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Judy Foreman: Artists in Residence Ginny and Garrett Speirs Are Not-So-Hidden Treasures in Montecito

Garrett Speirs begins Plein Air Tuscany program to give budding artists an opportunity to paint for themselves in Italy


On a recent afternoon, I found myself driving down an almost hidden private lane in the 93108 to the historic Victorian home owned by artists Ginny and Garrett Speirs.

The welcome winter rains had left the foliage lush and damp, and the almost forgotten sound of water running in the nearby creek made the setting all the more idyllic.

Residents of Montecito since 1998, the Speirses moved to town with their daughter, Siena, in tow, falling in love with the property that, according to Garrett, “no real estate agent wanted to show us because it needed so much work.”

But they were charmed by the historic property, with the two-story farmhouse built in 1878, and proceeded to make it their home. A son, Ben, soon was born into the family.

Both Speirses are working, professional artists in their own right. They met in grad school at the University of Georgia in Athens, where Ginny received an MFA in painting and drawing.

Ginny has painted furniture, murals, canvases and boards. Her subject matter has included fruits, vegetables, succulents, chickens and cows.

A recent addition to her artistic menagerie are dogs, which were inspired by the family’s most recent puppy. The pup — an energetic and adorable French bulldog named Méru — enthusiastically greeted me at the oversized blue front door, clearly thinking I was there to see him.

Ginny usually works out of her home studio, assisted at times by Ben, a talented young photographer who attends the Multimedia Arts & Design (MAD) Academy at Santa Barbara High School.

Garrett, a painter and printmaker who works out of a studio in Carpinteria, has been featured in shows locally and internationally and his art is in a number of collections, public and private.

He paints primarily in oil, but he works with a variety of mediums, including egg tempera, watercolor, gouache and fresco. His studio, SB Litho, is the only lithographic printmaking studio between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and he often hosts classes and workshops there.

Garrett was an instructor in painting and drawing at the Sawtooth School for Visual Arts, housed in a converted textile factory in Winston-Salem, N.C. He later became head of the school’s Visual Arts Department, which encompassed painting, drawing and printmaking.

More recently, he taught painting with the University of Georgia Study Abroad Program in Cortona, Italy, a part of the world he visits often to work and find inspiration.

“It took traveling to Rome to really understand history,” Garrett told Noozhawk. “I believe that as an artist it is important to understand your materials and their place in the history of art.

“There is no place better than Italy to be talking about and observing the birthplace of Western art.”

Garrett’s latest project is called Plein Air Tuscany, a study abroad program he started last spring in central Italy. The nine-day trip is ideal for anyone interested in painting, love of art, and a passion for Italian food and wine. (Where do I sign up?)

The trip is open to all levels and isn’t just a catchphrase. He said he most loves to instruct beginners.

“We break down certain aspects of painting to simplify the concept,” he explained. “So instead of ending up with a muddy mess, students end up with a sophisticated piece of art they are proud of.”

Garrett switches easily to the role of instructor.

“By taking things away, say color, we can just concentrate on the values of the landscape,” he said. “By doing so, the students begin to understand that the main component to color isn’t color, but value ...

“Painting is not unlike language. You have to use it or do it in order to be proficient. Nine days allows students to really make progress to the language of painting.”

Garrett’s trip abroad program includes direct study from nature and in-depth study of Italian history, including contemporary history that often can be surprisingly important in a country with centuries of heritage and tradition.

During last year’s trip, the group met up with an old friend, Marco Molesini, who, according to Garrett, “has a incredible wine shop in Cortona, where the class discussed the different attitudes we have in Italy and America.”

“In Italy,” Garrett said, “an Italian would never have a glass without food. Not so much here.”

And speaking of food, students can participate in a cooking class with a professional chef while in Cortona. Last year, Garrett said, “the class made local pasta called Pici, a hand-rolled Tuscan favorite.”

Living in Santa Barbara, it’s not uncommon to see painters and their easels set up around town. The definition of Plein air painting, for those unfamiliar with this school of painting style, is that the work is done through direct observation using open air or outside space.

“Most of us were brought up in the art world to believe the Impressionism movement was the first to pursue this,” Garrett said. “But actually it was the Macchiaioli of Tuscany who first painted outdoors through observation.

“History has mistakenly given credit to the Impressionists of France.”

Garrett’s passion for Italy is evident in how it has inspired his life’s work.

“Every time I leave Italy, as that plane or train departs, I start to calculate my return,” he said. “It has been that way for the last 32 years.”

Click here for more information about the 2017 Plein Air Tuscany program, or call 805.448.9166. This year’s program runs from April 25 to May 4. The deadline to sign up is March 1.

— Judy Foreman is a Noozhawk columnist and longtime local writer and lifestyles observer. She can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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