Like a brightly colored volunteer plant sprouting in an otherwise pretty but staid garden, the "naive" art of Ralph Auf der Heide has crept up on Santa Barbara over the last few years.
Seen in regular doses at the downtown public library since 1988, Auf der Heide's sly, folksy inventions have earned him a rapidly growing reputation. Suddenly Auf der Heide is seen as one of the brightest and most upwardly mobile artists in Santa Barbara.
As of this week, Auf der Heide is being treated to his first actual one-man show in a local commercial gallery, the Frances Puccinelli Gallery in Carpinteria. He is represented by a gallery in Santa Fe, and by a private art dealer in New York who hopes to give him a one-man show in a New York gallery space early next year.
Auf der Heide's vividly colored scenes, using the venerable but still obscure under-glass technique, are painted under plexiglass and then reversed. His imagery, bristling with whimsical life of its own, often spills over onto the frames and usually stretches reality as we know it. Fanciful sea life, circuses, visual puns and scenes of folksy surrealism are rendered with a meticulous hand and a gently wild imagination.
The stuff looks, for all the world, like a free-handed brand of folk art. Inevitably, you wonder about the man behind this mischief: Is he a rural Austrian emigrant who doesn't own a television, and who has spent a long life honing his craft?
Actually, the trail to the artist leads the reporter deep into the heart of suburbia, to a tract house in Goleta where the hale 76-year-old artist lives with his wife, Lisl. Nothing in particular distinguishes the Auf der Heide home from the neighboring houses, except for the sunflowers painted on the mailbox and the tiny hound's head painted on a sign on the fence.
The tall, soft-spoken artist and his wife have lived in Santa Barbara for 21 years and have two grown children. Remarkably, full-scale art-making didn't enter Auf der Heide's life until four years ago, after he retired from a career as a representative--first for classical record labels, then for audio equipment manufacturers.
Auf der Heide, born in Los Angeles in 1915, dabbled in various artistic media early in life. He pulls out a couple of cubist-like paintings he did in the late '40s, and looks at them with a dismissive smirk: "Just like all the rest of them."
Auf der Heide was impressed with the European naive art seen during a trip to the hinterlands of Germany, Hungary and Yugoslavia, and the seeds of his later art obsession were sown. His art has links to the European folk and naive traditions rather than to American folk art.
"I think there's a broader range of effort in Europe than there is here," he said. "We tend to think that folk art is either portraits or 'American Gothic'-type things. There, you have a wide variety."
Early on, he was drawn to the under-glass painting technique, often used by naive painters, but was put off by its properties. "I use plexiglass because it's lighter in weight," he said, "it doesn't have that greenish tint that glass does, and it's not fragile."
To date, Auf der Heide has done 93 paintings, many of which have been sold and sit in collections nationwide. Did he expect such a favorable response when he began this avocation? "I really didn't." He paused, then said: "After awhile, you've got to get rid of these somehow."
Last week, before parting with the many artworks making up the current Puccinelli show, the Auf der Heide home was a gallery unto itself, the walls lined with his pieces. Several of them are clever and/or visually magnetic. Surfing animals, oddities suspended from hot-air balloons, Lady Godiva riding through an ancient/modern village--these are a few of the things that cross Auf der Heide's mind.
A few pieces border on the stuff of intuitive greatness: Endangered Animals Being Led to Safety and In a Hidden Cove Sea Mammals and Fish Join in Celebrating California's Outlawing of Gill Nets address real world issues in a compellingly fantastical way.
"Frances (Puccinelli) came here a few days ago to pick out art for the show," Lisl said. "She looked at it and said "bring them all. I can't decide.' "
Puccinelli, who started her Carpinteria gallery a year ago, felt a natural attraction to Auf der Heide's work when she first saw it at the library. As she says: "I deal mainly with 'outsider' and folk art--out of the back rooms, as it were. And here he is in our hometown. The more I learned about him the more I liked the pieces."
Art defines the house. The kitchen clock has been redone, fitted with a grinning sun. In his studio off the kitchen, Auf der Heide showed a few of his works-in-progress.
One of them depicts animals descending from Noah's Ark, after the flood. One of Noah's sons has cleaned out the droppings and made a huge dung pile outside the ark. All the female animals are pregnant. "They didn't waste any time," he said, laughing.