By Anna Weltner
There are strange and beautiful things happening around us, if you know where to look.
Los Osos sculptor Bradley Sunnarborg built a bio-chamber that, through the use of photosynthesis, sustained a canary in an airtight environment for one month, and he called it art. Computer technician Steven Boothe, with help from his wife and daughters, harvests the innards of computers for use in making three-dimensional, abstract, inexplicable things. He calls them art, too, and so would I. Then there’s Atascadero artist Abigail Gumbiner, who got into photography through photographing her sculptures, and now makes gorgeous sculptures out of her photographs. It’s hard to believe that all this creativity is flourishing in our own county, maybe even next door, while everyone else goes about their sad little business, paying taxes, watering ferns, eating low-fat yogurt.
But really, how could we know about the creativity burbling softly beneath the surface of our county in a converted barn, guest room, a garage? So discreetly does it often burble that many locals hardly notice it at all, between work and dinner and their Netflix Watch Instantly queue. And what are they supposed to do—just show up at these artists’ homes and studios and rap at the door, begging to be brought into their lush, imaginative worlds?
Over the next three weekends, the answer is yes.
Every year for more than a decade, hundreds of artists across the county have opened up their sacred workspaces to the inquiring public, in a massive, non-juried studio tour organized by our local arts council, ARTS Obispo. Some of the creative minds featured annually in this countywide phenomenon known as Open Studios are already prominent figures in the local arts community, and the tour provides admirers a closer look into their tools, materials, and processes. But others toil in relative anonymity within the sanctum of their homes, garages, and backyards, and the tour is a chance for them to gain exposure.
There are far too many artists on the tour to list here, but that’s why there’s a catalog. The following are a few individuals whose art, life story, or philosophy spoke to me in some way. I hope you, over the next few weekends, find the chance to have a similar experience.
Carol Paquet, Arroyo Grande
When is nature art? When is art nature? Such questions fascinate Carol Paquet, whose 2,500-square-foot workspace, CorkStop Studios, founded in 2006 with fellow artist Anne Stahl, crouches at the foothills of the Los Padres National Forest.
“I’m interested in the intersection of the natural landscape and abstraction,” her artist’s statement reads, “that place where reality dissolves and is replaced with shapes and forms that take on another identity.”
Born in modern-day Zambia and raised in South Africa, Paquet majored in graphic design, later going into advertising as an art director, working in South Africa, England, and California. After living and working in many different countries, she eventually settled on the Central Coast.
The artist, whose work comprises half the current Steynberg Gallery show “Empty Spaces and Littered Places,” seems to enjoy tricking the eye a little. You’re not sure if what you’re looking at is a totally abstract image or a storm cloud over a city; if it’s up close or very far away; or, in the case of her latest series, whether the image is a painting of a misty morning or a photograph of a plastic bag.
It’s likely all of those things. Paquet’s beautiful oil paintings are often just the beginning of a larger process; from there, she might proceed to cast strange shadows over them, photograph them, or even, in the case of her most recent work, draw on the photograph, creating a layered, wholly original piece. It’s a technique that began, as the best do, quite by accident.
Of her two most recent series—“Heaven and Earth” and “Beautiful Decay”—she said, “I was inspired by lots of trips down the coast, and seeing all the litter on the side of the road.”
Paquet would stop to photograph such refuse up close, noting “there’s a whole world in there.”
Living near the road that leads to the Corbett Canyon Landfill and seeing the detritus that flies from dump trucks also provided her several interesting artifacts, which have since appeared in her work.
Get a preview of her work at carolpaquet.com, or see it up close at 1250 Judith Lane in Arroyo Grande during the art tour’s South County Weekend (Oct. 15 to 16) and Encore Weekend (Oct. 29 to 30) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Boothe family, San Luis Obispo
Steven Boothe is a trip! He’s like a tech-savvy wizard who’s discovered an elixir for the sort of unadulterated joy known only to children, and, over the course of the day, takes heavy swigs of it from some invisible flask. The Cuesta College computer technician is also an amateur artist, having decided a little more than a year ago that he wanted to break into the artistic community. His first show, “More than Watching,” was a large-scale, mosaic-like wall of spontaneous photographs bisecting the tiny Compact Gallery. The photos were shot in a rapid-fire way, often bearing more resemblance to abstract paintings than to the roads and neighborhoods where they were taken. The shots were assembled according to time stamp, each row representing a few minutes in time.
But he wanted his family to be part of the art scene as well. Thus began the Boothe Family Collaborative, made up of him, his wife Linda, and their daughters Eliana, age 7, and Liliana, a.k.a. Nunu, age 3.
Boothe’s preferred art forms are, technically speaking, photography, collage, and sculpture, but he has his own way of doing all these things. His whole family collaborates on the sculptures and collages. He snaps pictures without even looking through the viewfinder, then uses them to create larger works. A photo to him is a brushstroke.
“I use my camera, but the prints I generate, I don’t see them as ends in themselves,” he recently divulged in a phone interview from Grass Point, Ore., where the Boothe family was vacationing. “I see them as material.”
Inspired by a technique Boothe created at home to fill bare walls with ever-changing art, the family will facilitate an interactive collage in their neighborhood clubhouse at 1255 Orcutt Road in San Luis Obispo.
Boothe’s technological and artistic inclinations are best represented, however, in the sculptures he makes from computer parts (including magnets he says he has “harvested” from hard drives), photos, jute (a sort of twine), feathers, pine cones, and whatever else he fancies. Their creation is always participatory, and not without the input of his two daughters.
“That’s really important to me,” he said. “I don’t want to go off on my own thing. I can’t see myself without my family.”
As if on cue, I heard Eliana piping up in the background—weren’t they supposed to go someplace?—and her father explaining, “No, we are already here. We are where we are supposed to be.”
Get more of the Boothe family at boothefam.com, or visit them during the South County Weekend.
Sharon Gellerman, Los Osos
Born in India, raised in Israel, and married to an American, Sharon Gellerman has lived in California for the past 10 years. Here, she learned the technique of marbling silk, using jelly and dye in a number of different patterns, like hearts and dragonflies and flowers.
“I’m still learning,” she said of the design technique. “There’s a surprise element to it.”
Gellerman makes art on silk by dripping dye into a vat of jelly, swooshing it around, and pulling the material through it. Some basic patterns, she said, are like a recipe, producing desired results every time, while other images happen by accident.
The artist, whose work can be seen in San Luis Obispo at the Gallery at the Network, frequently provides demonstrations of her process, and will even be allowing visitors to her space to dye their own scarves. Visit colorvibedesigns.com, or better yet, visit 1315 14th St. in Los Osos during the North County and Encore Weekend to see her work for yourself.
Bradley Sunnarborg, Los Osos
Is he a scientist? An engineer? An artist? Or some strange hybrid of them all? The Los Osos sculptor, who graduated with a BFA from the University of Minnesota, began as a ceramicist, later moving on to sculpture fashioned from heavy industrial materials and employing objects with a history of their own. His 1996 series, titled “Between the Maker and the Made, the Lover and the Loved, the Living and the Lived,” can be seen as a sort of marriage between his ceramic background and his future exploration into repurposed industrial leftovers. It’s a collection of large ceramic boats, most incorporating steel, rubber, and concrete, many of them resembling sarcophagi.
His 1998 “Heroic Vehicles,” a series of catapults and bathyspheres, was to follow, each piece bearing the kind of heady, enigmatic title usually only applied to tragic, 10-minute, instrumental post-rock anthems: Sometimes I Can’t Catch My Breath, Sometimes I Hold It. Or, My Refusal to Look Will Not Protect Me.
While Sunnarborg admits that such names have a way of coloring viewers’ interpretations, the names themselves are often quite subjective, and perhaps just vague enough to be universal.
Referencing a large catapult called An Attempt to Recapture the Breathlessness of the First Day, the First Kiss, Sunnarborg said, “I’m not the only one who has these thoughts—even though,” he went on, “I like to think I’m special.”
If he’s thinking them, someone else must be as well.
Earlier this year, Sunnarborg and fellow artist Alfredo Christiano (with several contributors, including a plant physiology expert and a software engineer) made a work called It’s so hard to tell who will love you the best. It’s a pressure-controlled, airtight bio-chamber that, through photosynthesis (for oxygen) and a careful monitoring of atmospheric variables such as humidity and temperature, sustained the life of a canary for one month. The piece showed at Artcore in Los Angeles and locally at Cuesta College. Sunnarborg was saddened when, despite the hospitable conditions of his habitat, the bird stopped moving. He took it out of the chamber and before he could determine what the matter was, the creature died. He still doesn’t know why, but he didn’t immediately rule out my suggestion that it died of a broken heart.
The chamber will be on view during Open Studios, as will Sunnarborg’s steel drawings, and new contraption: a candle that burns underwater.
Stop by 1137 Los Olivos Ave. in Los Osos during the North County Weekend, Oct. 22 to 23, and during the Encore Weekend, Oct. 29 to 30, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Abigail Gumbiner, Atascadero
“I never thought photography would be an art form for me,” said Abigail Gumbiner, local sculptor and awesome photographer.
But taking pictures of her sculpture changed all that, and soon she was photographing all manner of things, chiefly vintage cars and horses, which she’s attracted to aesthetically for their sculptural curves and textures. Gumbiner has an old-school approach to photography and a beef with programs like Photoshop, so she develops her photos in a darkroom and shuns any manipulation techniques. Her “Curb” and “Lust” series are fine examples of her way of looking at the world. She fills the frame with color and texture and beauty, panning out just barely enough to allow you to realize that what you’re admiring is actually a rusted-out hood, a horse’s rump, or spray paint left on the street by a construction worker.
Recently, though, Gumbiner has wrestled photography back to her home turf of sculpture. She now takes her images of shiny cars, manipulates them into strange shapes, mounts them, and declares them sculptures. The funny thing is, while the images have a matte surface, the subject of the photo is often shiny, making for intriguing, almost deceptive objects. You keep expecting to see your face in them, but often all you see is Gumbiner’s—partially obscured by a camera and a straw hat—reflected in the hood of a vintage automobile.
Preview her work at abigailgumbiner.com, or see it in person at 6852 San Gabriel Road in Atascadero during the North County and Encore weekends.
Studios on the Park, Paso Robles
Just to be clear, Studios on the Park is a physical place, a building with walls and doors, not an event in the park as an alarming number of people in San Luis Obispo seem to imagine.
For art lovers, the place is a factory of dreams. It’s a working studio for artists of many kinds, from ceramicists to photographers to encaustic painters. It’s open to the public part of the time, offers classes, and holds regular art shows and events. This year, seven Studios on the Park artists are participating in the tour: founder Anne Laddon, Frank Armitage, Nancy Becker, Heidi Franscioni, Lynn Kishiyama, Judy Lyon, and Rosey Rosenthal. See it all at 1130 Pine St. in Paso during the North County Weekend.
“The Open Studios Tour is the ultimate voyeurism into an artist’s life!” said Franscioni, an encaustic painter. “When else can you just walk into an artist’s private space and see how and where they tick?”
“Often artists will show work that is in progress too,” she added. “Unlike preparing for a carefully curated show in a gallery, I don’t have to edit down to a narrow theme or collection. Instead, I just present it as it is.”
Franscioni will show work from her collection “The Nest and Sacred Spaces,” a recent series exploring “issues of fertility and the beginnings of life.”
A mixed-media artist with a soft spot for Japanese washi paper, Kishiyama will show new work from her “Treasures” series, works dominated by geometric shapes in lovely golds, browns, and the occasional blue, like aerial landscapes with a touch of Mondrian.
Kishiyama, who enjoys collaborating with other artists, was the inspiration behind the current show “Plays Well With Others” at Studios on the Park. An exhibit of works created jointly by several of the studio’s artists, the show’s not an official part of the tour, but do check it out while you’re there.
Frank Armitage once worked as an animator at Disney—though the artist’s later work as a production illustrator for the science fiction film Fantastic Voyage, medical drawings for LIFE magazine, commissioned murals, and independent works are a far better representation of his style. Having undergone knee surgery that made it difficult to move up, down, and around large-scale works, Armitage now breaks his canvas up into smaller pieces, which he paints or sketches individually before pasting back together. The final product, some collectors lament, isn’t exactly frame-friendly. But having spent decades drawing to please clients’ and art directors’ tastes, Armitage does whatever he wants.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Open Studios Art Tour takes place over the course of three weekends: the South County Weekend (Oct. 15-16), North County Weekend (Oct. 22-23), and the countywide Encore Weekend (Oct. 29-30) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It helps to grab a catalog first (they can be found at ARTS Space Obispo, located in the SLO Creamery, or online at artsobispo.org), pick out the artists you’d like to see, and plot a route. Currently on display through the month at ARTS Space Obispo’s gallery is a preview show of works done in miniature by participating artists, called “6X6(X6)” after the exhibit’s required dimensions of six inches in every direction. A blog called OSAT Spotlight (osatspotlight.wordpress.com), new this year, also highlights different Open Studios artists and provides a look into artists’ tools, space, works in progress, and sources of inspiration.