If every picture tells a story, a library’s worth of books was written last month in the undulating seas off the South Coast. The occasion was the third annual “Painting the Channel Islands with David Gallup” — a field trip sponsored by his Camarillo art studio. I accompanied them aboard Truth Aquatics’ vessel Conception.
Santa Barbara Island was our first destination. The routine was set from the first morning: Paint supplies rolled out soon after breakfast, and the deck was strewn with an eclectic mixture of wet paint and wetsuits, easels and kayaks. Afternoons were similar to mornings, except that painters hit the water or the trail and recreationists grabbed their paintbrushes. With a couple of divers and fishers among the group, we enjoyed white fish sashimi some evenings.
Sometimes the artists gathered around Gallop’s easel for an informal lesson; other times they helped one another with incisive questions and comments. They immersed themselves in studying the natural world, from the dramatic geology of the rocks to the nighttime show of luminescent flying fish. They — we — snorkeled under the curious and watchful eyes of sea lions.
My role was to help give them context for their art. In bits and pieces, on island hikes and dinner conversations, I shared perspectives on the natural history, archaeology and history of the islands. I helped them see beneath the surface — volcanic rocks never connected to the mainland; severely beautiful hillsides eroded by generations of ranch animal grazing, island fox paw prints pressed stealthily into our own footprints. The plants and animals offered themselves up as live lessons in botany and marine biology.
The artists drank in each site appreciatively, reading the landscape intuitively. They saw beauty in just about everything — even the invasive iceplant I encouraged them to see as “ugly.” Though I think of myself as pretty art-challenged, I felt a kinship with the artists. Telling them stories of the islands’ past felt more like unearthing what they already knew.
As I hung out with the group, peering over shoulders and asking questions, I absorbed lessons about the painting process, from framing a scene to tones and mixing colors. One artist, Mary-Gail King of Camarillo, set me up with watercolors and paper and encouraged me to move beyond watching to creating. By the end I had five little watercolors to bring home to my husband.
On the final morning I awoke in my narrow bunk before dawn. I rose to the deck to sit alone in the salty darkness, watching silently as Santa Rosa Island slowly emerged. At first it was a barely discernible outline. Then it morphed into a backlit, textured shape, and finally a striated sandstone surface flecked with gray-green chaparral. Though I’ve spent considerable time here in the past decade, I felt like I was seeing it for the first time.
Left and right brains met there on the Channel Islands; it felt like a natural fusion. As long as naturalists reach for answers, artists will search out and expose the continuing mysteries around us, revealing new ways to look at nature that challenge what we thought we knew to be the truth.
— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com).