“I’ve seen him so gentle and I’ve seen him so angry,” said Brown. “There is a passion in Richard that nobody can explain. I asked him once why he had chosen to paint the HMS Prince of Wales.” The British battleship sank shortly after Pearl Harbor, on December 10, 1941, along with the Repulse, after both were attacked by Japanese bombers off the coast of eastern Malaysia. Eight hundred and forty British sailors were killed. “He said, ‘It never had a chance.’ He really feels sad for ships.”
Joe Ditler told me other stories about DeRosset. “Where do I begin?” he wrote in the first of many e-mails. He described himself as one of DeRosset’s greatest champions, a friend and fan, as well as someone who is often chagrined by the artist’s “tantrums and outbursts of insanity” — “extreme behavior” that has embarrassed the museum and offended its patrons. “I love him and hate him all in the same breath.” In addition to displaying permanent pieces by DeRosset, the museum has hosted two big loan exhibits of his work over the years. “And both were well received.” But Ditler had to develop “a DeRosset protocol.” It dictates that the artist not be allowed to grab the microphone in front of groups. DeRosset loves tasteless jokes and vocabulary, said Ditler. A “special Richard-watcher” ghosts him at public events, keeping him out of trouble. (It has usually been Ditler’s assistant, Barbara Sarda.) Ditler himself has been DeRosset’s occasional “baby-sitter” and “judge advocate.” (“You know: ‘He’s your friend, Ditler. You handle him.’ Despite his rough side, Richard is a big sweetie — one large, talented teddy bear. He’s among the great characters who make our colorful waterfront great. And history will remember him fondly, I think. But I’m always the guy who has to put tape across his mouth.”)
Once, DeRosset wanted to be invited aboard the Star of India, the museum’s sailing ship, for an all-day party. “That’s eight hours at sea, and the ship can be awfully small if someone goes sideways. But then we had the idea of putting Richard in the very visible sail-makers’ cabin, have him paint the Star while we were underway, and then raffle it off at the end of the voyage. It was amazing.” Children and adults gathered around him, utterly charmed, says Ditler. “We finally had discovered a way to allow him out in public — keep him busy doing what he does best.”
Occasionally DeRosset has used his paintbrushes as barbs. “A few years ago, he was mad at us here at the museum. It was while he was working on a beautiful painting of the Titanic. When he finished it, he received rave reviews. Limited-edition lithographs were signed and numbered, and it was a huge success. But much later I discovered he had painted our executive director and development director as victims struggling to leave the sinking liner. He was so mad, it was his way of getting back at them.
“Another time I commissioned him to do a painting of Cabrillo’s ships entering San Diego in 1542. Well, the painting was grand. But I noticed a tiny reflection on Point Loma and asked him what it was. Richard said, ‘It’s an INS truck waiting to nab Cabrillo for illegal entry.’ Sure enough, under the magnifying glass that’s what I saw.”
The museum had him paint over it before it presented it to the president of Portugal.
Ditler said that when DeRosset was asked to paint another landing for the Cabrillo Festival in 1994, DeRosset put in “pelicans grabbing at Cabrillo’s ass.” The painting was intended for the cover of the flyer produced by the Cabrillo National Monument for the event, which commemorated the 452nd anniversary of the landing. Needless to say, DeRosset was compelled to paint over that prank too.
In my earliest encounters with the artist, on the phone, I noted his odd sense of humor. “I did a ship in a bottle that I absolutely loved,” he told me, “but I almost got fired for it. I was captain of the Pacific Trojan. That was a small tanker out of L.A. Harbor. The only thing we did was to haul the brine water from Starkist canneries out to sea, dump it, go back in, and get another load. And I had a big aspirin bottle on the bridge, and the owner of the ship came onboard, and I said, ‘Hey, Matt, would you like to see the Pacific Trojan in a bottle?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I would love to see my ship in a bottle.’ So I pulled out this aspirin bottle full of rust. And the guy got a real funny look on his face, and he said, ‘You know, captains can get fired for this sort of stuff.’ ”
I also noted that he sometimes displayed insensitivity to the feelings of others. For example, in describing the Veterans Memorial Center as it looked before he began to contribute artworks, he said, “Basically you had a bunch of old cronies from World War II getting together. It was like a good old boys’ club that they conveniently left open to the public. It was like a VFW hall. In other words, cronies would come in with relatively worthless pictures. Or someone would die, and their roomful of crud would either go to the Dumpster or wind up there. Or you’ve got some guy who’s had a stroke and he’s in the rest home and they give him some watercolors, and he does a picture of his old ship. So the first thing he wants is to donate it to the center, so he can brag about what a great artist he is.”
Unfortunately, I could imagine him saying similar things to the veterans.
And yet he also expressed great compassion for the men: “The center’s members have taught me a lot when it comes to human nature. Everyone knows of an old veteran who is extremely bitter and hard to get along with. It’s some guy who used to be a master sergeant and now he’s president of the homeowners’ association, and all he does is give people grief. Well, it finally occurred to me exactly what the situation was. If they were someone who lost their five best buddies, it could have greatly affected their psyche. I had some really bad run-ins with these people initially. But if you come across someone who is totally and unreasonably bitter and angry, there’s usually a reason.”