading a sheep into the door going to heaven. I’m in a picture herding baby sheep, the idea being that even little baby sheep go to heaven.”

Rau also likes to call attention to endangered and extinct species. He painted a clouded leopard, for instance, after hearing a story on NPR that told of a sighting of the animal in Thailand after it had been thought to be extinct for 15 years due to deforestation and overhunting.

“I included my hand in there because I’d lost the use of my right arm,” he said. “It was a statement to the fact that I painted the painting left-handed instead of right-handed. The leopard had come back to life in the wild and maybe the use of my right hand would, as well.”

That Rau can paint, let alone work with metal fabrications, is a bit of a miracle.

He had surgery four years ago to address bones that were infringing on his spinal cord nerves. The problem, caused by wear and tear on the body from years of throwing his elbow out as a left fielder, getting slammed in surfing accidents and hurting his neck and back in a car accident, would have left him paralyzed had it not been addressed. But it left him arm unusable

“I’d been using my hands forever to build things. And I could see if I was going to be happy in my life, I had to do something. Because I could use my right arm a little, I used my left arm to hold my right arm up and paint that way, but it ended up easier to focus on my left arm,” he said.

“I taught myself to paint with my left hand over the next six months. I have a hard time signing my name left-handed but I can do everything else with it. I even trained myself to play tennis left-handed, although I can’t throw the ball up to serve.”

With physical therapy, Rau’s use of his right arm has improved. But he fell during a dizzy spell after getting COVID and tore his rotator cuff and broke his clavicle, necessitating another surgery. 

“My tendon tore off due to infection. Without that, I can’t do certain motions no matter what. But you’ve got to be positive about everything, and I’m just so happy to have something going on.”

The occasional surprises don’t hurt, either. One of the latest came from a golfer whom Rau had painted  hitting a ball out of a water trap in 1984—the year Los Angeles hosted the Summer Olympics.

“His wife came to my show and said, ‘We can’t afford to buy the painting now, but we’re going to keep in touch with you,’ ” Rau recounted. “Last year, after all this time, he called me up. He’s like 75 now and had won the Senior Tour. And he said, ‘Now I’ve got enough money to buy your painting!’ ”


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