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SANCTUARY : Southern California Artists Have Found Inspiration in the Rustic Quiet of the Dorland Art Colony. That Tranquillity May Now Be in Danger.

June 26, 1988|PENELOPE MOFFET | Penelope Moffet is a Long Beach poet and journalist who has been a resident at Dorland Mountain Colony.

MORNINGS AT Dorland Mountain Colony Inc., an artists' retreat near Temecula, begin with the sound of towhees and thrashers scratching through underbrush for insects. Goldfinches whistle to each other, ravens honk from the tops of junipers, and quail speak their strange language, a sound like water striking taut silk. Afternoons are full of wind, which hurtles through the chaparral and buffets west-facing cottages until the sun sets and the kerosene lamps are lit. Just before full dark the poorwill's lonely cry is heard. Sometimes great horned owls hoot in the oak grove and coyotes send up their yips on distant ridges in the moonlight.

Individual noises assume great meaning in the seclusion of Dorland, set on 300 acres in west Riverside County. Living alone in small cottages, the artists in residence have few distractions, and many draw inspiration from the natural surroundings. There is no electricity in the cottages; heat for warmth and cooking is provided by wood stoves, and refrigerators run on propane. There are no phones, and residents are discouraged from knocking on other artist's doors--written messages can be left in the mail room.

The colony fulfilled the dream of Ellen Babcock Dorland, a concert pianist, and her husband, Robert, a mathematician, who wanted their land to be a place where creative people could retreat to concentrate on their work. In the mid-1930s, the Dorlands had begun homesteading the land, and in 1971 they agreed to sell their acres for less than market value to The Nature Conservancy. Conditions of the gift-sale offered the Dorlands life-tenancy on the land and the right to establish an artists' colony there, which was opened in 1979. It now consists of nine buildings clustered on 10 acres.

As many as seven writers, composers and visual artists can be in residence at one time, usually for stays of two weeks to two months. Advisory boards of established artists select residents on the basis of work submitted for review. Those selected pay $5 a day to help cover colony costs.

Living at Dorland "certainly changed my life. It changed the way I perceive myself in relation to nature," says Venice artist Gilah Yelin Hirsch, who has stayed at Dorland several times. Hirsch, a Cal State Dominguez Hills art professor whose work has been widely exhibited, has painted 67 canvases of "Lake Ticanu," Dorland's waterlily-filled pond. "That pond became my teacher," she says. So did Ellen Dorland, with whom Hirsch had many conversations before Dorland died in 1986 (Robert died in 1974). "There was something about her sharpness of experience, her acumen, that was very inspiring to me," Hirsch says.

Long Beach poet and short story writer Georgiana Sanchez says that her recent stay at Dorland "ended up being a spiritual retreat. Something happened there that helped me in my writing. A lot of things were conceived there."

But the city is edging closer to Dorland. Bedford Properties Inc., which owns more than 7,000 acres bordering the colony, is now seeking to sell its land to developers. A lawsuit launched by the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society Inc. has temporarily stalled development plans, and Dorland's board of directors is watching the dispute's progress with interest. But, says board president Jane Applegate, "we're not planning to stand in front of any bulldozers or anything. Basically we want to (negotiate) a buffer zone, something to separate us from whatever's going to be there."

But for now, at least, the Dorland Mountain Colony remains a sanctuary. Its "environment is so heavenly," says Yugoslavian-born composer Leon Levitch of Pacoima. "Where (else) can you have such peace and quiet and total solitude and total mastery of your own time, total communion with nature?"

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