One day in 1980, Michael Bedard was working in his Topanga Canyon studio when he noticed one of his ducks waddling up the driveway. Suddenly a neighbor's dog appeared in pursuit. Dead duck, Bedard thought.
Just as the beast was ready to pounce, however, the duck puffed out its chest and unleashed a spirited quack. The dog, suddenly uncertain, backed off, and the duck continued on its way. For Bedard, it was the beginning of Sitting Ducks, a series of paintings, posters, a book and a cartoon series that has built a worldwide following. Now, one of the largest exhibitions of his work is being featured at the Vintage Animation Gallery in Santa Monica.
The original Sitting Ducks painting showed three ducks in a row, minding their own business, wearing shades, seated in lounge chairs in the sun. The two on the ends held iced drinks. The duck in the middle was reading a book.
Above them were two bullet holes.
The unsuspecting ducks, protected by their ability to bluff and fearless in their naivete, started showing up in various settings throughout Bedard's work. Often, in their pursuit of acceptance and understanding, they found themselves a breath away from disaster. In 1981 a show of Bedard's work at a Laguna Beach gallery sold out, and before long the ducks were everywhere.
Life was, well, ducky until about two years ago, when Bedard awakened to an empty house and two letters. One was from his wife, Liz, who had written that she couldn't bring herself to deliver the news in person. The second letter was an eviction notice.
For about three years leading up to that day, Bedard had dedicated his attention to the launch of an animated television show based on his Sitting Ducks characters. In the meantime, the money ran out.
"They kept saying next week, next week and it went on for two years," he says of the cartoon. "We had borrowed and lived on credit cards, a typical American story in a way. So, suddenly, through some bad advice, we found out that our house had been lost, and it seemed like everything was lost at that moment."
The good thing about financial ruin, Bedard says now, is that if it doesn't destroy one's soul, it replenishes it. If it doesn't tear a family apart, it strengthens it. For Bedard, it was a cold reminder of what was truly important in life.
With that in mind, he has been preparing for the current exhibition. Four new duck paintings will be introduced as well as a new character, Quatro, a four-legged bird-like creature to be made into sculptures that will be circulated throughout the world. People will be asked to take pictures of the creature in unique settings then pass it along. The photos will be installed on a Web page, so people can follow Quatro's adventures.
Bedard, 56, soon will be introducing more new characters, space creatures and a character that came to him one day as he was watching a homeless woman in Santa Monica.
As in much of Bedard's work, there is an underlying seriousness. He was, in ways, the kid who didn't fit in. He didn't belong in Windsor, Ontario, where he grew up. He didn't belong in college. He didn't belong in the Pontiac factory assembly line. He really didn't belong in the Army. He didn't belong in Hollywood.
Then, in the mid-1970s, he moved to Venice. There he found a home and friends, including the late Gregory Hines, who was writing music and singing in a group called Severance.
"In Hollywood, it was all about fame and glitter and all that," he says. "In Venice it was like a real community. It was an art community without anybody calling it that."
His work came into focus and in 1980, he moved to Topanga, which he calls "Venice in the mountains." There Bedard built a sanctuary. As a child the first art he noticed were the angels painted on the ceiling of the church he attended. In many ways, the characters he painted later in life were like angels, he says, here from a different realm, a different reality. So when he had his Topanga studio built, the ceiling was 30 feet high, allowing room enough for ideas to float above him. He lived there for 18 years.
In the weeks following news of the eviction, Bedard stopped painting and went to his sketchpad. He started reading about other artists and how many of them, including Picasso, went through profound changes in their lives and responded by reinventing themselves.
"I went from extreme despair to a real strength-giving joy," he says. "Before, I felt more like a maintenance man to my possessions and my life."
Within a couple months after losing their home, the long-awaited green light was given, and the "Sitting Ducks" show began on the Cartoon Network. It now is shown in 49 countries. And after years of concentrating on the cartoon series, he is back with brush in hand.
"He's never been this prolific," says wife Liz. "He's painting now for the love of it. It's like he's been jump-started."
Michael Bedard's Sitting Ducks
What: Exhibition of originals, conceptual drawing, ink studies and limited editions
Where: Vintage Animation Gallery, 1404 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica
When: Noon-6 p.m. Sun.-Thurs.; noon-9 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Through Nov. 16.
Info: (310) 393-8666 or www.oxoart.com