Greener Palettes

Tomales Bay Shadows by Zenaida Mott. painting, southwest art.

Tomales Bay Shadows by Zenaida Mott

By Norman Kolpas

Until recently, blue-gum eucalyptus trees threatened to take over the idyllic Oakwood Valley, the largest unspoiled woodland area of California bay trees and coastal live oaks. The valley, which is part of the San Francisco area’s Golden Gate National Parks, is now being saved by the removal of those Aussie invaders and the replanting of native species.

Across the bay, along the Carquinez Straits, Monarch butterflies now thrive again in breeding and nesting grounds that had been lost to deforestation and industrial development but are now being restored and closely monitored. Meanwhile, 300 miles to the south, the beautiful Carpinteria Bluffs area one of the few remaining open spaces along the Southern California coastline has recently been whisked away from developers who had long been eyeing the spot. Now, it will remain shoreline accessible to the public.

These three environmental triumphs share an important characteristic: They were all made possible in part by the efforts of dedicated groups of artists who not only raised public consciousness about the causes through their paintings of threatened areas but also donated part of the proceeds from the sales of those works.

River Shed by Nikki Basch-Davis. painting, southwest art.
River Shed by Nikki Basch-Davis

There’s a simple yet profound logic behind artists championing “green” causes. “When you paint the land around you, you develop a relationship with that environment, and you feel called upon to act if that environment is threatened,” says Judy Molyneux. She is a member of the Outsiders, a group of seven San Francisco Bay-area artists who have helped lead the fight to save the Carquinez Straits. Rampant development in the once-unspoiled East Bay couldn’t help but lead them to activism, adds fellow member Nikki Basch-Davis. “We paint a lot up in the Berkeley Hills incredible views that are suddenly gone. When I have to knock on somebody’s front door to ask if I can paint my landscape from their back porch, something is wrong here.”

One of the first artists’ groups to start stemming the tide of development was the Oak Group in Santa Barbara. The group held its first show, Endangered Landscapes, at the local Museum of Natural History in May 1986, followed just two months later by Vanishing Views at the Cabrillo Art Center. Through continued efforts, the 24-member Oak Group has donated more than $700,000 over the past 14-plus years to a wide range of environmental concerns.

As important as the money they donate, say members of these artist-environmentalist groups, is the awareness their shows help build. “Our exhibitions draw public attention to the need for open space or for habitat restoration,” explains Zenaida Mott, one of the BayWood Artists whose contributions are helping to save the Oakwood Valley. Founded just three years ago, inspired by the Oak Group and by Bay-area arts patron Mary Welch, the 12-member group has also held exhibits to benefit such causes as Hawthorn Canyon, a Marin County area threatened by subdivision development; Bolinas Lagoon, a critical national wildlife and wetlands sanctuary; and Fish Friendly Farming, an organization that promotes environmentally responsible farming and vineyard practices.

It’s not surprising that California artist groups are leading the way the state’s landscape and climate have always attracted artists, and it has a long history of social and environmental activism. But groups of aware artists everywhere, from the Southwest to New England, are taking similar action.

One example is a group of 15 plein-air painters, organized by Sedona, AZ, artist Curt Walters, who took a painting/rafting trip through the Grand Canyon in September 1999 [swa feb 00]. Each artist pledged to donate two works from the trip to the Grand Canyon Trust, which helps protect the natural beauty of the canyon region. Trust officials will keep half of the donated works and auction the other half Walters expects that proceeds from these sales could reach $100,000. He would surely agree with Glenna Hartmann, one of the Oak Group artists, who says, “It makes us feel good to know that as a group of artists we can really make a concrete contribution to what we believe in.”

Featured in September 2000