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Painting to save the land.


Arturo Tello is a radical, a tireless fighter for open pace in and around Santa Barbara, California. He paints. So do Marcia Burtt, Erika Edwards, Richard Schloss, Ray Strong, and 21 other artists who call themselves the Oak Group.

Since 1986, Oak Group artists have been documenting on paper and canvas the precious few remaining open spaces in their backyards. Semiannual exhibitions of their paintings have helped raise public awareness of endangered landscapes--among them Carpinteria Bluffs, Haskell's Beach, Loon Point, and Sedgwick Ranch--as well as funds for the Nature Conservancy and other like-minded organizations to preserve open space. To date, sales of Oak Group paintings have generated more than $100,000 for the cause.

Which is not to say that the group's origins, let alone its current raison d'etre, are entirely political. It all began eight years ago when some friends decided to spend the day at a place called Loon Point, just west of Carpinteria. "It didn't start out as a preservation thing," recalls Marcia Burtt, who paints in acrylics. "That day, we just met because we all wanted to be together. You could bring something to read and share it with the group. It was just a few people getting together to paint--that's all it started out as."

Indeed, for many members of the Oak Group, that's largely what it still is. Landscape painting can be an isolating activity. Communing with your peers is not only an antidote to the isolation, it's also an important way to advance your craft. "I was an independent artist who had never associated with groups before," says Richard Schloss. Much to his surprise, he found he enjoyed painting with other people. "I remember setting up at the Wilcox property [just east of Hendry's Beach], working right next to Marcia. As I was painting, I was looking over her shoulder and watching her paint. It was a real eye-opener."

The day at Loon Point would also prove illuminating in a different way. "John Wilsher," says Burtt, referring to one of the artists who helped organize the outing, "called me up sometime after that and said, 'Marcia, I just heard the most horrible news. They're going to develop that piece of property we were painting. What can we do?' We talked and came up with the idea that maybe we could have an exhibition of the paintings."

Arturo Tello, also at Loon Point that day, quickly mobilized the artists and put together a show (Tello continues to be the group's prime mover and shaker). The idea was to call attention to a beautiful place that, seemingly, was about to be lost. "Painting a place is better than [going to] a public hearing," says Tello, who's done both. "You can have a voice visually and say, 'Wait a minute; look at what you're doing.'"

As it turned out, the proposed development at Loon Point wasn't quite as threatening--or imminent--as the artists bad thought. It would have allowed for public access to the beach (a county-owned access trail accomplishes that purpose today), and after the recession hit, the project stayed safely on the drawing board. In fact, many of the projects slated for the group's favorite endangered landscapes are also in limbo. Others, however, are fully permitted and ready to go when the market heats back up. "I don't think we've really stopped anything," admits painter Erika Edwards, "but we've certainly caused a greater awareness."

Awareness has long motivated Ray Strong, perhaps the group's most famous member. At 89, he's certainly its elder statesman. To the younger artists in the Oak Group, Strong is a spiritual link to the Santa Barbara landscape painters of the '20s, a golden age for the genre. Strong, who's fluent in oils, doesn't mind the association. He's kind of an old-fashioned guy anyway, who talks openly about such old-fashioned notions as craftsmanship, technique, and beauty, concepts that are anathema to many ultratrendy contemporary artists.

Protecting the environment is another of Strong's old-fashioned ideas. While he has always had a painter's love of the outdoors, he traces his more serious environmental awakening to the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. Photographs of oil-soaked birds beamed around the world made him realize how powerful an image can be. Now, through shows mounted by the Oak Group, Strong's brooding landscape paintings--themselves spiritual links to nature--are calling attention to the lands he and his colleagues love. "All art is local," says Strong in a witty paraphrase of the late Tip O'Neill's famous quote about politics.

So what are they, then: artists or activists? Both, say the group's members, who aren't shy about wanting to have it both ways. In the end, the Oak Group succeeds because it's about more than just scratching aesthetic and political itches. "We've got to think about future generations," says Edwards. Thanks to the Oak Group, those generations will have an enduring, achingly beautiful record of this part of the California coast--and maybe even a few of the actual places.

Paintings and places

Finding the art

The Oak Group mounts three major exhibitions a year. A spring show focuses on endangered landscapes, including those illustrated in this story. A June exhibition on Santa Cruz Island is devoted solely to images of that water-locked landscape. And a fall show ends the year on an upbeat note by highlighting places that have been preserved--including Santa Cruz Island and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. The fall exhibition runs from November 18 to December 4 at the Faulkner Gallery in the Santa Barbara Public Library, 40 E. Anapamu Street. For hours and other information, call (805) 962-7653.

Several galleries in the Santa Barbara area show work by members of the Oak Group. The Easton Gallery, at 557 Hot Springs Road in Montecito, represents seven Oak Group artists. It's open from 1 to 5 weekends and by appointment weekdays. For more information, call 969-5781. The Arlington Gallery, at 819 Anacapa Street in Santa Barbara, represents Meredith Brooks Abbott. For hours and other information, call 965-4805.

Finding the sites

The places listed below, north to south, are privately owned, but all have a long history of public access--parts of some have actually been set aside for this purpose. Remember to stay off posted private lands and to park responsibly in neighborhoods.

Haskell's Beach. From Santa Barbara, take U.S. Highway 101 north past Isla Vista and exit at Winchester Canyon Road. Travel north on the frontage road and make the next left turn (it's unmarked) across the highway. Cross the railroad tracks and park at the end. An unmarked trait leads to the beach.

Ellwood Shores. From U.S. 101 in Isla Vista, take the Storke Road exit south. Turn west on Phelps Road and park at the end. An unmarked trail leads to the shore.

More Mesa. From U.S. 101 just east of Goleta, take the Turnpike Road exit south to Hollister Avenue and turn left. Turn right on Puente Drive and head south. Park near the intersection of Puente and Via Huerto. A trail on the south side of the three-way intersection leads steeply past some homes before meandering across the bluffs and through a eucalyptus grove.

Wilcox property. From U.S. 101 in Santa Barbara, take Los Positas Road south. Turn left on Cliff Drive. Turn right on Mesa Lane, then right again on either Mesa School Lane or Selrose Lane (a popular parking spot for hang gliders). The Wilcox property is the site of a former nursery, so don't be surprised if you see birds of paradise growing among the natives.

Loon Point. From U.S. 101 in Summerland, take the Padaro Lane exit south. Turn left immediately east of the overpass and park in the lot. A county-owned access road leads to the beach, but the rest of the property is fenced and posted.

Carpinteria Bluffs. From U.S. 101 just south of Carpinteria, take the Bailard Avenue exit south. Cross Carpinteria Avenue and park. Numerous traits and dirt roads crisscross the bluffs. Most eventually converge into a road that leads to the cliffs overlooking the beach. The westside beaches are closed from January through May, when seals haul out to raise their young. Signs posted by volunteer groups will alert you to when the beach is closed.


More Mesa is the largest undeveloped piece of oceanfront property between Carpinteria and Goleta, and it's close to downtown Santa Barbara. Part of the mesa, about 35 acres, was sold to the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County as a preserve. The owner of the remaining parcel disagrees with the county over plans for development.


Developers have floated proposals for this 80-plus-acre site for a quarter century, but so far nothing has happened. The Carpinteria City Council has voted to submit a plan to the California Coastal Commission that would limit, though not prevent, future development on the bluffs.


Most of this vast 5,900-acre tract just northeast of Los Olivos is protected as part of the University of California's Natural Reserve System, but an important 800-acre parcel may be sold by the heirs of Alice and Francis Sedgwick.


The California Coastal Commission recently approved a 150-plus-unit housing development on 35 acres of this site north of Santa Barbara, keeping more than 100 acres as open space. The project now has to clear the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors; its future is uncertain.


Eight years ago, it gave birth to the Oak Group. Today, a county-owned access trail through the site leads to the beach, but the rest of the property is fenced and posted. Development plans for four luxury estates have been approved.


This relatively remote site north of Isla Vista hasn't been in the limelight as much as some of Santa Barbara's other landscapes, even though Hyatt has a permit to build a hotel there within the next five years.


A few years ago, Santa Barbarans narrowly rejected a $10-million measure to buy the site and turn it into a park. It remains in the hands of developers, though there are no specific plans to build at this time.
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Author:Marks, Ben
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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