Anthony Quinn was born to extreme poverty in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1915 to a half-Irish father and a Mexican-Indian mother. He grew up in El Paso, Texas, and later moved to East Los Angeles, C.A. There, Quinn experienced prejudice that followed him through most of his early movie career, which began in 1936. 

He was typecast into roles of bad guys and gangsters, but it didn’t dissuade him; he was extraordinarily accomplished and possessed natural talent, leaving him to feel he didn’t need to learn acting. 

Once recognized in roles beyond villains, he uprooted to New York City to study at The Actors Studio and do stage work. He followed Marlon Brando’s footsteps as Stanley Kowalski in, A Street Car Named Desire, first on Broadway and then on tour. 

After four years of intense training and study, he earned the respect of film and theater director Elia Kazan, who cast him in the 1952 film, Viva Zapata!; Quinn’s first Academy Award. In his 65-year career as an actor, he was nominated and won many awards; notably two Oscars, an Emmy, and the Golden Globe Cecil’s B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award.

Beyond his incredible talent as an actor, his first love was making art—to express himself. At the age of six, he painted, sculpted and sketched movie stars he would see when his father, a movie cinematographer, brought him to work. Quinn mailed one such drawing to Douglas Fairbanks, who returned the favor with a check for a then remarkable figure of $25. 

At nine years old, he entered a California statewide competition with a plaster bust of Abraham Lincoln, and won the contest. In high school, his architectural drawings allowed him to meet Frank Lloyd Wright. Appreciating the young artist’s work and ambition, Wright instructed him to improve his speech if he wanted to be successful. Quinn took his advice and had his frenulum operated on and rehabilitated with speech classes, which led him to acting classes, paid for by working as a janitor. 

Throughout his life, and every day on a movie set or backstage, Quinn made it a point to sketch or sculpt. But it wasn’t until the 1980’s that he realized he could turn his love for art into a career, and he began exhibiting his work. His Monumental Works, maquettes interpreted into large bronze and steel sculptures he patinated or painted, was unveiled and exhibited in Paris in 1992 in the courtyard of the Plaza Athene. The works then traveled to Vienna, Austria, and were later displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He had nearly two dozen exhibitions before he passed away in 2001.

Quinn’s breadth of interests crosses many mediums, from drawings and painting to sculptures with wood and stone; his collection, now at his home in Bristol, Rhode Island, is dutifully being cataloged and organized by his wife, Katherine Benvin Quinn. During his career, the actor/artist completed over 5,000 works, a feat that points to an inexhaustible enjoyment of creativity. According to Katherine, Quinn found beauty in everything, everywhere he looked, and his joy was infectious. It is felt his work as an artist has not been given its due, but Katherine is striving to rectify the situation.

Quinn’s lifetime of work fills the stables at the coastal estate where they are now stored. Katherine and Anthony (Tony, as she fondly refers to him) wanted to find a home together. After an extensive search, the couple moved to Bristol, Rhode Island in 1994, with their one-year-old daughter Antonia. Quinn wanted a ranch-style house, room for his art, and a desire to be close to the ocean; as chance would have it, they found a 23-acre site with a barn and views of Narragansett Bay and Bristol Harbor; it was the perfect fit. Two years later, they welcomed their second child, a son named Ryan.

Katherine Benvin Quinn

The couple were often seen riding their bikes, walking paths (marked and unmarked, notably, as he preferred the route less traveled and sometimes brought gardening sheers to cut his way through), and enjoyed shopping and dining out; they became part of the local community. 

Quinn drove Antonia to school daily and spent as much time with the children as possible. The children’s friends came over frequently and were treated to nightly acting and dancing performances. When once asked by Antonia why he didn’t have a job, he replied, “My job is making you proud that I’m your papa,” he answered, Katherine sold the main house after Quinn passed away, but remodeled the barn and repurposed it into the family’s residence. Nearby, shortly after Quinn’s passing, he was laid to rest on the estate, a location marked with a large stone he had found. Adjacent is a blossoming water lily pond, enhanced by a backdrop of the Bay. The grave has been designated a Rhode Island Historical Cemetery. 

One cannot claim Quinn was spliced to a specific style or school, but he was clearly both modernist and primitivist. He loved the female form, figures, and faces; he had a love of the abstract, as well as Cubism. Working on maquettes on set in Libya during the making of The Lion of the Desert (1980), he was told that his representations of the female figure he was sculpting were illegal; as a result, he worked in abstract instead. Though working in abstract was not new to him, this event may have been the tipping point in that direction. 

Quinn lived by the Alfred Tennyson line, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” He loved all types of art, read, and collected books voraciously, and could speak on nearly any subject, even though he never graduated from high school. His passion for life is seen in his joy for making art, and his brilliant eye for collecting art. He is described by Donald Kuspit, professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and a contributing author of Anthony Quinn’s Eyes: A Lifetime of
Creating and Collecting Art,
as a true connoisseur—collecting masters such as Matisse and Picasso and outstanding work of lesser-known artists. Kuspit also dubbed him a creative genius. He had inexhaustible energy. 

In the foreword of the same book, Katherine writes, “He was seventy when we met. Instead of resting on his accomplishments and retiring to a life of comfort and leisure, he was planning projects for the next 20 years. He was rehearsing a nine-month road tour of the stage production of Zorba, working on a dozen paintings at once, having sculptures cast at five different foundries (none alone was able to handle the volume of work he with creating), writing scripts and books, and searching for characters to play that would satisfy his driving creative spirit.” 

Quinn loved working with wood for its tactile nature. He collected beautiful pieces, as well as stone that he found around the world, and shipped them home to sculpt. It is an understatement to say he was driven. He felt a need to be seen and leave his mark. “If I were left alone on an island,” he said, “I would reconstruct the rocks. I need to say, ‘I was here.’”  And yet, he was not precious about his work. He generally only signed his work upon request, for instance, and when a visitor’s dog urinated on one of his sculptures, he laughed it off, saying it would help with the patina.

Katherine, founder and manager of the Anthony Quinn Estate, has helped organize over two dozen exhibitions, while advocating for the essential role arts education plays in personal development and the overall improvement of social, economic, and cultural systems. 

Quinn’s life story and artistic legacy for inspiring young adults are central to the foundation’s mission. He always believed that learning about the challenges of his youth and how he overcame them would help inspire confidence in their creative potential. The foundation provides scholarship support to gifted students seeking to further their talents in visual arts and design, as well as performing, media, and literary arts. 

Katherine also makes a personal effort to open her home to local school children to appreciate and encourage the arts. Both she and Quinn loved children—he had 13 throughout his life—and would have been proud of Katherine’s efforts to engage children in the arts.

Through the end of September, an exhibit will be displayed at the Hammetts Hotel in Newport, R.I., with the assistance of Newport Curates and Jessica Hegan Fine Art + Design. Quinn’s extraordinary life and multiple talents are engraved into the minds of people who know him, and those finally gaining the opportunity to experience the legend.