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Art aboard

On a historic cruise ship in the Delta, Lodi artist David Jon Foster has a new art studio that is taking him and his work back to his nautical roots

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Posted: Friday, July 5, 2013 8:47 am

With a wide open day and a brand new canvas calling to him, David Jon Foster sits down at his easel to paint. Three Tiki jars to the left hold his paintbrushes. And to the right, Styrofoam plates are filled with bold-colored paint. He plugs his iPhone into an amp, and smooth lounge jazz filters through a axillary cable, filling his workspace.

Inspiration will strike quickly, most of the time. But before he can pick up a paintbrush, he has to take in the world that surrounds him: The waves smacking on the decks below; a white heron perched on a marshy bank; ripples that form on the top of the water from somewhere below the surface; the flicker of the sun reflected on a piece of the ship’s metal hardware; frogs croaking; the purr or meow of Kitty — the vagrant feline who came aboard a few years back.

Though unconventional, this is David Jon Foster’s new painting studio. It is aboard a historic ship — or at least it once was and it will be again — that is now anchored far enough off the shore that he has to take a small boat from the marina to get to it.

The classic yacht, now named MV Aurora, is moored at the west end of Eight Mile Road, at Herman and Helen’s Marina. Its owner is jack-of-all-trades Santa Cruz resident Chris Willson, who made the 293-foot purchase on Craigslist because it seemed like a fun restoration project too good to pass up. He may be the ship’s savior — it was destined to be turned to scraps.

“They figured this was the end of this thing,” Willson said, sitting at the bottom of one of the ship’s staircases as he tells of the homeless man who was living on the ship when he bought it, and the 20 box vans of debris and trash he removed from its five decks.

The massive yacht was built in Germany in 1955 as the MV Wappen Von Hamburg, meaning “Coat of arms of Hamburg” in German. It has five decks and 85 cabins. With a once-pristine exterior and elegant interior, it sailed many of the world’s seas under names like MV Delos, MV Polar Star and MV Xanadu.

Though Aurora is in serious disrepair, Willson has made it his mission to restore the ship to the majesty she once knew. In the last few years, he has redone most of the ship’s electrical, restored the captain’s quarters and — because every ship needs one — he appointed a ship artist.

In a corner of the main lounge, David Jon Foster has set up his art studio, where he creates original paintings inspired by the MV Aurora’s nautical history, sea life and the sights and sounds from his nook surrounded by windows. The new pieces will adorn the yacht’s interior, and limited edition prints will hang in the cabins. Large murals are also planned for the main lobby and captain’s lounge.

Foster is a husband and father of two, and spends his weekdays working road construction for the county. But much of his spare time is dedicated to his abstract art. Until now, he has had his studio at Vino Piazza in Lockeford, where the unique upper- story studio sits above Pasos Vineyards tasting room.

He’ll keep his Lockeford studio, but plans to paint aboard MV Aurora at least twice a month.

Though they are two of the few people who spend time on Aurora, Willson and Foster didn’t meet until earlier this year. Foster had read an article in The Record about Willson and his venture with MV Aurora. Foster wanted to create a painting for the ship, and contacted Willson to see if he could donate a painting to be hung aboard. After a long lunch at the marina’s cafe and a three-hour ship tour, the two had decided they were each “cool guys,” Foster said.

Willson, 41 — a former web developer and ex-CEO of Seagate Video Production — is an art lover. He was drawn in by Foster’s abstract pieces the first time he saw them.

“You can’t not love his stuff,” Wilson said. “Each piece has a totally different personality.”

He’s only been creating pantings aboard Aurora for a few months, but Foster can feel a difference in his paintings. It’s a hard concept for him to describe, but there’s one word that sums it up.

“It’s more swishy,” he said. “I’m painting more out of my signature style.”

At the winery, he’s explored various styles, but he is taking it back to his roots on the boat in the middle of nowhere. The paintings, he says, are appearing to look more like water and ocean waves.

The aquatic life is nothing new for Foster. He grew up around Monterey Bay, diving and sailing the coast of California with his father in 36-foot Islander sailboat. Since his father died in 2005, getting back on the water — on a boat — is something he’s yearned for.

“I really feel like my dad would be proud,” he said. “I feel like his spirit is here with me.”

As Willson continues to repair the great ship, Foster is creating the ships art. He hopes to have a private artist’s reception aboard MV Aurora at the end of the year.

Contact Lodi Living Editor Lauren Nelson at



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