Portfolio building

Structures, like the J.P. Andrews Building are the first things Goodell started painting.
Structures, like the J.P. Andrews Building are the first things Goodell started painting.

A knack for math and art often add up.

John Goodell smoothly switched from teaching mathematics to doing fine art. He doesn’t think that his mathematical abilities have much effect on his art, other than his preferred subject matter.

“I like architecture, and I like doing buildings,” he said. “That’s the only connection between math and painting.”

His exhibit at Big Sky Café attests to this preference.

“I do all types of buildings,” he said. “Probably the ones that talk to me a lot are the old Spanish style.”

The red-tiled roof of the Anderson Hotel is a good example.

“I was always fascinated by that top part up there,” he said. “It’s something people don’t notice, so I kind of like calling attention to it.”

Sometimes it takes an artist to show us things we may overlook or take for granted, such as the pink-painted St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, the Carnegie Library, The Wineman Hotel, the Monday Club. San Luis Obispo’s history seems to come alive under Goodell’s touch. The familiar buildings can also feel like a glimpse of a European city, with tree shadows cast upon tiled buildings, diners inside cafes, pedestrians strolling.

He prefers capturing the scenes early in the morning or late in the day.

“I like to have shadows,” he said.

Goodell takes photos, makes sketches, then works in his home studio. He uses too much detail to paint on site, he said. Although he’s done plein air painting, the weather and light change too rapidly for him.

Unlike many artists, as a child Goodell had no particular interest in art in any fashion, not even doodlings or drawings. He was middle-aged before he really felt an interest in painting.

He only has one theory about his second career as an artist.

“I’ve always loved color,” he said. “I think that’s what drew me to painting.” It also ties in with his attraction to his media of choice, he added. As an adult, he took classes in drawing, oils and watercolors, and found his niche. “Once I hit watercolors, there was no going back.”

Goodell moved to San Luis to attend Cal Poly, met his wife to be, and settled in Orange County. There, he sold a painting now and then, while she tried to write. These attempts didn’t cut it financially.

“We were kind of starving to death,” he said.

The solution was to get a “real job.” He found a position teaching math at Murray State University in Kentucky where he got involved with the arts, became director of the art guild, and showed his work, often winning awards.

The couple would visit San Luis Obispo yearly as his wife has family here, and when he retired from teaching, they moved here in 2005. “It only took 40 years to get back,” he said.

Reach freelance writer Lee Sutter at