Ranchos Painting Project | Ellen Easton Gallery

Marcia Burtt, The Tack Room, Santa Rosa Island, acrylic, 30 x 30. painting, southwest art.
Marcia Burtt, The Tack Room, Santa Rosa Island, acrylic, 30 x 30.

By Bjorn Rye

The Ranchos painting project was organized by Ellen Easton of Easton Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA, and evolved into a book published last year. Excerpted here are portions of Easton’s introduction and artist Bjorn Rye’s history of the ranchos. The book, which has 124 illustrations, 97 in color, is available through Easton Gallery, 805.969.5781.

The following artists participated in the Ranchos project:  Meredith Abbott, Whitney Brooks Abbott, Donald Archer, Joseph Areno, Phoebe Brunner, Marcia Burtt, Reef and John Comer, Joellyn Duesberry, Bill Dewey, Michael Drury, Karen Foster, William Foster, Glenna Hartmann, John Iwerks, Larry Iwerks, Patty Look Lewis, Hank Pitcher, Bjorn Rye, Rick Schloss, Ray Strong, and Arturo Tello.

Between 1795 and 1846 the governors of Alta California approved approximately 40 grants for ranches in what is now Santa Barbara County. Today these vast tracts have been broken up and a few have been transformed by development—but what has been lost is perhaps less surprising than what remains. Many of the original adobe ranch houses still stand in the groves of shade trees planted when they were built; many of the ranches still hold something of their original configuration and feel. Ranching remains important in the county economically, as a characteristic way of life, and as a living, continuing legacy of Santa Barbara’s Hispanic past.

Bjorn Rye, Fog Rolling In, Punta de la Concepcion, oil, 20 x 30. painting, southwest art.
Bjorn Rye, Fog Rolling In, Punta de la Concepcíon, oil, 20 x 30.

Above all, the land remains, and it is celebrated in these paintings the rolling, grass-covered hills etched by livestock paths; the sycamore-shaded ravines where at midday shaggy cattle stand twitching their tails lazily in the green shade; the rugged, wind-swept, fog-bound coastal shelf; the sun-baked, oak-studded foothills and valleys; the spicy, chaparral-scented back country; and the remote pine-covered peaks where the California condor again soars.

Two hundred years ago these hills and valleys were almost as wild as they were at the dawn of time. Chumash villages dotted the coastline, and the pueblo of Santa Barbara was no more than a ramshackle collection of huts clustered around the Presidio. A hundred years later much of the land was divided and fenced, thousands of years of Indian culture had withered almost without a trace, and Santa Barbara had become an ambitious American city of typical wooden storefronts and brick commercial blocks.

John Comer, Cuyama Ranch, oil on panel, 18 x 36. painting, southwest art.
John Comer, Cuyama Ranch, oil on panel, 18 x 36.

Between lies the brief, often romanticized period of “Old California”; a few decades during which three successive waves of domination washed over this remote coast as the Spanish overwhelmed the ancient Indian culture, the Spanish were themselves displaced by a populist revolution in Mexico, and Mexican rule crumbled before the territorial ambitions of an expanding United States. Old California was over almost before it began. Within the span of a single lifetime from their founding, the missions had fallen into disrepair, the old pueblos had all but disappeared, and the wealthy rancheros of the original Hispanic families had been replaced by the grandees of a new order—wealthy industrialists who wintered in Santa Barbara and gave fanciful Spanish names to their self-consciously picturesque, ferro-concrete “haciendas.”

Arturo Tello, Meeting of the Waters, Guadelupe Ranch, oil on canvas, 14 x 18. painting, southwest art.
Arturo Tello, Meeting of the Waters, Guadelupe Ranch, oil on canvas, 14 x 18.

Working ranches still cover the inland valleys and coastal shelf, and when a winding dirt lane leads you under ancient oaks to an old ranch house, it is more than a little like entering another century. A television antenna may scratch at the sky and the original adobe may be sheathed in peeling clapboard, but still an old yellow dog slouches out to meet you, chickens peck in the dust, and horses turn their heads from the home pasture to watch. When you cut your car motor you hear, in the sudden silence, the shrill, resonant cry of a hawk circling overhead.

This feeling of timelessness is an almost eerie experience when it comes—a rare and valuable moment when perhaps we come nearest to sensing the past as a constant, continuing present. It is, in part, to achieve this fleeting gift of comprehension that we study the past. And it is this gift unsentimental at its best—that the paintings of the Ranch Project, taken together, offer us.

Featured in September 1997