By Virginia Campbell: Photos by Michael Garland
A lovely world unto itself, Santa Barbara, CA, is a small city on the Pacific coast 100 miles north of Los Angeles with a remarkable number of elegant, Spanish-style buildings. Hope Ranch is a lovely world unto itself inside Santa Barbara, with riding paths that wend through hillsides of oak, palm, eucalyptus, and pepper trees and homes whose views often include glimpses of the Pacific Ocean.
The home of Ed and Janet Sands, a vibrant second-marriage couple, is a lovely world unto itself inside Hope Ranch. And inside the Sands’ graceful house of Spanish and Mediterranean character are dozens of landscape paintings, lovely worlds unto themselves that draw the eye into their interior narratives after grabbing its attention with painterly surfaces, seductive palettes, and commanding composition.
From the worlds-within-worlds sensation you get upon encountering the Sands home—which is actually a compound with a stable, two cottage-size buildings, a pool, and a number of spectacular live oaks—you tend to assume this has all been here for quite a while. But the main house was completed only three years ago, built over the original 1927 one-story house. Ed, an architect, designed it himself, drawing inspiration from the mid-century Southern California architect George Washington Smith, who brought warm simplicity, elegant proportion, and an unerring sense of human space to a blend of Spanish and Mediterranean styles. Smith designed residences perfectly suited to art collection—lots of wall space, overhanging galleries, and reasonably sized windows.
In the Sands’ living room, a space that is large but feels intimate, white walls are warmed by a rich procession of paintings: three large landscapes, each with its own mood, together produce an unexpectedly coherent sense of well-being. “If this house caught fire, these are the paintings I’d grab—one, two, three,” Ed declares. In another part of the country, this statement might merely be the usual shorthand for indicating most highly valued possessions. In Southern California, though, houses have been known to burn down when the Santa Ana winds find the right spark, and Ed’s home in Laguna Beach was one of the ones that did in the disastrous 1993 conflagration that took out a whole high-end hillside. He lost a shocking number of precious paintings.
The landscapes Ed and Janet would save now under similarly dire conditions prove to be a microcosm of their collection. A brightly hued oil of figures against a stark Southwest landscape by the early 20th-century Taos painter Oscar Berninghaus has an honored place over the fireplace. “My grandfather bought that from Berninghaus himself,” explains Ed. An important part of Ed’s contribution to the combined collection was inherited from his grandparents and parents. His grandfather, born into a wealthy Michigan family, moved with his wife to Phoenix for health reasons and bought a succession of ranches, filling them with then-contemporary paintings. Ed’s father and mother continued that tradition. “My father was kind of a mercenary about it, and my mother was the one with vision,” he notes.
Ed, who grew up in Phoenix with all this art around him, continues to collect contemporary Southwest artists, and the second of the three largest paintings in the living room is an example: a monumental view of the Grand Canyon by Earl Carpenter. Opposite the Carpenter, and positioned to perfect effect over a dark grand piano, is a glorious example of Janet’s contribution to the collection: a brooding seascape of the rocky New England coast by 19th-century American artist Alfred Thompson Bricher. “I traded with a dealer friend of mine for that painting when I lived in Connecticut,” says Janet, a financial investor who was born in California and shares Ed’s appreciation for Southwest art. Yet she started collecting during years when a previous marriage took her to Connecticut, so several of her paintings are by early 20th-century artists from Old Lyme, CT.
In the entryway to the home, two knock-out Emil Carlsens (“I think of him as one of the first minimalists,” says Janet) hang near an oil sketch of a cowboy on horseback by Frank Tenney Johnson. In the library, a Joseph Henry Sharp painting of an Indian stretching a hide on pegs in the ground keeps company with a delicate pastel by Colin Campbell Cooper. Juxtapositions like these are the norm throughout the house, though the components shift because this is a collection in motion. “All of these paintings move around,” says Janet. “We’ve put them where we thought they’d work, then changed them. One or two of the paintings here in the living room have been roaming around the house.”
In truth, the juxtapositions do nothing but underscore the coherence of Ed and Janet’s combined collection because the paintings, individually and together, radiate an appreciation for the rich experience of art that celebrates place and artistry simultaneously.
Two of the three lynchpin oils in the living room—the Berninghaus over the fireplace and the Carpenter at the near end—are definitely not in the roaming group, and not just because they have found their perfect, permanent locations. They are lit by special projection lights placed between beams high in the two-story ceiling, each light having been sized to illuminate the exact surface of the painting it’s aimed at. The effect of such lighting is so unusual that, during parties, Ed sometimes good-naturedly tricks guests into believing that they are looking not at an actual painting but a clever device, and that if they keep an eye on the wall, a new slide will appear soon. Then he goes off to have a glass of wine and they stand there and wait, because the Grand Canyon does look lit from behind rather than above. In a house filled with carefully chosen felicities, it isn’t the Douglas fir beams and corbels or Brazilian walnut floors that came as a financial shock to the system. “The splurge,” he explains, “was the projector lights.”
The next splurge is likely to be a projector light that takes aim at the Bricher seascape. Competing for the splurge factor, of course, is the possibility of a new piece, since both Janet and Ed keep an eye on contemporary artists—they own works by Ken Auster, Kevin Macpherson, Calvin Liang, Elaine Coffee, and several others, and visit Santa Barbara’s Waterhouse Gallery as well as Trailside Galleries’ two locations frequently. “We’re looking for artists who have an individuality to them and consistent artistry,” says Ed.
It’s probably in the dining room that the core of feeling behind the Sands’ collection can be experienced most delightfully. The intimate space is painted a bold, warm Venetian red that’s at its best at night. Among the paintings are a vivid Walter Ufer of Native Americans in colorful dress; a large Bruce Crane landscape once owned by Andrew Carnegie; two mid-size paintings of the Grand Canyon, one by Earl Carpenter and the other by Joe Beeler, one of the founding Cowboy Artists of America; and a piece by American Impressionist George Bruestle. No matter where you’re seated at the table, you have visual access to two-thirds of the room’s artworks. All together they speak to the power of art to deepen the joy of daily life and the eagerness of one mind to enter into landscapes that are the creation of another.
Ed Sands knows what he’d buy next if he could afford any American landscape he wanted. “I’d like a William Wendt or a major Edgar Payne,” he declares without hesitation, quickly adding, “but people in hell would like a glass of water, too.” Neither he nor Janet are likely to suffer aesthetic dehydration if they never acquire a Wendt or Payne, though. They can invite some friends to dinner or just sit together in their own living room for the art equivalent of a tall glass of Pellegrino over ice.
Featured in April 2006