David Syre | Whatcom developer turned international painter
David Syre is making up for lost time.
Syre said he felt drawn to art as a child, and his elementary school teachers encouraged him. But he never pursued art as a way of life, amid the financial pressures of keeping the family farm afloat.
“My parents made it clear it was totally unacceptable to consider becoming an artist,” he said.
Now, after decades spent developing real estate, the 78-year-old Whatcom County native is producing paintings at a furious pace in his studio at that old family farm on Lawrence Road, between raspberry fields and the winding Nooksack River.
During the 1980s, nobody had a bigger impact on the growth of Whatcom County than Syre. His local projects included Bellis Fair Mall, the Cordata area and Semiahmoo Resort. Syre also donated the property that became the Whatcom Community College campus on Kellogg Road.
Many a retiree takes up brush and canvas to while away the hours, but art is more than a pastime for Syre.
He has already staged showings of his canvases in Santa Fe, N.M., Nice, France, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. In April, he will open a show at the new Gallery Syre at 465 W. Stuart Road off Cordata Parkway, with an opening planned for April 3 from 6 to 9 p.m. It is titled, “David Syre: Roots and Wings.”
Future exhibitions are planned for Copenhagen and Hamburg, Germany.
During a recent studio visit, no fewer than 11 big paintings were in varying stages of development. Nine were laid flat on a long table, with two more on easels. Syre stresses spontaneity.
“Everything is from my subconscious mind,” he said. “I have no plan for any piece of art. When it comes to an end, there is a feeling. … I have no idea where these are going.”
His work often relies on broad strokes of acrylic in primary colors. Sometimes, finer lines suggest faces, human figures, moons, suns or other recognizable objects, but he leans toward abstraction.
He describes his painting as powered by love, forgiveness and compassion, which add up to peace.
Syre acknowledges Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Salvador Dali as artists he admires, but he takes pride in following his own inspiration.
“I have never studied art. I have never studied artists,” he said.
The artist who rediscovered his lost vocation at the Burning Man festival in 2009 bears little resemblance to the well-groomed-and-tailored businessman who engineered the commercial rezoning of his property at Interstate 5 and Meridian Street for Bellis Fair Mall in the mid-1980s. Today, Syre sports a full head of messy gray hair, a pair of glasses with thick blue-green rims, a bright scarf and a turquoise-bead bracelet. His fingernails are colored blue, green, purple and yellow.
During his years developing land, Syre never saw his projects as stand-alone developments: He always described them as part of his personal 10-year master plan for modernizing the county’s economy, part of a necessary transition away from the traditional resource-based economy of the Northwest.
In the same way, Syre describes his art as having a significance beyond the art itself, promoting his vision of the human condition and human striving for peace.
He plans a culminating art project in the form of a 150-mile “Peace Trail” across the island of Tierra del Fuego at the southern end of South America, linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans as well as the nations of Argentina and Chile. Some of the trail will be on 190,000 acres that Syre himself owns on the island — equivalent in acreage to about two-thirds of Grand Teton National Park. He says he has or expects to get the cooperation of other landowners along the route.
Syre envisions a trail with waystations roughly every three miles, with a shelter, restroom and emergency survival supplies for those attempting to cross the vast wilderness. The route will also includes sculptures designed by Syre himself.
Syre describes Tierra del Fuego as the endpoint for the migration of homo sapiens, from the species’ origins in Africa.
“I want to honor the spirit of mankind, the homo sapiens spirit,” he said.
He plans to complete the project in time to open it on Dec. 20, 2020.
“It’s my gift to the world on my 80th birthday,” he said.
Former Bellingham Herald reporter John Stark covered the development of Bellis Fair in the 1980s.