The Art of Living Large

The Art of Living Large

Illustrator Dan San Souci goes big, really big, these days.

The only small things in the life of illustrator Daniel San Souci are the little children who adore his more than 80 children’s books.

Even these tiny readers make a huge difference; over the course of the Oakland-based artist’s 30-plus year career, a good number of San Souci’s young fans have become a sizable crowd of adults. From the youngest to the most senior, people cling to treasured books like In the Moonlight Mist, Two Bear Cubs, Frightful’s Daughter, and Feathertop. The book that launched San Souci’s illustrations onto the literary stage in 1978 was The Legend of Scarface: A Blackfeet Indian Tale.

The book won the New York Times Best Illustrated Book award and other honors, but most significantly, it marked the first of 12 books he illustrated that were written by his older brother, Robert San Souci.

The San Souci brothers, both born on Oct. 10 in separate years, grew up in Berkeley with their siblings, Mike San Souci, now of Bozeman, Mont., and Ellen Diamond, of Walnut Creek. Their father was an administrator at UC Berkeley who dreamed of being an animator, and their mother was a published writer. San Souci remembers that his brother, now known in the family as “Uncle Bob,” was always introduced by their parents as “the writer,” while he earned the distinguished label “the artist.”

“They were so excited that I liked to draw and Uncle Bob liked to write. I felt my whole life that it was just the way it was going to unfold,” San Souci said.

And so it did.

San Souci went from St. Mary’s HIgh School in Berkeley to the California College of Arts in Oakland. His brother embarked on a journey that eventually had the older San Souci writing the story for the Disney film Mulan and more than 100 books for young readers.

Watching his brother win Caldecott honor medals and walk Hollywood’s red carpet during the Mulan period, San Souci said he was never jealous. Although Bob was “the school achiever” during their childhood, he said the way his parents talked about art elevated him to the same stature.

“At one point as an adult, I wondered if I’d been left behind, but I was totally happy. I was trudging while he moved a million miles an hour, but I had kids, coaching baseball and soccer, painting fine and book art, so much life that I didn’t have time to be envious.”

The kids he and his wife, Loretta, raised in the Oakland Hills home they bought in 1979 are now adults: Yvette Minkler-San Souci, 31; Justin San Souci, 30, and Noelle San Souci, 28.

“We came here as the young couple without kids,” San Souci said. “Now we’re the old couple without kids.”

Even so, he said the number of young families with children moving into the neighborhood has invigorated the block and landed him with a familiar responsibility.

“I have a pantry with so many Girl Scout cookies I’ll never be able to eat them,” he said, laughing.

Other indulgences also devour his attention.

There’s a fondness for German Shepherds that comes in the form of Scout, the current family pet named for the character in To Kill a Mockingbird.

“When I was a kid, I had a chubby little beagle,” he recalled. “One day, out on the front porch, I heard a scraping noise, getting louder and louder.”

It was the newspaper boy on metal skates, a cool teenager being pulled by “the most beautiful dog, like Rin Tin Tin,” San Souci recalled.

“Ever since then, I’ve had six German Shepherds. They’re so intelligent and every one of them has been different.”

Porsches are another passion.

“I have one now. People ask if it’s a midlife crisis car,” he said.

But it’s not: It’s the dream car of a kid who grew up with family station wagons he described being “three city blocks long.” One day, missing his ride home, a friend’s father allowed him to hitch a ride in their Porsche.

“I rode in it and thought. ‘Someday I’m going to own one of these,’ ” he said.

The contents of San Souci’s closets and his garage dreams simply reflect the volume of his heart, according to award-winning Berkeley author/illustrator Elisa Kleven.

Kleven has known San Souci for years and used words like “huge,” “big,” and “colossal” to describe his art and his many interests.

“Warmth and kindness radiate out from him,” she said. “A consummately skilled and gifted fine artist, he’s also uncommonly down to earth, funny, open, and welcoming. When I was first starting out in children’s books, he was one of the first published author-illustrators to encourage me.”

Although their art is vastly different—San Souci veers toward realism, Kleven intentionally achieves a sophisticated naivete—she said she admires the way San Souci’s art grabs the viewer’s attention with playful light and shadow and images that are never sentimental, but always packed with emotion and spirit.

Lately, his paintings have captured attention by being huge—even colossal.

The oil painting titled Rex is 3 feet by 4 feet and was developed from a photo he purchased. Buying one-time rights to use the 4-inch-by-5-inch image of a lion as his “model,” the King of the Jungle is compelling not just for its size, but also for the majestic glow in the eyes and the exquisite mane a viewer imagines would feel like hair—before remembering that this is pigment on canvas.

A favorite subject, horses, is the centerpiece of Kahlua, the animal’s tan coat reminiscent of the namesake coffee liqueur.

“When I was young, there were three channels on television. When I was bored and it was raining and I couldn’t run around, I read. I loved any book with a horse on the cover,” he said.

His parents took him to Tilden Park, where San Souci would ride “around and around and around” on a tethered horse on a circular track. He felt like a cowboy and loved it. To this day, he travels to The Spotted Fever Ranch in Colorado to ride and search for Mustangs to photograph.

Perhaps vacationing in that large setting—in open country with distant horizons and wild animals—has stirred his desire to paint large.

“To me, something that size is so dramatic,” he said, about why he started to work on canvases easily twice the size of his usual work. “The sheer dimension is like a wedding I went to. It was in a beautiful, grand house filed with big art. Enormous festivity, big visuals. It’s just hard to paint smaller now.”

San Souci said he’d like to have a bigger studio; one large enough to accommodate canvases 7 feet by 7 feet. Although he often works from photographs, by painting “live” or “out in the field,” he loosens up his skills and avoids the deadening effect that happens when painting exclusively from two-dimensional images.

“I can think of trees in 3-D and imagine dimension I’ve seen outdoors in my mind,” he said. “I’m a wildlife artist, so it’s essential. Of course, if you can tell me how I can get a bobcat to sit still in my studio, I’ll paint him. But until then, I’ll use my ability to visualize.”

The Yosemite Conservancy is a publisher of books on Yosemite and the Sierra, including the books San Souci is illustrating.

Publishing consultant Nicole Geiger said San Souci’s “eloquent, detail-rich watercolors” illuminate the national parks—particularly Yosemite. “Dan inspires young readers to see clearly the creatures with whom we share these public lands. His art speaks for the animals in a way people can easily understand,” Geiger said.

But there is one reality San Souci never pictured.

In mid-December 2014, his brother Robert was rushing to hail a taxi near his home in Noe Valley. Arms full of Christmas packages, he slipped and hit his head. Uncle Bob was taken to San Francisco General Hospital. Released from the hospital, he missed a lunch appointment on Dec. 19. He was discovered unresponsive later that day, and died. Robert was 68.

“For so many years we traveled together to book conferences, schools, signings. We were the San Souci brothers and almost had a routine that we did. He was such an amazing person,” San Souci said. “When he passed away, I couldn’t believe anybody could know so many people. I spent a month just answering emails. Often, people would say how he had helped them find an agent, improve their writing.”

San Souci said the loss of his brother will never disappear; Uncle Bob’s absence will always be felt.

“He was so generous and so brilliant,” San Souci said. “Not being around him is really hard to deal with. He was almost like a twin or something.”

And how does a man who practices the art of living large apply his habits to grief, regret, and an elephantine emptiness in his life? He fills it with enormous celebration.

“We wanted to wait, to give people time to travel here from all over the country. We wanted to have something beautiful,” San Souci said, about the tribute to his brother on April 11 in Lafayette.

After that, San Souci will pick up his broken heart and continue eating out at favorite restaurants, like The Fat Lady in Oakland, Revelry in Berkeley, and every Friday, the Bangkok Palace. He’ll cruise the neighborhood with Scout, or in his fiery red Porsche 911. He and Loretta will attend the parades and plays they love, or split their time between the Oakland A’s and the SF Giants (“It’s tough because I was born in San Francisco and there were no A’s then, so I go to both,” he said). Their kids will visit. Emails about Uncle Bob will continue to flow.

And more sure than anything else in life, San Souci will paint large, draw big, imagine the colossal. His continuing series of books for the Yosemite Conservancy has replaced the children’s trade picture books he once churned out every year. Fine art for galleries, collectors, or the walls of his work-in-progress Oakland home will drive him “out into the field.”

Perhaps one day, he’ll go small, but it’s unlikely.

Moraga illustrator and author Lou Fancher writes for a number of Bay Area media outlets.

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