Smithfield's deputy police chief has hidden talent

Smithfield's deputy police chief has hidden talent

Smithfield Deputy Police Chief Robert VanNieuwenhuyze puts the finishing touches on a painting of a World War II fighter plane waiting to take off from an aircraft carrier. (Valley Breeze & Observer photo by Bruce McCabe)

SMITHFIELD - The deputy chief of police here is quick on the draw, at least when the weapon of choice is an artist's brush and the ammunition is acrylic paint.

Combining a lifelong talent with his love of classic cars, second-in-command Robert W. VanNieuwenhuyze is turning out vivid automobile "portraits" that shimmer with nostalgia-inducing detail.

One of his latest, featuring a 1984 Mustang GT convertible, provides a double-dip into the memory bank because its background is the iconic A&W Root Beer drive-up on Putnam Pike, itself largely unchanged since it was built in 1960.

Details are readable down to the Mustang's license plate number and A&W's signs instructing drivers to 'Turn lights on for service."

VanNieuwenhuyze says he only recently returned to painting, a skill that lay dormant for years while his time was devoted to work and family, but that even as a child "I always enjoyed drawing typical boy things - car, trucks, and planes."

In fact, before switching his studies to criminal justice at Rhode Island College he was an art major there.

When one assignment required students to sketch something mechanical, he drew a carburetor.

A Smithfield native who graduated from the local high school in 1985, VanNieuwenhuyze says that art and police work always vied for his attention, with the latter finally winning out in college because it offered financial security.

"I always had it in my blood," he says, noting that his father, also Robert, is a former state trooper.

While he finds art an effective way to relax, only a certain style does the trick for him, because "Drawing fruit sitting in a bowl isn't my thing."

Enamored of the "muscle cars" of the 1960s and '70s, Van Nieuwenhuyze takes satisfaction in recreating them on canvas, noting that "ever since the wheel was invented there has always been fascination for 'How can we make this go faster and look better?'"

One of his inspirations for getting started again came when Detective Lt. Eric Dolan asked him to paint the Mustang, which belongs to Dolan's father, who frequents Tuesday "cruise nights" at A&W.

It turned out so well that VanNieuwenhuyze is now painting a Hellcat fighter plane for Dolan's grandfather, who flew one in World War II.

VanNieuwenhuyze also recently painted one of his department's current cruisers, and it's a picture that soon will have nostalgia value of its own: Ford has stopped making the Crown Victorias that were synonymous with police work, and Chief Richard St. Sauveur Jr. has already told the Town Council that the department must decide on a new look for the fleet.

That's one of the reasons VanNieuwenhuyze enjoys painting vintage cars - "It's something they don't build any more, and you preserve it."

Married to the former Jodi Joseph of Woonsocket and the father of 17- and 12-year-old boys, VanNieuwenhuyze says he has no formal studio at home, and instead sets up a $20 tabletop easel wherever space is available, sometimes even on his lap in front of the TV.

Working from photos, he sketches a scene first, and then applies the bright acrylics.

He hasn't yet established his hobby as a commercial enterprise, but says that reaction to his work has been positive enough so that "my gears are turning down the road for the future."

Still, he already has a small waiting list, but says that right now, "My biggest enemy is time."

A member of the force since 1992, he's responsible for overseeing the three division commanders and manages the department's re-accreditation efforts.

For now, he says, preserving automotive heritage will remain high on his spare-time list just because "You hope it strikes a chord in people; that it brings up memories and gives them that nostalgic feeling."