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Owens Valley through a different lens

As photographers and artists drawn by the magnificent landscape settle in Lone Pine, Independence and Bishop, a gallery scene is starting to take shape.

May 25, 2003|Vivian Reed | Special to The Times

Lone Pine, Calif. — At the coffee bar of Spellbinder Books in Bishop, I asked the man behind the counter about a striking sculpture of two fish arching in opposite directions, one of a dozen pieces on display. To my surprise, he introduced himself as the sculptor and brought his work to the window to show me the alabaster's translucence. Skandar, who goes by his last name only, then talked about the area's emerging art and photography scene.

"Things are looking up," he said. "We've got more art galleries than auto parts stores."

I knew what he meant immediately. My family has taken U.S. 395 north through the Owens Valley at least a half-dozen times, passing through Lone Pine, Independence and Bishop on our way to Mammoth Lakes or Lake Tahoe. Normally we're struck by the eastern Sierra's grandeur and the towns' unvarnished Old West charm, auto parts stores notwithstanding.

Early this month, though, we stopped in the valley instead of merely passing through, and we devoted our attention to something other than the landscape: a blossoming community of artists.

Photographers, painters, sculptors and other artisans have settled along the 60-mile stretch of highway between Lone Pine and Bishop. Most have been drawn by the beauty of the land. About 20 galleries are scattered here -- not bad for towns whose combined population barely tops 5,000.

The best known spot is Mountain Light Gallery on Main Street in Bishop. It features the work of Galen and Barbara Rowell, internationally acclaimed nature photographers and adventurers who were killed in August in a plane accident. I admired their stunning pictures, including one capturing the eerie violet glow of a corniced ridge in Alaska's Denali National Park and Preserve. Throughout the gallery, the dramatic colors and compositions embodied the essence of the world's wild places.

A clerk pointed to Crossroads Gallery across the street, closed at the time of my visit but open as the showplace of landscape photographer Claude Fiddler since May 9. I also picked up information about a workshop with mountain photographer Vern Clevenger, who opened a gallery May 10 in Bishop.

The Inyo Council for the Arts has a gallery here too, open daily on Main Street. I found more than 40 pieces on display: ceramics, paintings, photographs and woodcarvings priced from $25 to $650, a fraction of what limited edition prints at Mountain Light go for.

Next was Spellbinder Books & Coffee, and from there, at Skandar's suggestion, I walked to Pegasus Gallery on South Street to talk with founder Eva Poole-Gilson. Her rustic gallery, made of weathered wood and tufa, is refurbished inside to accommodate art displays, music performances and poetry readings. Poole-Gilson, a poet, said local artists and fellow gallery owners were designing a map to help art lovers find Bishop's venues.

That walk through town was on a Sunday afternoon. My introduction to the local gallery scene actually had started Friday night, when I had pulled into Lone Pine with my husband, Phil, and sons Andrew, 17, and Tony, 12, after a 3 1/2-hour drive from our Long Beach home.

The Dow Villa Motel looked like all the other lodgings along U.S. 395. Beyond the lobby's stone fireplace, though, we spotted the displays of movie memorabilia. The desk clerk explained that the original Dow Hotel had been built for movie crews who started coming in the 1920s to film amid the spectacular scenery, especially the Alabama Hills west of Lone Pine.

We chose two second-floor rooms with a connecting bathroom ($94 plus tax each night for both units) and a view of Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the Lower 48. The accommodations, part of the motel's original wing, were cozy but not frilly, and double-paned windows muffled traffic noise nicely. (For $82 and up, guests can sleep in a newer annex whose rooms have refrigerators and private baths, some with whirlpool tubs.)

Saturday morning the four of us ambled two blocks down the highway (Main Street) to the Bonanza Mexican Restaurant, a diner with gingham curtains, wagon-wheel chandeliers and a Western diorama of bronco busters and chuck wagons in silhouette above the counter.

While Andrew studied and Tony, accompanied by his father, entertained the motel staff by diving into the swimming pool (unheated in winter), I went window-shopping in Lone Pine.

I stopped at the Indian Trading Post to check out the movie star autographs and browsed Yesterday's Furniture and Collectibles and Johnny Vick's Stuff, the kind of unpretentious stores where an undiscovered treasure might lurk. Then I stopped on Main Street at the courtyard of what used to be the Old Lone Pine Hotel, now the home of the chamber of commerce, the Southern Inyo Artisans Guild and crafts shops. The courtyard has evolved from one shop to a bustling complex during the last two years. Proprietors were busy decorating storefronts with seasonal flower garlands, and pots of lavender were everywhere.

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