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Santa Barbara County Arts Commission to Showcase ‘Threshold’ Photo Exhibit

Artists Michele Simonsen and Tim Web capture light flowing through the waters of North California's Trinity River

What happens when light and water touch? The Santa Barbara County Arts Commission answers that question with “Threshold,” an evocative exhibition of water-themed photography by Allan Hancock College film and video instructors Michele Simonsen and Tim Webb opening Jan. 30 in the Channing Peake Gallery, on the first floor of the county Administration Building, 105 E. Anapamu St. in Santa Barbara.

A reception for the artists will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. on 1st Thursday, Feb. 2 in the gallery. The reception and exhibition are open to the public.

“Threshold” explores the beauty of light flowing through water in the Trinity River in Northern California. Over the years, the couple have taken hundreds of images of the river. Simonsen traces the lure of the Trinity River back to her childhood when her parents purchased property on the river. She and Webb met when he moved to Arcata after college graduation. They discovered a shared a love of photography and filmmaking, and she introduced him to the Trinity River.

Though born in Chicago, Webb grew up in Santa Barbara and loved the ocean from an early age, spending many hours surfing and diving along the Central Coast. He also discovered a fascination with photography, always having a camera close at hand and spent many evenings in the darkroom. In 1988, Webb graduated from American University in Washington D.C., with a degree in international relations. While at American University, he studied Chinese politics as an exchange student in China. He also studied Central American politics at the University of Costa Rica.

Simonsen received a bachelor’s degree in art history from Humboldt State University. Before completing her degree, she traveled to Africa to take photographs, attracted by the light and the cultural history and politics of Southern Africa. She was particularly influenced by the work of photographer Minor White, who emphasized the spiritual aspect of light and the image.

After earning her degree, she joined a documentary film crew to record Namibia’s fight for independence from South Africa. Acting as cinematographer, photojournalist and co-director of the film changed her direction in the arts and led to her acceptance into a master’s degree program in film production at San Francisco State University.

Webb also attended graduate school at San Francisco State, and the couple collaborated on several films, including a thesis, Nonessential Species, which chronicled the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park. During breaks from graduate school, they would escape the city and the technology of filmmaking with tranquil visits to the Trinity River property, where they took dozens of photographs exploring personal themes through portraiture and experimental photography.

After obtaining their graduate degrees in 2000, both husband and wife taught at Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore, Southeast Asia’s only film school and while there, they explored many nearby islands. It was in Malaysia where they first took their cameras into the water and began exploring the beauty of light flowing through water.

Upon their return to the United States in 2002, they began this same exploration in the temperate waters of the Trinity and other Northern California rivers. Webb uses natural light and a Nikonos III, an older 35mm underwater camera that uses traditional film, to capture the experimental underwater landscapes in both black and white and color. The couple have spent countless hours under and over the river to capture otherworldly light and motion as Simonsen moves weightlessly in the cool waters. The ongoing project has been a family affair since 2002 when the couple’s daughter, Ula, was born. The family makes a yearly pilgrimage to the Trinity, and Ula is a subject in many of the images.

The exhibition, free to the public, will be available for viewing from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday from Jan. 30 to April 13.

At 6 p.m. March 1, Simonsen and Webb will conduct a walk-through gallery talk. At 6 p.m. April 5, Paul Willis, city poet laureate, will organize a poetry reading with Santa Barbara poets in the Hearing Room adjacent to the Channing Peake Gallery in the County Administration Building.

— Rita Ferri represents the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission.

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