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Lost Highway 99

Dennis Ziemienski traveled Highway 99 as a child, and was dazzled by the neon signs and Giant Orange stands. Now he has turned his memories into an exhibit at the Knowlton Gallery

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Posted: Saturday, September 11, 2010 12:00 am

Dennis Ziemienski fell in love with Highway 99 from the backseat of a Plymouth station wagon in the 1950s and ’60s. He sipped fresh-squeezed orange juice handed to him by someone inside of a giant orange-shaped stand.

During these family trips, his eyes would follow the neon piping lighting words like “Milt’s,” “California Motel” and “Mearle’s Drive-In.” He watched men in caps and button-up shirts pump gas and young girls on skates deliver onion rings and thick malts. He watched palm trees, mid-century eucalyptus and row crops pass by, one by one.

The family road trips still haunt — in a good way — his memories. His mother, an art school graduate and homemaker, and his father, a nuclear engineer at Mare Island, would sit in the front seat, while Ziemienski and his two brothers experienced California from behind a window.

At the beginning of the year, Knowlton Gallery owner Robin Knowlton talked to Ziemienski about doing a show in her Lodi gallery. Based on a few pieces he painted in the ’70s, he decided to create a show, “Old U.S. 99.”

 Ziemienski had previously painted roadside attractions in Lodi, Madera and Fresno, but he didn’t have nearly enough for the show that has come to life this month at the Knowlton.

So he packed his car, his sketchbook and camera, and got back on the road. He studied the stretch of highway between Sacramento and Bakersfield that was the first major north-to-south highway in the state, the same route many Dust Bowl refugees traveled to find work.

Many of the sights, like Lodi’s Hollywood Cafe and the Lodi Arch, are still there. But other stops have been torn down and flattened, like the Giant Oranges that dotted Highway 99 and classic Americana neon signs that have replaced with less aesthetic plastic.

As a backseat dweller on road trips — usually to see the Sicilian half of his family in the valley — the young Ziemienski never imagined the sights would emerge so greatly more than 50 years later.

Otherwise, he might have taken some notes.

“It would have been wonderful if I had a camera back then ... imagine the foresight,” he said.

There are 34 of Ziemienski’s paintings in “Old U.S. 99.” He didn’t start painting until May, but at a rate of finishing about one painting every other day, he opened the show with a complete collection of oil-painted history.

Ziemienski lives in Glen Allen near Sonoma with his wife, Anne, and, until recently, his daughter Sofia, who left her parents with an empty nest this week when she moved to Redlands to study marine biology and play volleyball.

They don’t come to Lodi often. When they do, Ziemienski says he and his wife dine on Cherokee Lane at the Richmaid because they like the feel. He’s also been coming to Lodi to set up for his show at the Knowlton. He calls the Knowlton a first-class gallery, and says it’s more like what he’d expect to see in New York, Los Angeles or Santa Fe. Not exactly Lodi. But his series fits in well in Lodi. Even his wife likes the show and says her husband is genuinely excited about it.

“He’s incredibly passionate about this show … he loves the imagery of highway 99 and could do 100 more,” Anne Ziemienski said.

His paintings are inspired by things he saw on the road and the details he found in historical photos. Part of his work is created from memories and his own pictures of Highway 99 that he has been taking since the ’80s.

He has several versions of oil paintings of the Giant Orange in Madera. One is of a tight shot of a young worker with a blonde ponytail and red and white striped T-shirt handing a large cup of OJ to a customer.

The featured piece in the show is Ziemienski’s Hollywood Café, an oil painting of the Cherokee Lane diner’s red sign.

Ziemienski’s work has been described as everything from “orange crate label-esque,” he said, to high contract impressionism. The artist grew up drawing, went to San Jose State awhile, graduated from California College of the Arts in San Francisco and then tried getting a job with an advertising agency when he decided freelance was the way to go.

“I was always kind of destined to do freelance work because I love moving on to other projects that are totally different,” he said.

He made a career as an illustrator, working on ad campaigns with Time Warner, Levi Straus, Rolling Stone and The New York Times. He painted book covers for Armistead Maupin’s popular series, “Tales of the City” and did covers for James Lee Burke and Elmore Leonard. He created the poster for Super Bowl XXIX and, in 2006, made the poster for The Kentucky Derby.

“I love doing posters,” he said. Posters make for big and bold images.

He spends a lot of time in his garage studio where walls and surfaces hide under pieces of paper, cardboard and photos. He works in the morning — because the light is best and he can’t stay up as late as he used to. He listens to jazz while he paints, but takes a break for a glass of wine around the time it starts sounding like the saxophone is screaming. He loves doing illustrations and paintings, equally, anything that involves making pictures, he says. He’s soft spoken and his words are thoughtful and when editors or customers give him direction on a piece, he’ll humor them, just a little.

“The least direction, the better,” he said. “A lot of people try to give me direction. I’ll listen to it — a small percentage of the time.”

Ziemienski started sketching when he was a little boy given a box of colored crayons. Though his mother went to art school and painted landscapes, like the one of Lake Tahoe that he holds on to, Ziemienski is the one in the family who made art a full-time gig.

“I’m the guy who kind of made it,” he said.

Ziemienski and his wife, Anne, a mosaic artist with her own reputation, live near Sonoma in an Italian-inspired villa. With 11 acres, a personal courtyard and spaces for them both to do their separate arts, their home is as artistic as they are — in part because Ziemienski designed it.

He and his family are self-professed Italophiles. “We love Italy,” he said.  By the time Sofia was 10, she’d been there seven times.

Not only does their home inspire them artistically, they wanted a place to make them feel like they were there, and that they wouldn’t miss the country if they could never go back.

The most important room is an open and airy courtyard where Ziemienski takes breaks from paintings during the day and family and friends gather over meals and long conversations at night. The Greek Godddess Persephone, painted by Anne in mosaic tiles, watches over them. She has just come from the underworld with a pomegranate feast that represent growth and springtime and changing seasons.

In their home are books and art, only one of his own paintings, a gondolier, and the rest of his heroes: Edward Hopper, Maynard Dixon, J.C. Leyendecker and Frank Brangwyn. Though his paintings sell for thousands of dollars, fans are being more careful about splurging on artwork when they’re not sure about the future of the economy. It’s partly for that reason that he’s enjoying the small things. Choosing road trips — like one of his favorite strips, Highway 99 — and spending his leisure time doing the things that make him happy.

“I love traveling. I like going places and taking pictures and hanging out with friends, basically,” he said.

 “A road trip is just fine these days.”

Contact Lodi Living Editor Lauren Nelson at laurenn@lodinews.com.

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