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Wistful Vistas

Artists capture images inspired by Santa Paulans and their unique locale.


Way back when, before the freeway severed Ventura from the beach and Ventura County was still an easygoing, semirural outpost, Santa Paula had an art community with a mind of its own.

It was 1936 when notable artists Jesse and Cornelis Botke and Douglas Shively joined forces to start a group exhibition by Santa Paulans and about Santa Paula. The show evolved into a much more loosely themed annual art and photography affair, which is scheduled to be presented for the 64th time early next year at the Blanchard Library.

And that original 1936 show is what provides the historical backdrop to the modest but enjoyable exhibition "Distinctively Santa Paula: The Society of the Arts Paints the Town," now at the California Oil Museum.

As with the earlier show, this exhibit also features art on topics within an eight-mile radius of Santa Paula's quaint downtown area.

Betty McDonald's "Three Landmarks" sets the stage well at the gallery entrance. It gently depicts the red, dormant train depot and the familiar looming Moreton Bay fig tree--the third landmark being the town itself.

Just inside the door hangs another suitable introductory painting. Lynda Suzanne Gruber's "Douglas Shively's Backyard" is a tranquil study of ceramics on a table as well as a genteel tribute to Shively, the local arts pillar.

A fitting companion show, "Santa Paula: 1900-2000, Living with Our Past," presents photographic and topographic evidence of the town's history. Vintage photos of the city, old maps and pristine recent photographs of historical structures--including the very building housing the show--underscore the implicit point that this town remains relatively unscathed by the bulldozer. Now and then are not so dissimilar, in contrast with the rest of the region. The theme runs through the art as well, with wistful quotes from several artists suggesting the fleeting innocence of this remarkably well-preserved old town.

Louise Savier, whose "Marshall Ranch, Wheeler Canyon" captures the lazy, bucolic ambience of that winding back road behind town, may have hit on a subplot of the show with her comment: "Anyone wanting to paint landscapes of scenes within our area should take pictures now because barns, sheds, water tanks, smudge oil tanks and farm equipment are being torn down or removed. They are all part of our country farming heritage."

By and large, the art here is humble in its goals and ambitions, but there are exceptions. Eugene Marzec's painting "Santa Paula from 3,000 Feet" offers a bird's-eye view of a decommissioned fighter plane over the smattering of a town below and snow-capped mountains beyond. It's a romantic's view, to be sure. Those mountains get a different treatment in Tink Strother's "Sespe Mountain," which veers toward the rough, fragmented approach of the abstract.

Lovely, relaxed observations of backyard reality are the domain of Gail Pidduck, whose paintings "Proctor Back Lot," "Red Tractor," and "Jimmy Lou's Sheep" bear titles that convey appreciation of the town's quiet, everyday grandeur.

Another piece by Gruber, "Faulkner Farm Pepper Tree and Carriage," gently pushes the envelope. She took a photograph of the landmark old farm and, using computer manipulation and thick watercolor paper, turned the image into a textural facsimile of a painting.

Here, the age-old tradition of a painter and his/her palette, filtering imagery through mind and hands, gets a specifically contemporary, digital twist.

One imagines that those who organized the 1936 show might object, but only briefly. It does, after all, train an affectionate focus on something old and very local.


"Distinctively Santa Paula: The Society of the Arts Paints the Town," through Sept. 17, and "Santa Paula: 1900-2000, Living with Our Past," through Sept. 24 at the California Oil Museum, 1001 E. Main St., in Santa Paula. Gallery hours: Wed.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; 933-0076.


Josef Woodard, who writes about art and music, can be reached by e-mail at

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