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Painter Ken Auster dies at 66 of cancer

Ken Auster, a renowned plein air painter and Laguna Beach arts commissioner, died late last month at age 66.
Ken Auster, a renowned plein air painter and Laguna Beach arts commissioner, died late last month at age 66.
(Courtesy Paulette Auster / Coastline Pilot)

Whether catching a wave on a stand-up paddleboard or capturing one with a brush and canvas, Ken Auster was always ready for a challenge.

In an interview two years ago with a magazine publisher, Auster, a renowned plein air painter and Laguna Beach arts commissioner, said it is beneficial to critique one’s work in pursuit of improvement.

“Not liking what you do is the catalyst to be a better painter,” Auster told Eric Rhoads, publisher of Plein Air Magazine during one of Rhoads’ podcasts. Auster died late last month from prostate cancer at age 66.

Growing up in Southern California, Auster spent many days at the beach, which influenced his professional work, first as owner of a company that silk screened prints onto T-shirts and later as a painter capturing shorelines and bustling street corners, among other subjects.

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“His sense of color, design and composition was so unique,” said Saim Caglayan, founder of the Laguna Plein Air Painters Assn. and a close friend of Auster’s.

Caglayan and Auster had known each other since they exhibited at the Festival of the Arts in the 1970s. Caglayan recommended Auster as one of the organization’s original board members. Auster was the brains behind the idea for an invitational plein air event in Laguna, which will mark its 18th year this fall.

Plein air translates to open air. The art method involves either painting outdoors or representing in a painting the qualities of air and natural light.

Though his mother bought him an easel when he was 2, Auster didn’t plan early on making painting a career. He earned a bachelor’s in fine arts from Long Beach State but “didn’t go to arts school to be a painter,” he told Rhoads during the podcast.

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“I didn’t grow up and say, ‘I want to be a portrait painter.’ I didn’t have time to do that because I was having so much fun [in college],” Auster told the interviewer. “I tried to figure out a way I could incorporate art to make a living. For some reason, I stumbled on silk screening.”

Auster developed a successful printing business, traveling the world to work with clients, including the rock band Van Halen. Auster designed T-shirts for the group’s 1980 and ’84 tours, along with rings for the band members.

“I always wanted to paint but was too busy silk screening shirts,” Auster said. “One day a bunch of [Laguna] guys said, ‘Let’s go painting outdoors.’ For some reason, and I don’t know why, it just came easy.

“If something that you do, or something happens that is easy for you, think about it for awhile.... I knew there was something there, but I hadn’t found my voice yet.”

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Auster pursued this newfound skill and developed a collection of work now seen in permanent collections at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach, according to the Plein Air Painters of America website. He held solo exhibits in Tokyo, San Francisco and Kauai, Hawaii, and the San Diego Oceans Foundation named him its Artist of the Year in 1998, the website said.

Auster liked stand-up paddling off Laguna’s Picnic Beach and often drove to Trestles in San Clemente for his surfing fix, said his wife, Paulette.

The couple met in 1983, when Paulette watched Ken’s booth at the Sawdust Art Festival while he delivered rings to Van Halen.

“He was really nice to me,” Paulette said in a phone interview last week. “He would leave a muffin on my doorstep. He was very funny and I had fun with him.”

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The couple married 12 years ago after a long courtship and often hosted Caglayan when he visited from his home in Kauai. They have no children.

Her husband was “ethical, hardworking, an excellent businessman, protective of me to a fault and romantic,” Paulette said in a follow-up email. “He loved children, animals, his friends, the ocean, and most of all he loved me with unfailing love.”

Rhoads will honor Auster with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the fifth annual Plein Air Convention & Expo in April in Tucson, Ariz.

A celebration of Auster’s life is scheduled for 10 a.m. April 9 at Capo Beach Church, 25975 Domingo Ave., Capistrano Beach, followed by a paddle-out at Doheny State Beach.

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“It will be aloha-style, no black,” Paulette said of the celebration.

To see Ken’s work, visit the website kenauster.com.

Caglayan recalled that Auster would try to keep the mood light and was always ready to help his friends.

“Now he is gone, but the marks he left behind, whether on canvas, in the car or furniture, will touch my heart deeply as I loved him like a brother,” Caglayan said.

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