In 1887 Southern Pacific railroad's newly constructed train depot in Santa Paula was a favorite gathering spot, the curious and the idle hunkering down on rough wooden benches to gawk at the flurry of passengers and freight.
More than a century later, ogling is still the name of the game.
Today's eyeful is different, but no less eclectic. Instead of lima beans and wrinkled travelers, the train depot at 10th and Santa Barbara streets now houses a potpourri of art. Oil paintings of fog-shrouded mountains and brilliant jungle birds. Detailed lithographs. Elaborate pencil sketches of sleeping lions and skittish horses. China plate paintings, including a breezy-as-life rendering of a sailboat hurrying before the wind.
"Beautiful, isn't it," said Betty McDonald of the China plate display done by an elderly Santa Paula artist. "She had a buffalo in here once that looked like it was ready to leap off the plate at you."
Welcome to the Santa Paula Society of the Arts Gallery, an artistic enclave where the diversity is equalled only by the lack of pretention.
"We aren't any great spectacular art museum," said McDonald, a Santa Paula artist and past president of the hundred-member society that uses the defunct train depot to showcase its members' works. "Some of the paintings here are very amateurish and some of them are very polished. We have all kinds of artists here, from beginners to old timers, so you never quite know what to expect."
What visitors can expect is a unique blend of art and history. The gallery uses a small room and an attached warehouse to showcase its art. Paintings hang from walls that once reverberated with the din of 19th-Century travel and commerce. A freight scale (still working) sits in the corner of the warehouse. Except for its red and white exterior (the original depot was a mustard yellow with brown trim), the train depot is unchanged--the last Southern Pacific depot still in its original form, still on its original site.
There was a time when gallery displays exhibited the same longevity.
"Used to be we had paintings hanging in here five to seven years," McDonald said. "People would come in here two years later and say, 'Is that still here?' "
To maintain a fresh look, displays are now changed at the beginning of each month. Exhibits often highlight a particular artist and always encompass a theme. The theme for June is birds. For July it's water. August is sports and games. Rules, however, are sometimes bent. A May tour of the gallery revealed more than a smattering of abstract paintings--remnants from February's theme.
"Well," McDonald said with a laugh, "we do our best."
There are a few other hometown quirks. Art displayed in the warehouse is off-limits when the warehouse, popular for baby showers and wedding receptions, is being rented. The person at the desk can often give you a personalized account of the artist on display--the gallery is staffed by society members who receive a discount on their membership fee for acting as gallery docents. And there is the price of admission. Free.
According to McDonald, about 60 Arts Society members are practicing artists who display their work at the gallery. Most of them are county residents, some are quite famous. Santa Paula artist and lifelong artist Douglas Shively has paintings on display in museums across the country. Longtime member Lawrence Hinckley was noted in Who's Who of Western Art. Another artist, whose work is on display at the depot, is the descendant of a man who notched an even wider Western following--Yellowstone Geronimo Straightarrow claims to be the great-great grandson of the famous Apache warrior.
Looking to nurture new talent, the Arts Society also offers scholarships to promising artists and displays their work at the depot. And anyone can watch theory put into practice. The society hosts a monthly demonstration program where artists come to the gallery and produce a work on the premises. The demonstrations, held at 7:30 p.m. on the second Monday of the month, are generally short affairs, with the artist choosing a work that can be wrapped up quickly. Occasionally, however, artisans are overcome by the muse and demonstrations drag into the wee hours.
"We had one gentleman who painted on and on and on until one in the morning," McDonald said. "Everybody left but the few that had to lock up."
Lodgings aside, the gallery resurrects a second trademark of the past--affordability. Most of the works on display are on sale. Paintings range from $150 to $2,000. If you're undecided, you can rent a painting for up to two months. Maximum charge, $10 a month.
According to McDonald, most visitors are browsers; the gallery sells about two paintings a month. What leaves the gallery is anybody's guess. McDonald remembers one of her own paintings, a "silly looking" rendering of three abstract birds backed by an orange ball of sun.
"All the time I was painting it I was laughing," McDonald said. "Well, someone came in and rented the darned thing. Then they came in a month later and bought it," she said, smiling. "As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
* THE DETAILS: The gallery is at 10th and Santa Barbara streets in Santa Paula. It is open from noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.