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City Lights: Creating a career

There’s a great and little-known song by the 1960s British band the Creation called “Painter Man,” which laments the difficulty a former art student has trying to find a job to suit his talents. The song’s narrator studies hard to earn his degree, then finds himself making a living not quite worthy of Picasso:

Tried cartoons and comic books


Dirty postcards, women’s looks

Here was where the money lay


Classic art has had its day

Being a working artist in any medium is tough. For every Bruce Springsteen or Sarah McLachlan, there are thousands of singer-songwriters strumming for tips at the local coffee house; for every Maya Angelou, there are countless poets jotting down their names on open-mic lists. Budding artists are lucky if they have day jobs that even remotely use their skills. I went to college with a great many theater and creative writing majors and most of them are now pursuing careers that could qualify them as bit players on “The Office.”

Which makes the life of Keith Alway, a Huntington Beach resident whose paintings now occupy a booth at Art-A-Fair in Laguna Beach, all the more impressive.

Alway hasn’t had what you might call a smooth career trajectory, and he doesn’t have any galleries named after him in New York. But one way or another, the Detroit native has made a living for decades with his mastery of color and perspective and his knowledge of the old masters. And, unlike the character in that song, he’s done it without drawing dirty postcards.


I met Alway, who is passionate about both art and animal rights, in his booth at Art-A-Fair on Friday. His small corner of the grounds features nothing but paintings of endangered species — cougars, lions, elephants and more, some portrayed in psychedelic colors. Five percent of the money he makes selling paintings this summer will go to WildAid, a charity that raises awareness about threatened species.

When Alway won an American Legion award in the ninth grade as his city’s most outstanding art student, he didn’t foresee himself painting jungle denizens for charity. But he didn’t have much of a plan of any kind — other than to keep honing his craft one way or another. After graduating from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in graphic arts in the 1950s, he got his first job as a technical illustrator for the aerospace industry, ultimately becoming the art department supervisor and overseeing the production of brochures, manuals, briefing charts and slides for the space program.

From there, he moved on to a similar post working with a systems analyst, then launched his own business creating visual aids for court cases. After a hiatus, he decided against retirement and launched the career that he still follows: painting murals in private homes. Recently, he installed one of Humphrey Bogart on the wall of a movie buff in Carmel.

“I’ve always felt I could do pretty well in any art endeavor I took on, because I’m so versatile,” Alway said. “I can do pastels, I can do videotape, I can sculpt, I can weld. I guess that means I’m good with my hands and my imagination.”


That imagination has been on a roll of late. Two years ago, Alway won first prize in a show at the Guggenheim Gallery in Orange for his painting “Elephant Walk,” which is on sale in his booth for $1,900. Another of his jungle scenes headed to Las Vegas over the weekend to hang in the Venetian hotel on commission. Alway’s aim now, he said, is “to have a following” — and he’s hoping to aid that process by signing up for Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

“My ultimate goal is to be recognized,” he said. “And, of course, to sell a lot of paintings.”

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or