Art blooms amid the cacti

Clare Garner on the American artist who plans to take Stroud to Mexico
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CHRISTOPHER BURNETT never looked back after leaving Stroud Art College in 1960. So effectively had the college injected meaning into his life, that he launched himself as an artist in San Francisco and has lived there ever since.

But an article in the Independent on Sunday last November about an associate fine art lecturer at the college prompted him to make contact with the institution which he believes saved his sanity 37 years earlier.

Now a grateful Mr Burnett has linked up with the present generation of staff and students from Stroud and is inviting them on an exhilarating creative adventure. Last week he was in England, finalising plans to fly them out to help him build an art college in the Mexican desert.

Eldorado Ranches Inc, based in Denver, Colorado, has donated an acre of land in San Felipe, in Baja California, Mexico, for the project. One side faces the Mar de Cortez, where whales come to have their young, and the other, an unending stretch of sand and cacti. It is a devastatingly beautiful canvas and a far cry from that which first captured Mr Burnett's imagination.

"Stroud was about the happiest six months of my life," he recalls. "It was the high point. I loved it. I had never met free people. Talking Dadaism, drinking sweet tea, smoking cigarettes - which you weren't allowed to do at school - and throw in a love affair with a nurse. It was sweet.

"Hey, after public school, to walk in there and see a nude model. It was interesting. The art teachers at school would say: `Draw a Botticelli.' I walk into Stroud and there are two electric fires going and Barbara, or whatever her name was, shivering in an old building. I thought: `The only thing worth doing is being an artist.'"

Mr Burnett, 56, the son of a Russian mother and British father, has had a colourful career. It includes peddling propaganda for the US army, designing pornographic postcards, introducing Chocolate Horlicks to Tesco, inventing a hangover cure, doodling on toilet-seat covers for hygiene-conscious Americans, and providing a myriad media services. His own son, Marcus, is a photographer for Vogue in New York; his sister is a drug rehabilitation therapist living in West Sussex.

Drugs and drawing: these two things changed Mr Burnett's life "forever". A lot of people he knew were "blown away" by psychedelics ("Beautiful people, but they're in asylums"), but art has kept him going. "Therapists like to see people painting in yellow. It's good for the soul," he said, daubing his friend's kitchen in Surbiton with psychedelic paints.

His heart is now set on his vision for the San Felipe art school. Work begins in May with the construction of the watercolour studio. Simon Packard, the lecturer with whom he first made contact at Stroud, has been commissioned by Eldorado Ranches Inc to build a 32ft steel sculpture which can be seen from the American border. He will be responsible for working out the curriculum and will also teach, as will his colleague, Jen Whiskered, a British watercolourist. Four Stroud students are going out over the summer to help with the building work.

Mr Burnett has no worries about the appeal of his school, which will be run along the lines of a kibbutz for the first two years. "For a European, who is very visually blocked in, to just turn off the engine and as far as they can see there is nothing, just cactus, cactus, cactus, maybe a windstorm and heat, that will be wonderful," he said.