On May 15, 1988, painter Walter Us got a divorce in the morning and went to his father’s funeral in the afternoon.
Then he hopped a plane to Europe, where he stayed for five weeks touring the continent, visiting relatives in Slovenia—his childhood home—and searching for freedom. When he returned to America, he traveled from the east coast to the west, painting and drawing what he saw along the way.
The walls of his 1,500-square-foot Sag Harbor Cape-style home, which he bought 17 years ago, reflect the journeys and adventures that eventually brought him here. Large hanging canvases are painted with landscapes he saw across America—the deserts of New Mexico, the mountains of Montana, the harbors of Bellport and the farmland of the East End.
“My friends’ paintings, I put them in the basement,” he laughed, his words still spoken with the trace of a European accent. “I need to see what I’m doing, you know? That’s it.”
Though his studio is upstairs, Mr. Us sometimes converts his living room into a workspace, he said. At the time of the visit, the second floor space housed a large oil painting of an after-the-storm seascape that is in the works.
Usually, his home smells overwhelmingly of paint, he said. But on a particularly chilly morning earlier this year, the scent was absent as he happened to be renovating the house.
“Somebody’s gotta do it,” he said, taking a sip from a cup of Chai tea with honey. “I’m working on my house all the time.”
That’s a reality the artist knew he’d be taking on when he bought the house in 1994, he said. Originally, he was house hunting in Amagansett, he recalled. When a prospect fell through, he broached the topic of the mysterious “Sag Harbor” he’d been seeing signs for with his realtor.
“She said, ‘You don’t want to live there,’” he said. “I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘It’s run-down.’ ‘Run-down? Okay, I want to look. I like run-down.’”
The house was dark and trees pressed in all around. It needed a lot of work, to say the least. But it was perfect for him, Mr. Us explained.
First, he replaced the windows, put in a swimming pool and deck, he reported. Then, he took care of the landscaping, planted grass and tended to interior repairs, like changing out the hollow doors for solid ones, sanding the floors and installing new lighting. He’s even painted the house several times—but out of necessity, not nostalgia for his earlier house-painting career.
Before coming into his current profession, Mr. Us entertained a bevy of careers—from art reproductions of famous works and illustrations for businesses and scientists, such as Robert Woodward and Noam Chomsky, to painting houses, working in a meat plant and playing guitar in a rock and roll band.
“That was part of my growing up: self-sufficiency,” he said. “That’s not a bad tool to have as an artist.”
And it’s a tool he’s needed. Mr. Us was born on August 29, 1944 in an Austrian refugee camp during World War II. His parents had 15 children. He was number 14.
“They needed workers for the farm,” he grinned. “But when the second World War happened in that region, before I was born, the Germans blew up their whole village, destroyed the whole village. Then there was a lot of chaos.”
His parents, Peregrin and Maria, had no choice but to wander, just trying to survive with all of their children. They ended up in Spital, a very small town in Austria surrounded by mountains.
“My youth was full of hiking through the mountains, eating fresh fruit, and that was it,” Mr. Us said. “The mountains, to me, were magical. They were snow-capped during the summer. You could go up there with the fresh air. The beauty of the mountains is always with me. That’s why I go to Montana.”
The Us family migrated to New York City in 1952. Mr. Us, whose name changed from “Valta” to “Walter,” was only 7. When the family arrived, they were met by a swarm of reporters and cameras. The 17 of them even appeared in The New York Times, Mr. Us said.
“A big family coming over made a big hit,” he said. “They were throwing money at me and I was like, ‘What are they doing?’ All I was looking at were the buildings and the color in New York City. Big beautiful colors and exciting new stuff.”
He said he thought, “We’re going to live here? This is incredible.” Then they moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where they were again hounded by the media.
It was the same year that Mr. Us picked up a paintbrush and a guitar. He was 12. He painted every day, copying everything from da Vinci to Van Gogh to Cézanne to Caravaggio.
“Especially Leonardo,” Mr. Us sighed. “I really thought Leonardo was it. That’s the end of life.”
But a year and a half into his education at Silvermine College of Art in Connecticut, he dropped out to pursue classical guitar and joined a few bands. At the time, he was into Jackie Wilson, James Brown—the blues. Music was essential, he said, but he quickly realized that art would pay the bills.
He traveled across the country flexing his creativity. In New Mexico, he’d drive around playing Mozart and Beethoven on his radio, pausing occasionally to do watercolors of the scenery.
“I felt so free,” he said. “I felt this freedom in the desert. The first time I saw it, I hated it. It looked like a big construction site to me. It was brown. The longer I stayed, the more I realized the colors were very subtle. Once I realized the beauty of it, it was limitless. Like anyplace, really.”
When he settled in Sag Harbor, Mr. Us re-created the scenes from memory with oil paints. One of the larger reproductions hangs in Katie Couric’s East Hampton home.
Lately, the painter has been toying with the idea of getting back into classical oil paintings that include figures, he said. Back in the 1980s, he experimented with mixing wax into his paint, but that phase is over.
“I like stories,” he said. “Ultimately, that’s my favorite. Human stories of some sort, though I do love open air. I like the fields out here the best. Certain lighting. It’s an exquisite experience driving along. I say, ‘I’ve got to go home and get my canvas.’”
Though, sometimes, all the painter has to do for a little inspiration is look out his window, he said, and into himself.
“Looking back in my life, I was really searching for something,” he said. “And I’m still doing that, actually. When I practice meditation, that’s close to what I’m trying to get to. The freedom, internal freedom. We all find it. It doesn’t last forever. But it’s there.”
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One fine body…