Twenty-one years ago, Al Scholl took a hike up Palomar Mountain. He came down a few hours later a changed man.
That day, the former hotel banquet captain fell backward and hit his head on a rock. Ever since then, the 51-year-old Oceanside resident said he’s had an overwhelming compulsion to make art.
Scholl believes his head injury triggered a form of synesthesia, a rare neurological condition where a cognitive pathway is formed between two stimuli. In Scholl’s case, it’s music that unlocked his inner artist. When he listens to reggae, he can see vivid colors and shapes that he reproduces on canvas.
The self-trained artist is known locally as the granddaddy of San Diego’s “live painting” movement. Over the past 17 years, he has produced more than 650 paintings on the fly at live reggae concerts and festivals statewide. Back when he came up with the concept in 2001, few other California artists were working habitually from a stage-side easel. Today, there are dozens.
“When I hear music, I see overlapping colors,” he said. “I just get lost in the bass line. Sometimes, the words in the songs influence what I paint. I usually listen to the first song or two until something strikes me. Then I start squirting paint.”
Growing up, Scholl remembers that his mother and grandmother liked to paint, but not professionally. He wasn’t particularly drawn to art when he was young. He moved to town in the 1980s to attend San Diego State University, where he earned degrees in sociology and finance. His goal was to teach history and sociology, but he discovered he didn’t have the patience after working at a middle school.
Instead, he went to work at the Hyatt Regency in La Jolla where he worked his way up from a server position to management. Then he suffered his head injury and started to paint.
“It was good therapy,” he said. “There was something childlike in it. When I painted, I felt like a kid again.”
At first, he painted animal figures on palm fronds and sold about 100 of them at street fairs. Then he began creating the brightly colored wave and seascape paintings that have became his signature.
“I was never attracted to natural colors. I liked painting with a rainbow of colors,” he said.
Although he admired the work of Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet and Leonid Afremov, he avoided formal art training because he wanted to perfect his own style.
To refine his technique, he spent an entire year turning out one canvas every day, always to the loud accompaniment of reggae music, which he describes as his “driving force.” Over time, paintings that once took 20 hours to complete were finished in just a couple of hours.
He sold his artwork at street fairs and art festivals. Then one day, he had an epiphany: Instead of paying to rent booths, why not offer his painting services to bars and music clubs during reggae concerts? He could add another layer of audience entertainment to the evening, hear and be inspired by the artists he loves and expose his artwork to a new audience.
After a lot of rejections, Scholl found a club on Morena Boulevard in 2003 that was willing to give him a shot.
“I was so nervous,” he recalled. “I’m not a people person so it was a fear-based challenge. I figured if I pushed myself I could do it and that first painting sold the next day.”
Over the next 10 years, he gradually worked his way from small bars and music clubs to larger halls like the Belly Up Tavern and finally the festival circuit. For many years, he juggled his hotel job with his art vocation. In 2007, he left the hotel to become a commodities broker, but his client base and his own 401K were wiped out when the recession hit.
Fortunately, just when the economy collapsed, social media coverage of his live work began to take off. He now has more than 11,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram (under the name “alschollart”) as well as a website (alschollart.com).
Eventually, he was able to focus full time on art, and in 2014 he achieved his bucket-list dream of painting at a concert by his favorite band, Steel Pulse, at the California Roots Festival in Monterey.
“The hardest part for me that night was cutting off my emotions enough to focus on painting,” he said of the experience. “It was like a dream. If people hadn’t taken video and pictures of me that night, I wouldn’t believe it really happened.”
That same year, he was also invited to present a solo exhibition at the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach.
In the years since, Scholl has begun diversifying his business so he can spend more time at the Fire Mountain apartment he shares with his wife, Lisa, his 17-year-old son Albert and her 16-year-old son Alex.
The couple met in the fall of 2015 and married just eight months later. Lisa Scholl said they bonded instantly over the fact that she, too, has synesthesia, though she sees colors in numbers and letters.
She works as a preschool teacher, but she has also become her husband’s business manager and assistant in his expanding artistic endeavors.
Although he still does three to five live painting events a month, he also does commissions, private lessons, school events and art therapy sessions with developmentally disabled adults. He also produces a competition program called Art Wars, where four artists paint to two bands in 100 minutes.
For the past two years, he has hosted group painting classes twice a month at local bars and restaurants. Up to 25 customers pay $35 apiece for the three-hour guided art program at venues like Inland Tavern in San Marcos. While Scholl likes reggae music, his students can request anything from Frank Sinatra to ‘80s bands to country-western.
With such a wide variety of projects, Scholl said he’s been able to survive the ups and downs of the artist’s life.
“I’ve sold over 1,000 paintings, ranging from $100 to $1,000, but it’s unpredictable,” he said. “Sometimes, I sell 10 in a row and then I can go 70 days without a sale.”
Lisa Scholl said she loves watching her husband paint because it’s so clear that when he works, it’s not his eyes guiding the paintbrush but his “third eye,” or mind’s eye, inspired by the music.
“When he’s in the zone, he’s just in another world,” she said. “He grooves to the music to the point that it’s as if he’s in another world.”