Dean Loucks: the Man, the Magic, the Mystery

By+Kathe Brunton, Photos by David Hubler

If others are heading west, Dean Loucks goes east. If the world is clamoring for more, Loucks strives for less. If a person is satisfied with creating only one thing, Loucks is driven to do hundreds.

He laughs, saying, “It’s kind of been my thing to be a bit offbeat.”

“Offbeat” is one way to describe this world-renowned Goshen native, whose artwork adorns the homes and “toys” (yachts, helicopters, tour buses) of megastar music performers, Middle Eastern sheiks and superstar race car drivers.

Who would have guessed that the young lad who grew up off Bashor Road and liked to “droll” (as his 6-year-old self put it) would one day own a fine arts gallery in Granger and operate a pristine shop in Elkhart where he custom paints items ranging from high-performance boats and semi-tractor/trailers to, yes, toasters and electric mixers?

Maybe Ed Miller would. Miller was the kindly gentlemen who noticed Dean drawing in church. Miller and his wife Doris ran the youth group at First Brethren Church of Goshen and were known for encouraging youngsters. Miller made sure Loucks never wanted for canvasses or paints and, in turn, Loucks gave the older man dozens of his creations.

“Ed just wanted me to paint pictures,” Dean recalls. And paint he did, not to mention charcoal, chalk, watercolor—any medium he could get his hands on. His subjects varied widely, too—automotive, landscapes, cartoon figures and even a series of local scenes for the 1982 Camp Fire Girls calendar.

It was in having a steady source of art supplies that Dean learned a work ethic he carries to this day.

“If I had had only one canvas, I would have stressed over what to paint on it,” he says. “It can’t be that way. To be the best, you have to just dive in and do—and do a lot.”

That’s how Dean learned to paint. It’s how he learned to skateboard in his teens, achieving semi-pro status with a national sponsorship from Gordon & Smith. And it’s how he learned to go from airbrushing jean jackets and selling them for incredible sums in California in the 1980s to painting the Puma ocean racing boat that is considered “the most photographed boat in the world.” And why wouldn’t it be? After all, this 70--foot power sailing vessel looks as though an octopus is embracing it.

It’s hard to pinpoint what drives this man. He is high energy, but not hyper. He has a sense of whimsy, but also a sense of duty to those who rely on him. He soars in a stratosphere of his own design, yet remains grounded in his Midwestern roots.

A Level of Wow

As a youngster, in addition to painting, Dean’s energy found outlet in a number of activities. 

“I was always building stuff, like wooden airplanes that you could sit in and play,” he says. “I’d take apart the old washer and dryer when my parents would get a new set, then put it back together. I remember somehow we ended up with five or six of those big boxes that large appliances come in and I made a submarine down in the basement.” Dean laughs as he says he drove his mother crazy with his high energy level.

“I think my parents just didn’t get me,” he says. “I was so different from my older sister. I just wanted to go out and play, to be outdoors.”

Loucks’ accolades are many (including being named one of the top 10 most influential people in powerboating for his avant-garde custom designs on these mega-loud water machines). But he doesn’t rest on his laurels—or on the tried and true.

He is constantly striving for better, for different, for a level of wow that only he can envision. And with his fine art, he’s achieved it. He explains:

“I call this new style the ‘art of removal.’ To make money with the airbrush since high school would be good enough for most people, but I didn’t like doing the same thing every day. It was easy, but frustrating because I could never quite get out of it what I wanted. The pieces looked great and they sold but, still, it was just airbrushing.”

Then one night the vision came.

“Why don’t I start with a white board, paint it black, then pour a lot of paint reducer on it, let the reducer blow away and get back down to the white and the areas I want to highlight?” he recalls. “What would that look like? So I did the first one, the second one, the third one, pretty soon I had 20, 50, 100.”

The effect is phenomenal—and difficult to describe. But there’s an energy to each piece, as though the artist caught the subject—flower, fish, casino gambler—in a specific moment and captured it for all time. The pieces are, by turns, edgy, whimsical, ethereal. And selling like hot cakes. Including “Matilda,” a 6-foot mannequin that Dean airbrushed an “olive-y” green. He gave her black hair and painted a fishnet-type dress on her that changed colors as one walked around her. Almost like a Frankenstein bride, she had “bandages” wrapped around her arm, with what appears to be blood seeping through. Dean painted bolts onto her neck and stitches on her body and gave her skin a gooey-looking effect and topped it all off with bright red lipstick. And, of course, one day she sold.

“You’ve got to have pieces in the gallery for people to buy because you don’t know what they’re going to want. You can’t just sit back and relax,” he says. 

It’s this attitude that propels Dean to take his art to unusual canvases—like kitchen appliances. He started airbrushing toasters—sure, why not? And when a marketing director at Whirlpool saw one of these creations, Dean was asked to do the company’s KitchenAid electric stand mixers. Each one is handpainted by the artist himself and so is one of a kind. Who knows what may be next. Blenders? Toothbrush holders?

Copper Creations

Throughout the years, when a tool or process didn’t exist to serve Dean’s needs, he found a way to create it. For example, in 1990, he bought a Nissan 300ZX twin turbo with 500 horse. “Back then, that level of power in a car like that was just unheard of,” he said. 

The red car was in his hands on a Thursday. By Sunday, he had it torn apart, stripped down and painted yellow with a blue pearl, so that the finish actually turned cerulean in the sunlight.

“It was one of the custom colors I came up with and it worked and the car looked great for years,” Dean says. “That was long before anyone was using custom colors that way.” 

His penchant for unique color blends and processes came full circle when, a few years ago, he teamed up with global paint manufacturer AkzoNobel to create the Dean Loucks Signature Series, a custom line of 769 automotive colors that allows others to benefit from his knowledge and expertise. 

And now, in 2013, he is embarking on yet another new venture—incorporating copper as an art medium. 

“I’ve always liked the way copper looks and I’ve been wanting something that would appeal to a more traditional type of person who may not like the bright colors that I tend to use in my art. Copper fills the gap because when it’s heated, you get purples and magentas and blues along with the natural oranges of the metal,” he says.

One early design involves a large copper flower “planted” in an acrylic vase on which lily pads float. The base is poured in a clear blue that reveals swimming fish and the swaying roots of the lily pads.

“There’s a lot of texture,” he says, “a lot of things going on down in the base with this big flower coming up out of it.”

This fall, Dean was commissioned to create a 9-foot copper sculpture for Plymouth High School, and other ideas are spinning in his head like a whirling dervish. One wonders what Mr. Miller would say?

“Well, I think he’d be very proud,” Dean says humbly of his mentor who passed away in the early ‘90s. Loucks remembers Ed fondly. But how would the artist himself like to be remembered? He struggles with the question, but finally responds. 

This Goshen native, whose artwork cruises the ocean, hangs in a Saudi Arabia palace, and will soon inspire hundreds of youngsters in the tiny town of Plymouth, answers simply, “I think anyone would like to be remembered for the kindest thoughts you could have.”