In Living Color
The Monterey County Artists' Studio Tour permits a secret peek into the world of the working artist.
Thursday, September 25, 2003
Artists speak in a visual language that non-artists do not know. Even though non-artists may understand the basics of this language-in the way a non-native French speaker may read Le Monde at a Parisian cafe-the non-artist cannot implement that knowledge, any more than the American in Paris could write French poetry or prose imbued with the nuance and rhythm of a native speaker.
Still, a non-artist can understand the interior force of a work of art without knowing the artist''s visual language. It''s just like the music lover who feels the wave of Beethoven break mid-symphony without knowing musical notation or structure.
Because of this gap between the artist and the non-artist, one versed in the visual language and the other appreciating it, an event like the upcoming Monterey County Artists'' Studio Tour does more than pique one''s interest. It''s a chance for artists and non-artists to come together on familiar ground, to look, talk, share, and lessen the divide.
More than 70 artists and craftspeople will open their places of creation on two successive weekends: this Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 27-28, focuses on artists in Monterey, Pacific Grove, Seaside, Sand City, Carmel, and Carmel Valley; next weekend, Oct. 4-5, features artists in North County and Salinas Valley.
Sponsored by the local chapter of Artists Equity, the tour will be a golden opportunity to talk to the artists, experience their inner sanctums-the laboratories where so much alchemy occurs-and buy a real live work of art. It is a chance for artists to share their work with others, and for art lovers to replace those posters and static reproductions on their walls with something vital and made by hand.
Some artists will organize their chaos, the flotsam and jetsam of creativity. They''ll arrange the squeezed paint tubes in rows, stand up brushes in a can, hang up the old soldiers that have been stacked in the corner for months, sweep the place out, and buy the cheese, crackers and wine that will loosen tongues and purse strings.
Others will leave their studios in their usual working states, having heard from artists who took part in previous studio tours that visitors like the disorder of a working studio. The thinking is, that way it''s easier to experience the artist''s creative process, to see how the visual language is spoken.
Artists are a diverse lot, and their studios vary in size and location, depending on the artist''s income, working practice, scale of artwork and idiosyncratic comfort zone. That''s what Studio Tourists love-the diversity and quirkiness of each place, not to mention the work seen there and the insights gained by talking directly with the artists. And art bought directly from the artist is less expensive.
A good first stop is the Pacific Grove Art Center, where each participating artist is represented by one work. A quick glance shows the variations in media, level of accomplishment, and imagery, giving visitors an idea of the kind of art available in each studio. Regulars to the tour often pore over the brochure and map available at the Center and more than a dozen other locations, comparing it to the art on the walls and checking off those studios they wish to visit.
Here''s the preview tour I took last week, but don''t let my list limit you; drop by the Center and design your own route.
My first stop is Norman Foster''s studio in Sand City, which welcomes visitors with a topiary gateway and slatted fence that distinguishes the place from its industrial neighbors. Foster has taken a two-story cinderblock building and transformed it into something special. After passing through an intimate courtyard patio, one enters his studio space, a well-designed combination of domestic comforts, work tables, easels and bookshelves. It emanates serious art-making.
In the front room, sculptures rise from the floor and sit on pedestals or shelves in a formal display along with a selection of the artist''s stylized landscapes. In the back room, a work area with easels and paintings in progress reveals a man who has many irons in the fire.
"I was an interior designer for almost 30 years before we moved to the Peninsula," says Foster, a lean, white-haired man with a goatee who favors denim pants and shirt and Birkenstocks. "I was a painter first, advanced degree and everything, but then the kids came along. My wife and I had an arrangement that after they were out of the nest, I would return to painting. I''m so fortunate to have been successful in the design business, and now I get to do this." With those words, Foster holds up his arms to embrace the whole studio-the paintings, the balcony and upstairs windows, the chalet-style stove and woodpile.
Visitors to this studio will see three kinds of art: sculpture made largely from found industrial parts and natural objects; reductive landscapes in muted greens and blues that have the presence of dreams; and abstract paintings that pose formal, geometric elements against random jolts of color and organic form. "I draw an awful lot of energy and inspiration from nature," Foster says. "But the abstract work is also very important to me. I see it as more philosophical, or, if you will, esoteric."
Foster''s sculpture is comprised of disparate elements: The artist takes the various found objects out of their original context and imbues them with meaning. Wood, stone and forged metal are masterfully joined to become totemic icons where metal gears meet polished stone, driftwood meets granite. The experience of each is assisted by titles that are references to philosophy, cultural history, or the artist''s intuitive response to materials and their juxtapositions.
Back in the car, we return to Monterey, and drive up the hill just behind Monterey High School. The homes here are wedded to the hillside; ivy vines, shrubbery and veteran trees dominate the landscape. The older homes are simple and direct in design; there''s a vague air of Bohemianism that wafts through the trees above these post-WW II fabrications.
After a long climb uphill from the street, we arrive at the home and studio of painter Peggy Olsen. In her front room, Olsen shows a large group of framed laser prints of her paintings. A panoramic view out the window serves as a backdrop to her many images of the Central Coast hills. Down the hallway is a back bedroom, now her studio, replete with special lighting, worktable and an array of books, magazines and reproductions of masterpieces.
"People like the studio tour because of the lower prices," Olsen observes, "so I like to have a lot of the prints available. I also like sharing my process. I even have handouts with some information about my palette and mediums, and philosophies or sayings about art that I''ve found useful."
Olsen has a signature style that many locals recognize. The tone of her paintings is high, and defines rolling hills leading up to a bank of trees or a vivid sky. Tucked into the folds of hills are clumps of trees. Some of her works are variations, as she includes the agricultural valley, country buildings, the sea. They all emphasize the rhythm of the terrain and the pleasure of color, rather than verisimilitude. Her brushwork is quick and confident as it moves from form to form.
"I paint from photographs. I''ve tried plein air painting, but I never mastered the logistics of setting up an easel, the turpentine, and dealing with the wind and weather. I prefer the studio," Olsen says.
Barry John Raybould (right) shows off his plein air landscapes; Norm Foster''s (left) Sand City studio holds giant sculptures and abstract art.
We leave the Monterey artist and head into Pacific Grove, past Lovers Point where the sea kisses the rocks under a blue sky, and water birds fly above people strolling with a sense of grateful entitlement. One street back from the water is a blackish contemporary house, all windows and modern lines-the home/studio/gallery of plein air painter Barry John Raybould. A sleek camper sits in the driveway; we learn later it is a rolling studio for painting jaunts to Big Sur and the back hills.
Inside, light gushes through the two-story windows, drenching myriad canvases. Raybould has transformed his home into a studio and gallery first, with living quarters relegated to the upstairs where the ocean view fills a picture window. Downstairs, the open floor plan has become the workspace; a large easel sits in the middle surrounded by tables with palettes, brushes and artist''s paraphernalia. Two adjoining rooms, former bedrooms, have been converted to galleries; windows are blocked and everything is painted a warm blue gray illuminated by track lights.
"One gallery is for my California painting, the other features my European painting, mostly of Corsica," says the Cambridge University-educated artist. "I like the open studio tour because it''s an opportunity to show a wider variety of art than a gallery could handle. There are probably about 60 or 70 paintings here right now."
Raybould is a busy man who goes out to paint almost daily, and conducts quarterly painting workshops in the field, both here and in Europe. He has also written a series of how-to booklets and travel guides for painters.
"The tour allows me to get to meet more people who love art," Raybould says. "There are many people on the Peninsula who have collections, who are passionate about art, and it''s nice connecting with them. There''s a story behind every painting. People like to know about the painting, about the setting or unique challenges I faced to paint it. The painting comes to life as we discuss what makes a painting work."
Raybould''s painting is about color and light and the atmospheric effects they can achieve. His lively brushwork moves across the canvas defining landforms, the shimmer of the sea, and the visual dialogue between the two. He paints quickly with a sure hand. What the viewer encounters is well-crafted paintings that have a multitude of surprises-the harmony and tension of color chords used to maximize the brilliance of the hues. Dashes and spots of color seem wedged into unlikely places, as the artist works with optics and the simultaneous contrasts of colors to achieve the beauty and poetry he perceives.
It''s time to move on to Sunset Drive, where the Peninsula Potters group has its shop tucked away in the Russell Service Center, just overlooking Asilomar Beach. It''s hard to find, but what the Peninsula Potters lose in foot traffic they gain in shop facilities. These are ceramists and they need space for display shelves, supplies and a large kiln; they need areas to prepare clay, throw on the potter''s wheel, house the pieces that are drying and waiting to be fired, and glaze the finished products.
It''s time to move on to Sunset Drive, where the Peninsula Potters group has its shop tucked away in the Russell Service Center, just overlooking Asilomar Beach. It''s hard to find, but what the Peninsula Potters lose in foot traffic they gain in shop facilities. These are ceramists and they need space for display shelves and a large kiln; they need areas to prepare clay, throw on the potter''s wheel, house the pieces that are drying and waiting to be fired, and glaze the finished products.
Five of the six members of this collective are participating in this year''s studio tour: Peggy Alonas, Elise Chezem, Shirley Pribek, Joan Murray and Earl Striegel. Their work varies as they do; they craft formal, functional vases and vessels rooted in tradition as well as whimsical figurative pieces, dragons, angels and the like. A visit to this group studio offers any number of things to acquire. Ceramics are utilitarian and esthetic, rooted in the distant past; just holding one of their well-crafted vessels is a conduit back to time immemorial.
Jennifer Brook-Kothlow (left) creates works on paper and ceramic pieces; Andy Williams (right) invites visitors to his Salinas studio on Weekend #2.
In the car again, we head south to the mouth of Carmel Valley, turn east, and motor to the studio and home of Jennifer Brook-Kothlow. Her residence/work place is nestled on a steep hillside far off the main road. Designed by her architect husband using the massive beams of a salvaged railroad trestle, the house is both contemporary and rustic, and emphasizes an indoor-outdoor lifestyle. One walks from building to building to get from the kitchen to bedroom, studio to bath, office to sitting room.
Brook-Kothlow''s art reflects her communion with nature and a contemplative life. She creates works on paper and, during the mild summer season, works on ceramics in her outdoor ceramic shop.
The ceramic pieces are typically slabs or hollowed platter forms that she treats as canvases to paint on with glazes. A form she favors is a large boat-shaped vessel with tall sides, covered with her unique surface effects. They are decorative, but there are signs and symbols used to draw in the viewer. They want to be deciphered and enjoyed for their organic qualities.
The works on paper are layers of marks. Broad areas of painted fields serve as grounds for a series of gestures and glyphs that are charged with energy. "I like to build up personal symbols and just let it flow," the artist says. "I see the marks I make during the creative process as parallels to the life process. A work comes to life with the marks I make; I scratch at it and do all kinds of things to the surface. It''s like aging skin, perhaps, showing the effects of time. I like to work on paper because I like the way it hangs when I''m done. Nothing is perfect, and that''s intentional. In life, things get scarred and live on."
Leaving Brook-Kothlow''s quiet sanctuary, we return to Carmel Valley Road, then turn up the Los Laureles Grade. After maneuvering through the turns and steep incline, we pass the summit and begin descending. This is where we pull into the home/studio of Ingrid Jackson-MacDonald, a painter and sculptor. Her sprawling home overlooks the last canyon before the valley itself. It is an inspiring view, rugged, sweeping, full of dramatic lights and shadows.
At the far end of the house, Jackson-MacDonald has established a large workspace that blends leather furniture, end tables and lamps with the equipment of a studio. With an emphasis on still life these days, the artist has several tables set with floral arrangements, vases, wineglasses, domestic bric-a-brac. The effect reminds one of the comfortable salons used by Victorian painters who worked in three-piece suits and neckties. Jackson-MacDonald''s still life paintings exude a love of colorful paint and an appreciation for plump, animated blossoms. Her arrangements are carefully ordered, with an obvious taste for delicate, refined shapes and surfaces.
"I was a portrait sculptor for 20 years in Los Gatos, so the studio tour is good for me because it lets people know I''m here. It allows me to get the message out that I am a painter now," she says.
The artist looks around and muses: "It''s extremely important that the studio be beautiful; it should be inspirational, clean, never messy." Her floral paintings sit on easels and lean against walls. One sees a painter''s sensibility given to pretty things, decorative things, pleasing things. "My subjects go along with my personality; painters always paint their personality. I''m an impressionist; I like that effect. I paint what I see, then I beautify it."
We cruise down the grade to the Monterey-Salinas Highway and turn east toward the valley where the lettuce grows. Painter Andy Williams'' studio is in the back part of his home, a fine 1920s California bungalow in South Salinas.
Light saturates Williams'' cozy studio through a bank of greenery that looks out to the walled back garden. The big Salinas sky can be felt overhead as clerestory windows allow the occasional glimpse upward. The artist is systematic: brushes are arranged, canvases are stored carefully according to size, everything has a place. These are hallmarks of a person who works full-time and wishes to make maximum use of studio time when it rolls around.
Williams paints with bright colors orchestrated across the canvas, applied with a brush that seems to delight in the definition of form. Most recently, he has painted flowers, the Salinas fields, landscapes featuring the character houses of the neighborhood, and intimate studies of teacups."These," Williams says, gesturing toward the cup paintings, "I do the way a musician practices scales. They''re just studies really, just practice in using color and placing highlights." But they are very successful studies.
"My style oscillates," the painter continues, "goes around in a circle, I guess you''d say. I''ll work oil on paper, then oil on canvas; and I work in series. I did a bougainvillea series, and an Elkhorn Slough series. Something will get my interest and I''ll stay with it for a time.
"I''m participating in the tour for the exposure," he says. "I''d like to sell some things, but really it''s about the feedback and making contact. These things can lead to something later. In the past I''ve gotten commissions afterward. People who''ve left without saying too much have called back to ask to see more paintings, and commissioned me."
Williams is concerned that the Salinas Valley has been given the second weekend of this year''s tour, and worries that the public''s interest will cool off by then. "This is the first year they''ve done it this way, so we''ll see," he remarks.
The Peninsula Potters open their Sunset Drive studio.
My long day of studio visits has paid off. Artists have shared their techniques, and explained philosophies and tendencies willingly. The rewards were many, from fixing a personality to the artwork seen at the Pacific Grove Art Center, to being privy to an artist''s creative process.
In the course of discussion, insights were gained. The artists'' visual language is clearer now. The fine art and cordial artists-and the journey through such beautiful country-are what make the Studio Tour an enriching experience for the visitor. And if the checkbooks come out, it will enrich the artists as well.
The Monterey County Artists'' Studio Tour takes place Saturday and Sunday on the Monterey Peninsula, and Oct. 4-5 in North County and Salinas. For maps and information, call 372-4930 or visit www.artists-equity.org.