By The Sea | Santa Barbara Galleries


By Norman Kolpas

“Can this really be a gallery?” I mutter to myself as my VW Beetle crunches along a gravel driveway into the parking court of a Spanish mission-style home. The Hot Springs Road address seems right. But I thought I’d find the Easton Gallery on some smart block of upscale shops in Santa Barbara. That prospect became less and less likely as I navigated the two-mile drive uphill past ever more remote gated enclaves from boutique-lined Coast Village Road in Montecito, Santa Barbara’s elite suburb.

With nary a soul or gallery sign in sight, I pick up my cell phone and punch in the number: busy signal. Giving up, I head back to downtown Santa Barbara. En route, I redial, get voicemail, and leave a message. Ellen Easton phones back a few minutes later. “I wish I’d heard your car,” she says. “A lot of people think they’ve come to the wrong place.” We make plans for my return.

Santa Barbara is renowned for its natural and man-made beauty. For over a century, the coastal enclave 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles has attracted top American artists, making it a focal point of California’s plein-air painting movement. Yet its entire art scene remains as charmingly laid back as the Easton Gallery—serenely waiting for visitors to wander along and discover it rather than grandly promoting itself.

Downtown, top galleries cluster around the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, a 1941 Italian Renaissance structure on State Street, the main shopping and business artery. Widely considered one of the nation’s best regional art museums, it features Greek and Roman antiquities, Asian art, French Impressionists, and American artists including such luminaries as Albert Bierstadt, William Merritt Chase, John Singer Sargent, and Georgia O’Keeffe.


Immediately adjacent, tranquil La Arcada Court typifies the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture that transformed State Street after much of downtown Santa Barbara was leveled by an earthquake in 1925. Gift shops, clothing boutiques, and cafés share the narrow courtyard ornamented by fountains. So, too, do two of the city’s leading galleries.

The first, a small space jammed with paintings and sculptures, hits me with a sense of déjà vu the moment I enter. That feeling comes not from the artworks but from the owner of Bottoms Art Galleries—or, to those in the know, BAG, Inc. I’ve seen his face before on large and small screens, going back to feature films like The Dove in 1974 and the 1978 TV miniseries Holocaust, not to mention, appropriately enough, the recent NBC soap “Santa Barbara.”

Yes, Joseph Bottoms is recognizable from his roles as an actor, a career he shares with older brother Timothy and younger brother Sam. (Youngest sibling Ben is an artist.) But collecting art is Joseph’s passion, long fostered by his father, sculptor James “Bud” Bottoms. A local native, Joseph and his wife Dianne established BAG, which also has a branch in the magnificent seaside Four Seasons Biltmore nearby. He didn’t so much want to become a businessman as “to share my love for the visual arts here in my hometown,” he says. He enthusiastically leads me through a lightning-quick tour of the boxlike space, which includes numerous small works by his dad. Entertainment and art neatly dovetail as he reveals watercolors by Gil DiCicco, who painted animation backgrounds at Hanna-Barbera Studios; nudes by Drew Struzan, who has illustrated posters for movies from Star Wars to Harry Potter; bronzes by Peter Brooke of the Jim Henson Company’s Creature Shop; and oil landscapes by Larry Iwerks, grandson of legendary Disney animator Ub Iwerks.


A few steps deeper into La Arcada, Waterhouse Gallery presents an airy, ordered venue for top-notch still life, figurative, and plein-air landscape paintings. Soft jazz and breezes sweep through the high-ceilinged space, perfect complements to works by the more than two dozen mostly California artists represented by owners Diane and Ralph Waterhouse, including John Comer [SWA MAY 04] and wilderness plein-air painter Jean LeGassick. “We feel they should be given a chance to make a living while they’re living,” laughs Ralph, an Englishman who himself is considered one of Santa Barbara’s most accomplished landscape realists. His own canvases fill 15 to 25 percent of the space at any given time.

Seeking a change of pace and a cool drink, I skirt the museum to Anapamu Street, site of Sullivan Goss, Ltd., which boasts its own shaded courtyard restaurant called the Arts & Letters Café. “I love the juxtaposition of galleries and eateries that you find in Paris and London,” explains owner Frank Goss in a rumbling baritone that would sound right at home on NPR, as he joins me at my table. Goss and his wife, Tricia Sullivan, founded Sullivan Goss 20 years ago in Sierra Madre, near Pasadena, and moved in 1993 to their present expansive location.

Their approach, emphasizing American rather than strictly California artists, sounds every bit as enlighteningly academic as that of the museum across the street. “One third of our business is cultivating collectors, one third is selling art, and one third is building a base of knowledge that places art and artists in their time,” says Goss. The majority of gallery staffers hold graduate degrees in art history and help him curate and mount compelling themed shows such as one coming this autumn on American portraits. This month, the gallery features works from Bo Bartlett, an acclaimed Connecticut realist who paints exquisite large canvases juxtaposing enigmatic human figures and desolate seascapes. (The Santa Barbara Museum of Art presents a major Bartlett show concurrently.)

Draining my passion-fruit iced tea, I head for my Bug and motor the few blocks to the Marcia Burtt Studio on Laguna Street. A rare plein-air painter working in fast-drying acrylics, Burtt—who shares the space with Pat Doyle [SWA APR 04]—warmly welcomes visitors into her workspace on weekends and by appointment. Guests can chat with the amiable artist and watch her add finishing touches to canvases begun overlooking a Santa Barbara shoreline that, due to a jut in the coast, stretches east-west rather than north-south. “In the winter, you can see the sun rise from the water and set into the water,” says Burtt, marveling at the area’s natural blessings.

With such blessings in mind, Burtt was one of 23 local plein-air painters who in 1986 founded The Oak Group, unofficially led by landscape legends Ray Strong and Arturo Tello. Since its inception, the group has held over 50 shows themed on endangered California wilderness areas. Half of the proceeds have been donated to organizations dedicated to saving those places, about $1 million to date. To help more artists make such contributions, in 2002 Burtt and others also formed SCAPE (Southern California Artists Painting for the Environment), which has already donated over $20,000.


The sun is setting over the water as I head towards my nighttime digs at the Montecito Inn. A romantic composition of white stucco walls and red-tiled roofs, it was built in 1928 by Charlie Chaplin as a retreat for himself and his Hollywood pals. Impeccably restored and updated to recapture all the casual elegance of the Jazz Age, California style, the upscale inn provides a very comfortable and convenient base for a night’s sleep. Art-lovers will find the hotel a sort of gallery-going experience in itself, as the foyer and hallways display beautiful vintage posters from Chaplin’s films. As the seagulls outside luxuriate in their most mellow habitat—Santa Barbara, after all, is known for having the most temperate climate in a state where weather has always been a draw—I snuggle into mine. All is good.

The next morning, following a generous continental breakfast, I stroll up the street, quickly gaining the impression that Montecito’s art gallery scene is as plentiful as Santa Barbara’s. Almost every business along eucalyptus- and palm-tree-lined Coast Village Road—including a hair salon, clothing boutiques, cafes, a bookstore, gift shops, an interior design studio, a tailor, a real estate agent—displays paintings with price tags!

I find three fully fledged galleries, too. There’s a branch of Sullivan Goss. And there’s Jim and Marlene Vitanza’s Peregrine Galleries, which juxtaposes select works by major American painters such as Edward Borein, Maynard Dixon, and Millard Sheets with antique silverwork and Bakelite jewelry. (They have another location in downtown Santa Barbara on Brinkerhoff Street, a one-block stretch of New England-style cottages that survived the ’25 quake.)

Maureen Murphy Fine Arts stands out most prominently. Presided over by its namesake, a Santa Barbara resident for 32 years, the gallery specializes in California Impressionists from 1890 to 1940. “Santa Barbara’s claim to fame is who died here,” observes Murphy with a wry smile. “Really famous artists like Thomas Moran, Colin Campbell Cooper, and Elmer and Marion Wachtel all came through, painted here, and moved here at the end of their lives.” One wall of Murphy’s gallery features such deceased artists. Facing them, across the gallery and across time, are works by prominent living Santa Barbara artists including Meredith Brooks Abbott, Glenna Hartmann, and even Ralph Waterhouse, whose presence is deemed no business conflict by either him or Murphy.

“The more art buyers you bring into the area, the better we all do,” says Murphy.

One more gallery awaits me. Once again, I drive up Hot Springs Road. I park in the driveway of the Easton Gallery, walk through the garden courtyard, enter the sun-filled single-story hacienda, and am greeted by Ellen Easton, as relaxed and friendly as you’d expect someone to be who is literally welcoming you into her home. She started the gallery 15 years ago at the suggestion of Marcia Burtt. With her four children now grown and gone, one spacious room of the house is exclusively gallery, and both the sun porch/foyer and the living room also double as exhibition space. “This is an unorthodox way to display art,” she laughs. “It’s a very casual gallery.”

Casual, yes, but nonetheless serious. Easton has assembled a group of distinguished local artists—including Ray Strong, Arturo Tello, Whitney Abbott (Meredith’s daughter), Patricia Hedrick, John Iwerks (Larry’s brother), and Michael Enriquez—who enthusiastically execute original works for her smart, locally themed exhibition concepts. “I was born and raised here,” she says. “My love of the gallery and the art is much more based on my love of this land and this landscape.”

We say goodbye. As I drive back down towards Montecito, then reluctantly head south on Highway 1 toward L.A., I realize that the laid-back attitude to art in Santa Barbara comes out of such quiet, sure truths as Easton’s: that this particular region possesses a singular beauty that speaks for itself, a powerful draw that does not need to be flashily promoted to gain devoted support from artists, gallery owners, and collectors.

Featured in June 2004