Art as lifesaver

Scott Sutton's art saved his life.

Or, perhaps more accurately, a collector did.

The Austin, Texas, resident began dialysis 11 years after being diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease in 1991. It kept him alive but caused an inordinate amount of pain, he recounted. After two years of treatment, Sutton's wife thought he wouldn't last much longer.

Word of the artist's deteriorating health reached a buyer who had followed Sutton's career and purchased some limited-edition paintings. In a moment of serendipity, she offered to give him a kidney.

His donor, whose blood type was a match, underwent a battery of tests to determine her compatibility in 2005, and the transplant was done some time that year. Sutton, a Corona del Mar High School graduate, noted, with awe apparent in his voice, that the new organ was working well before he was out of surgery.

Sutton declined to name the donor but said that she currently is teaching English in Italy.

The 60-year-old reflected on those earlier dark days when art helped him through his pain.

"It's pure creativity — it calms me down and makes me feel good," said the children's author and illustrator, whose 20th summer at Art-A-Fair is winding down.

Guests who wander over to his booth are greeted by copies of his books and artfully hung colorful and imaginative paintings.

Sutton first exhibited his work at the Sawdust Art Festival in 1971 after he discovered the richness of the art colony of Laguna Beach. During that time, he kicked off his career as a commercial artist and began displaying in the now defunct Sherwood Gallery. His wife fashioned dolls to accompany his watercolor, pen and ink concepts on watercolor paper.

This period marked the birth of his wildly popular "Family of Ree" characters and paved the way for a similarly named six-book series, which was first published in 1985. The 25th anniversary edition is now underway.

"I like to write in rhyme," said Sutton, who is influenced by Dr. Seuss, E. H. Shepard, Arthur Rackham, N. C. Wyeth and other greats. "I like constructing worlds with words and being able to illustrate those worlds with pictures."

Sutton, who started his first book in a creative writing class as a high school junior, has since developed "The Kuekumber Kids," "How to Draw Stuff" and "The Adventures of Dinosaur Dog." He now travels to schools, bookstores and libraries, walking children through the creation of characters as part of his Education Through Imagination workshops.

According to Mary Gulino, vice president of marketing for Art-A-Fair, Sutton's bright and cheerful work generates a "great feeling."

"[People] always seem so excited about his work and come away with a smile on their faces," she said.

Gulino added that artists who travel from Texas, Arizona and Arkansas are joined by others from Sacramento, La Quinta and San Diego — this effort a reflection of their desire to be in the show.

"I believe what prompts that level of commitment is the goal of living a dream of being an artist who makes their living selling their artwork," she said.

Based on Sutton's calculations, sales are up from last year. He credits his increased presence at Art-A-Fair.

"I get all kinds of visitors — some who have never seen me and some whose families have been collecting my books for year," he said. "A lot of people whose school I went to who or grew up on my books now have kids who they bring by. I love it. It's a great feeling."

As a tot, Sutton, born in Santa Monica, demonstrated his creative panache by drawing with crayons on walls. That didn't make his parents happy, he said with a chuckle, and so they handed him paper.

His recent works are embedded with calls for environmental awareness, honesty and the fair treatment of others, he said, noting these are useful lessons for young and old.

He also actively encourages youngsters to pick up the essential habit of reading.

"Too many doors will be closed to you if you don't know how to read," he said.

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