It wasn’t until he enrolled in the Florence Academy of Art at age 70 that Warren DeVos ’49 recalled a pivotal conversation he’d had with his father nearly 45 years earlier.
As a student at the University of Michigan School of Architecture in 1950, DeVos took a drawing class. The professor told him he should be an artist.
“I relayed that information to my father,” DeVos recalled, “who told me, ‘You can’t be an artist, you’ll starve. And anyway, artists are a bunch of bohemians.’ He and his generation were very serious, sincere people trying to do the best for their kids.”
In the end, DeVos earned an engineering degree and joined his father-in-law in a New Jersey manufacturing firm.
He forgot the conversation with his father and concentrated on being a good engineer. After 10 years in New Jersey, DeVos, his wife, Gladys Vander May DeVos ’51, and their five children relocated to Seattle where he’d accepted a position with the Boeing Co. During the 1970s Boeing contracted him to several major oil companies as a project management consultant and sent the DeVoses to Perth, Western Australia, as well as Norway and London. In 1986 DeVos retired from Boeing and accepted an offer as a management consultant with a consortium of European companies located in Munich, Germany.
All the while DeVos was, he said, “a closet artist, making the family Christmas card and an occasional painting. It never crossed my mind to go to art school. When the Munich project ended and we were wondering what to do next, Gladys saw an article about why Florentines like to rent to Americans. She said, ‘Why don’t we go down there, and maybe you could attend an art school.’ I applied to the Florence Academy of Art with the only piece I had at the time, a drawing of Venice I’d made for our church auction of talents.”
For the next three years DeVos spent six to seven hours each day taking instruction in classical realism with students 30 to 40 years younger than he. For an assignment he painted Gladys—the first portrait he’d ever made—and discovered he really liked the experience of making a portrait.
“You have to get inside a person to portray who they really are,” DeVos said. “I don’t think you can teach that; it’s a gift.”
Since finishing art school in 1998, he’s painted portraits of 14 of his 18 grandchildren—one of his most rewarding achievements, he said—and plans to paint them all. DeVos also enjoys landscape painting and still lifes. Several hang in the homes of his cousin, Rich DeVos, and in private homes across the country, as well as in Europe. Commissions from individuals keep DeVos busy; he paints every weekday for five to six hours in his Greensboro, N.C., home studio. He doesn’t have time to show in exhibitions currently, but has shown his work in Europe.
DeVos’ son, Bradley ex’71, has also become an artist, painting mostly murals in large homes in California, Washington and Michigan. “Unlike my dad, I’ve encouraged him,” DeVos said. “He does beautiful work.”
DeVos also tries to encourage other young artists. “I think artistic ability is a gift from God. It’s part of finding out who you really are. I believe that if you discover your gift and you diligently work at it, you’ll be blessed in it, and you’ll bless others.”