George Jovellas in his studio with 'Remembering Vietnam.'George Jovellas in his studio with 'Remembering Vietnam.' / Bob Sprague photo

Eighty-six-year-old George Jovellas is an East Arlington artist who has gained little notice over the years. You may have seen that converted garage with the old pay phone by the door but never thought to find what happens there. YourArlington freelancer Susie Goldman tells what she learned -- a tale of immigrant starts and stops, of World War II parachuting, of a defense-company draftsman finding himself, of Vietnam and Arlington.

Long before I met 40-year Arlington resident and artist George Jovellas, I was already fond of his decorated patch of front yard on my daily commute. The quirky bench with lime-green, black-and-white lettering greeting, "Welcome, Please Sit Down," and the painted lawn angel on a pedestal in his front yard brought comfort.

Approaching his studio, a converted garage, near his home, transported me to a flea market or antique warehouse. His collected treasures are everywhere. A rescued "vintage" pay phone hangs near the front door of his studio, an amusing relic.

Jovellas resembles the photos of the elder Pablo Picasso. He is on the short side, bald, with white beard and mustache, dressed in well-worn khakis and a Nordic sweater. He walks in shuffled steps without a cane for assistance. He asked me to sit in an office chair and sits on a high precarious stool. "I’m going to be 87," he said in an interview at his studio. "My birthday is on Dec. 16, the same date as the Boston Tea Party."

There is a lot to take in when entering his cramped studio. Built-in book shelves span one wall and are filled with oversized art books. A tall glass curio cabinet is packed with figurines and memorabilia. There is an ancient, sinister dentist’s chair next to a desk. Two manikins stand together, the male dressed in formal military garb and female in a kimono-style robe. Paintings and prints lean against all possible surfaces and are hung on every single bit of wall.

Greek background, independent spirit

George’s parents, Stella and Arthur, were from Greece but met in the Boston area. They lived in Central Square in a "nice mixed community of other ethnic people." His mother died when he was 5 years old. His cousin Katherine came from Greece to take care of him, and his two brothers until she got married. "She was a good woman," he said. With all of his family speaking Greek, he had a hard time with language.

To support his family, Arthur awoke at 2 a.m. to drive to South Boston, where he picked up Table Talk Pies and pastries, which he spent the day delivering. His father came home from work exhausted. Arthur would bring home live chickens, pluck their feathers and they had many chicken dinners. His family ate lots of pastry, particularly éclairs, Bismarcks and fig squares, which were only 5 cents. "We were lucky in that way," he said.

From a very early age, Jovellas had an independent and adventurous spirit: "I had no one supervising me. No one questioned it." He played hooky a lot. When he was supposed to go to Greek School with the other kids after grade school, George went to the movies with coins he’d steal from his father. He loved the cowboy movies of the 1930s and '40s starring Buck Jones or Ken Maynard.

He got away with this for almost a year until the day his father went to the Greek school and asked to see George. The surprising response: "Who’s George?" Because he couldn’t keep up in grade school, George went to trade school. He explains: "I’ve always been dysfunctional. I couldn’t keep up with the other kids. I had a learning disability. I had a hard time. That’s probably why I turned to art. I was different from other kids."

Talents: swimming, the arts

Two natural talents, art and competitive swimming, emerged when he was a boy. Jovellas got up off the stool again and hobbled around looking for something. He brought yellowed papers to show me, a 1940s newsletter from the Cambridge YMCA, designating him "the winner of the first Cambridge Marathon Swim."

"The best thing I did in my life," he said. He’d work a full day and then swam nightly from 7 to 10, until reaching 35½ miles in total.

His early quests sneaking out of school evolved into more daring activities in his late teens and beyond. In 1946, he worked as a lifeguard on the Charles River in Watertown. He took two guys out in the lifeguard boat and raced toward a waterfall. He laughs, telling me both his friends jumped overboard, while he headed over the falls. "I wasn’t scared," he said.

At 17, George joined the U.S. Army in 1946, the 11th Airborne Division, 511 Parachute Infantry led by General McArthur in the occupation of northern Japan. Jovellas was not afraid of jumping, but admits he always asked someone else to pack his parachute, because he never trusted himself.

He says he was lucky to paint advertisements for the U.S. Army during the war. When he got out of the Army in 1948, Jovellas took advantage of the G.I. Bill and went the New England School of Art for two years.

Jovellas with one his Arlington paintings.Jovellas with one his Arlington paintings, a tribute to its past.

In 1954, Jovellas married a woman from Arlington and they had a daughter. He shares little about his first marriage except to say that she divorced him.

On one of his many exploits as an adult, he traveled to Europe, bought a used motorcycle and toured Paris, Switzerland, Italy and Greece. At a restaurant in Greece, an attractive 17-year-old walked by, and he told her he was looking for a wife. Koula was from a poor family and told him she needed to ask her father. Three weeks later they were married, and he brought her back to the United States.

He bought a house in Arlington. She spoke mostly Greek but picked up English. Koula was a skilled seamstress, who opened a tailoring business and dress shop. "She was a successful business woman," he says with pride. However, she was young and met another man. George slowly approaches the glass cabinet and takes out a 2-D wooden carving of Koula, long hair flowing, adorned with inlaid pieces of seashell.

Technical illustrator

Jovellas became a technical illustrator, working three years at Raytheon Missile Systems in Bedford, where he did mechanical drawing. He sketched the Hawk Missile, a popular defense missile in the 1960s. Three-fourths of his drawings were electrical diagrams, which he didn’t like, "but, I made a good living."

He tried hairdressing school, but his stint as a hairdresser was short-lived. "I was an introvert. You had to please the ladies," he said.

He went back to doing technical drawing at Draper Labs, where he was asked to paint a portrait of Dr. Draper.

Artists who Jovellas admires are Norman Rockwell and J. C. Leyendecker, who "Norman Rockwell idolized." Leyendecker was a successful illustrator known for creating the trade character of "The Arrow Collar Man."

Again, he shuffles over to the book shelves, searching the art books. He pulls out a framed print of an Arrow Shirt advertisement. Leyendecker was well known for doing hundreds of Saturday Evening Post cover illustrations, long before Rockwell.

Another favorite artist is Salvador Dali. He made clear: "I don’t copy anyone’s style."

First public showing of Vietnam work at 2015 Town Day

One of his largest paintings, "Remembering Vietnam," received its first public showing in September, near the Uncle Sam statue, on Town Day. It was inspired by a contest during the Vietnam War in 1967 protesting the war.

"I’m slow. I didn’t finish it in time" for the 1967 contest, he said.

The painting shows to one side a North Vietnamese general stealing American money, in one hand holding G.I. dog tags. Featured prominently is LBJ wrapped in the American flag and wearing cowboy boots, revolver in holster, one hand upright like the Statue of Liberty. Hanging from it is a framed portrait of Ho Chi Minh, “looking sarcastic,” he said.

The third figure in the foreground is a grieving Vietnamese woman holding a dead child in her arms. Inside a fallen G.I. helmet is a black-and-white photo of the G.I.s wife and child.

As an artist for a military contractor in 1975, he displayed the work in his office briefly before a supervisor reminded him who paid for the contract and told him to take it down, angering the Vietnam vets who liked the work.

These days, George is working on "Remembering Iraq," with George W. Bush replacing LBJ.

'Remembering Arlington'

"Remembering Arlington" is an upbeat, fantasy street scene, a tribute to the days in 1800s, featuring the original First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, the earlier red-brick Town Hall and jail, a horse and buggy. In full patriotic garb, Uncle Sam walks down the street. A prominent adult figure in forefront is surrounded by children, whose faces look familiar.

This work was among several paintings in a rare public exhibit for Jovellas, the 2007 "Images of Arlington" show at Arlington Center for the Arts, said ACA Executive Director Linda Shoemaker on Nov. 6.

Jovellas pointed to the painting: "That’s Shirley Temple, and those kids are from that TV show 'Our Gang.' That one is Alfred Newman." MAD magazine parodies include the unmistakable face of Alfred E. Newman -- except in this painting, Alfred is wearing a period dress and is a little girl.

Further, if you go to Arlington’s Court Street post office, you will find Jovellas’s work portraying postal history – not where the general public can see it, which is a shame.

There is a kitsch aspect to Jovellas’s art and décor, an amusing, playfulness. There is also a tender, emotional, respectful part of his art.

And there is the antiwar George: "The Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, Afghanistan … all a waste … why are they fighting?"

Jovellas is the definition of resilient, and he is self-deprecating. Despite everything he has endured, his abundant vitality and taste for adventure persisted. In May, his brother John, also a World War II Army veteran, passed away. He is still in touch with Koula’s brother; though divorced, he stayed in touch with his former wife. She died away 12 years ago.

Jovellas has lunch at the Arlington Senior Center a few times a week and swims two to three times a week at the Arlington Boys & Girls Club. He is a lovable "character" and a treasure.

This story was published Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015.