Rhythm and Hues
A North Hills artist reflects on the women in his life who inspired his dual career playing beach music and painting Carolina scenes.
By Ed Bristol
Photos courtesy of Larry Dean
North Raleigh’s Larry Dean was a college freshman playing in a country band when he heard his first beach music song, a paean to a head-turning temptress. But it was the real women in his life who led him to a career in that musical genre and, more recently, into one creating art.
As a boy in Oxford, Dean would draw simple sketches while his mother painted on canvas. She went blind when he was six, so she encouraged him to take up music since it was an art she could enjoy with him. He took piano lessons until he started college, where one of his buddies played the beach music classic, Miss Grace, for him. Then and there, he became entranced with the signature sound of the coastal Carolinas.
Soon after, Dean’s girlfriend, Sharon (who later became his wife), took him to see the beach band North Tower. She’d heard they were looking for a piano player and told him he should give it a shot. “So I did, and 37 years later I’m still doing it,” he says. The band’s lead singer and keyboardist, he became part owner in 1980 and sole owner in 1996.
He’s drawn not only to the swing beat of the music but also to its culture and followers. He particularly enjoys the cross-section of people at public events, like the beach band performances at Raleigh’s North Hills each summer.
Currently, the band tours across the Carolinas and southern Virginia, averaging three gigs a week during the warm months. He says the demands of touring have become second nature. “I’m perfectly happy staying up until three in the morning and getting up at the break of lunch,” he laughs.
In 2000, his wife gifted him with art classes at the Sertoma Arts Center. “I intended to take the classes to make her happy, then drop it,” he remembers. But in short order, he decided that it wasn’t “the miserable six weeks I thought it was going to be.” Moreover, he says, “the teacher came up and told me, ‘You know you can do this for a living.’”
Nine months later, Dean placed first in the amateur division at the N.C. State Fair art competition. Now, following an art teacher’s advice to paint what he knows, his work includes many Tar Heel landscapes, cityscapes, and seascapes. “I know North Carolina,” he says, “because I’ve driven two million miles back and forth across it with the band.”
Dean works in his home studio in North Hills, with inspiration from photographs he’s taken so the paintings look as close as possible to his vision for a piece. After brief stints with other Raleigh galleries, his exclusive exhibitor for a number of years has been ArtSource.
Seven years ago, his wife told him that the Sertoma Arts Center had run an ad for an art teacher and urged him to check it out. He did and was hired on the spot. “First there was one class,” he notes, “and now I’m teaching three.”
A student of his since he began the classes, Cheryl Siegel has a Larry Dean landscape hanging in her Raleigh dental office. She loves its color and vibrancy. “You feel like you’re walking right into the river and looking out over the mountains,” she says. Now an accomplished artist herself, Siegel has also sold a painting and accepted two commissions from friends.
Looking back at his career, Dean jokes, “All my jobs are what other people consider hobbies.”
But he’s more serious when reflecting on the influence of family members on his life choices. Without his mother’s encouragement, he says he’d never have taken up the piano. And her gift for painting planted a seed that would germinate later in his life.
In 2012, Dean lost his wife, Sharon Taylor Dean, after a four-month battle with cancer. Without her belief in him, he’s sure he’d never have joined the enduringly popular North Tower band or found success with acrylic on canvas. “Why she thought I should try the art thing and the teaching thing, I have no idea,” he says. “I would never have picked up a paintbrush if she hadn’t cajoled me into it.” Five hundred sold paintings later, he’s still at it.
“I’ll always remember her,” he says, softly, “every single day.” And then adds, smiling, “If she were still here, she’d probably have gotten me into something else.”