BY ATHENA FOSLER-BRAZIL
Carmel-by-the-Sea is world-renowned for its great natural beauty, picturesque cottages, tree-lined streets and luxury vacation homes, hotels and golf courses. But what drew local artists like Will Bullas and Jan Wagstaff here years ago was the distinctive artistic community of the Peninsula and the creativity the town has fostered since the early 1900s.
After the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, many of the artists and poets working in the city moved away to settle in Carmel. Drawn by the natural beauty and quiet of the peninsula, Carmel-by-the-Sea quickly became an artistic community, and the Carmel Art Association, now located on Dolores and 6th in Carmel-by-the-Sea, was established a few decades later in 1927.
A long-time member and now vice-president of the CAA, local artist Jan Wagstaff came to Carmel looking for a place to reflect and develop her personal style, and though she was planning on staying only six months, she has now been living in Carmel for over 30 years.
“It’s quiet, it’s easy, I like to walk, look, hear, think,” Wagstaff says. “For me and my work, it was just kind of the perfect place.
This is a relatively common story, and while Wagstaff says many people don’t come to Carmel to specifically search the area’s art, they all discover it and end up staying for the same reasons.
Will Bullas, president of the Carmel Arts Association, came to Carmel with his wife from the Brooks Institute of Fine Arts in Santa Barbara; he quickly became involved in the arts community in the town, making numerous artistic friends and finding the community to be quite welcoming.
Monterey Peninsula’s appeal to creatives applies to aspiring and younger artists as well, and people of all ages are drawn to the picturesque coastline.
Lexie Hunt, a former CHS student and current assistant curator at the Monterey Museum of Art, speaks positively of her experience as an artist in Monterey.
“There are tons of galleries and shops in our area that display and sell local artwork, as well as a few great local organizations that support and promote young artists,” Hunt says.
Carmel Art Association employee and California-native Sally Aberg worries that the cost of living on the Peninsula is too high for young artists to survive on and that Carmel risks losing some of its creativity if things continue this way.
“It is next to impossible for a ‘starving, aspiring artist’ to remain living here, studying art, making art and relying solely on this for their living,” Aberg says. “It grieves me that this original artist colony of yesteryear no longer supports young artists striving to earn their keep from creative expression and artistic productivity.”
Monterey Peninsula’s history of art is rich and extensive and has been influenced by numerous other movements on the Peninsula and country-wide.
The CAA was created by a small group of artists who gathered in Carmel and established an association to promote art and cooperation in the community, as well as to secure a permanent gallery space. The first gatherings of the art association were at “Gray Gables,” the home of artists Josephine Culbertson and Ida Johnston.
The association was heavily influenced by the Carmel Development Company, which aimed specifically to construct lots affordable to artists, writers and musicians in order to cultivate an artistic community in Carmel. The creation of an art community was also aided by the Del Monte Hotel, which opened an art gallery in 1907, just a year after the San Francisco earthquake and the flood of artists to the peninsula.
The artists brought a variety of styles ranging from realism and traditionalism to modernism, with movements spanning California Colorist, California Impressionism and Plein Air. The majority of works produced in these Carmel styles were of coastal scenes and landscapes, both of which continue to be prevalent subject matter for California artists.
The CAA struggled in its first years of conception, and suffered even more when the Great Depression struck, and though the gallery space was closed for a time, the association never closed its doors.
Later, the opening of the naval base Fort Ord brought many families to the Peninsula and kept generations of people there, many of whom were drawn to the CAA.
Decades later, the association is one of the oldest non-profit art co-ops in the country, and still has a great impact on the community; they have fostered some extremely prestigious talents, some of whom have been recognized nationally as well as locally, including Armin Hansen and Salvador Dali.
Carmel continues to foster artists from the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California, artists who are attracted by the slower pace of the Peninsula. Aberg came from Berkeley in the ‘90s in search of peace and quiet, and found it in Pacific Grove, where she and her husband settled.
Wagstaff notes that Carmel is a safe and welcoming environment, where creativity is easy and opportunities abound.
“I think there are a lot of opportunities to show one’s work,” Wagstaff says. “There are a lot of places where you can work safely.”