Paint your valley
If you look hard enough, the Sacramento Valley is surrounded by subtle, natural beauty. Landscape painters seem to be discovering this for the first time.
It’s easy for local city folk to compare the horizontal Sacramento Valley with the voluptuous Sierra peaks or the curvy California coastline and feel helplessly inferior—Sacramento’s the one flat-chested girl at the party.
But if you look hard enough, the urban center is surrounded by a subtle, natural beauty. On the outskirts, the wild sunflowers bloom along the highway in the late summer, the city is blurred by haze, and the sky turns lavender at dusk. In orchards along the Delta, the sunny sides of ripening pears blush pink.
Since the early 20th century, a few painters have tried to capture the Valley landscape, its distinctive agricultural lands and riverbanks, but only on their way to Yosemite or to the coast. Historically, very few stayed in Sacramento to paint—until recently.
In the late 20th century, painters like Wayne Thiebaud, Gregory Kondos and Patrick Dullanty (who died in 2004) prepared colorful, stylized images of some of the most familiar Valley landmarks. Thiebaud painted agricultural crops as seen from the sky. Kondos painted boats on the river, and Dullanty captured the factories and industrial buildings on the river’s banks. All three taught younger painters how to look at the Valley for material. Kondos taught at Sacramento City College (SCC) for 27 years, according to his Web site. And Dullanty taught at both SCC and Cosumnes River College. Thiebaud taught first at SCC and then for many years at UC Davis. He still carries one class a year, even at the age of 85.
“There was a period of time in which UC Davis was one of the top in the world,” said local landscape painter Melissa Chandon, “in terms of the painters it had working in that art department.”
Painters like Chandon, who once trained with Thiebaud, are now seasoned adults in their 40s and 50s, and many devote much of their time to painting. They’ve begun to take art as seriously as they took their previous careers as stockbrokers or marketing professionals, even geologists.
But living here and loving this landscape isn’t always easy. It takes a unique person to prefer the flat Valley to the drama of the nearby mountains and coastline.
In “The Unbearable Flatness of Being,” written for SN&R by Ralph Brave in August 1999, the writer asked Thiebaud for wisdom about how to live on a flat plane. The artist called the Valley “exotic” and reminded Brave that the canvas itself was a flat surface.
“It’s sad, I think, that so many of us get involved in making our lives a kind of succession of nervous thrills. And I think that’s disruptive of what living in our heart is about—in other words, cooking and eating, making gardens and making children”—which Thiebaud also referred to as “standing on flat ground and not getting dissuaded from that kind of reality.”
If living in the shallow bowl of the Valley grounds us and keeps us real, then the new crop of landscape painters is helping us to look at the vanishing beauty of the area with fresh eyes. Scott Shields, curator at the Crocker Art Museum, recently noted that these painters have rejected new buildings as subject matter, concentrating instead on the surrounding fields and groves slowly giving way to developments, and on the city’s aged monuments, including icons like the Tower Theatre, which some consider as endangered as open space. Repeatedly, painters focus on the eucalyptus, almond and olive trees that break up the flatness of the land, and on the loneliness of one isolated manmade object—the huge water towers or grain silos—in a field banked by foothills.
Local painters tend to study one another and even to “dialogue” with one another through the images they choose to paint, which has sparked a lot of discussion recently on technique and subject matter.
That collaborative spirit is what led gallery owner John Natsoulas, who hosts a Sacramento Valley landscape conference at the John Natsoulas Gallery in Davis every summer, to claim that a movement is developing—in effect, a “school” of Sacramento Valley landscape painters.
This compelling river valley, seen by a generation of artists trained under world-renowned teachers, has sparked what Natsoulas thinks of as a distinctive approach to contrast and color. “It’s that bright, bright, bright white light,” he said.
Critics don’t necessarily agree. Even some of the painters hint that the whole “school” idea is something of a marketing ploy.
Victoria Dalkey, art critic for The Sacramento Bee, caused a stir this summer when she noted that Natsoulas’ most recent landscape show included few works that “explore new territory, either actual or aesthetic.” She referred to certain works as “distressingly derivative” and “Thiebaud knockoffs.”
Though Natsoulas disagreed, he relished the debate. Standing among the show’s four floors of landscape paintings, he pointed to an aerial view of crops that seemed to pay homage to Thiebaud. “The aesthetic, those colors,” said Natsoulas, “Wayne did that.” He pointed to a nearby riverscape. “And the river,” said Natsoulas, “Greg did that.”
But if the new generation of painters tended to share subject matter with its teachers, Natsoulas felt that it furthered his point. They all were addressing similar elements: the light, the agriculture and the distant foothills.
“Wayne Thiebaud and Greg Kondos don’t own the landscape,” said Natsoulas, who pointed out that everyone who flies into the Sacramento airport sees the same aerial view of the fields as Wayne.
“My argument is that it’s the place,” said Natsoulas. “It’s the spirit of the goddamn place.”
Dalkey doesn’t reject the idea of a school, but she urged caution. Many areas of the country have their own local landscape painters, she said, but they don’t all inspire art movements.
Whether there really is a school of landscape painters that will immortalize what’s left of the agricultural fields, riverbanks and groves that surround Sacramento, only (art) history will tell. But visiting the studios of five Sacramento Valley landscape painters proved at least one thing: The Valley is pretty enough to stand tall next to its impressive neighbors.
Melissa Chandon, a slender woman in her early 50s who looks like a polished professional even while lounging in her backyard, likes to head out into the landscape itself with a couple of other painters in the mornings. “I’m very, very fond of that early-morning light,” she explained. “There’s a haziness, a cleanness,” which changes in the afternoon. “During the middle of the day, the sun is so bright it’s almost blinding; everything sort of mutes down. There’s less contrast, more subtlety of color.”
She and her troupe decide what they’re going to paint by 7 a.m., said Chandon. They’re out in the landscape by 8 a.m., and they try to produce two paintings each before everything looks different by 11 a.m.
“The light here is really sort of amazing. It’s almost as if it’s polarized in some way: the colors that you see in the shadows; the richness of the shadows; the contrast of the crops as they change through the years; the dark, rich dirt; and the water for the irrigation.”
She’s fascinated by the local fields of safflower. “It’s a green plant, and it has a very bright yellow little blossom. And then, as it matures, it turns sort of a beautiful golden color, and then, just before they harvest it, it turns a wonderful sort of cinnamon.”
Chandon began studying with Thiebaud after Natsoulas convinced her to visit one of his classes uninvited. She waited outside, she said, until all the other students left. Then she asked if she could come and sit in the back and not say a word.
“I just felt like it was such an honor to be there, just to shut up and take notes was, like, perfectly fine,” she said. “But then he was like, ‘Come on, bring your paints. Come on, you can do this.'”
Thiebaud’s a great inventor, said Chandon. He urges students to change the landscape for the sake of good composition. She called it “editing.”
“He says, ‘Experiment. Try things. Work on different surfaces. Don’t be afraid. If it doesn’t work, take a scissors to it.'”
Did he speak passionately about the rows of Valley crops he made famous?
“I asked him, ‘How are you getting that view?'” said Chandon. “And he said he was most captivated by the levees. Forever more, whenever I go over a levee or over a bridge, I’m craning my neck to see: Oh yeah, it does look better from up here.”
Phil Gross, a former geologist and longtime feature in the local art community, looks, even while holding paintbrushes in his studio, like a tan, robust outdoorsman. He paints with Chandon in the evenings and sometimes travels with a ladder and a camera so that he can get inspirational photographs from a higher perspective. He originally thought he wanted to paint the Sierras, but compared with the Valley, he actually found them boring. “It’s already a postcard,” he said. “It’s done.”
Gross’ interest in the Valley began with his work as a geologist interested in the movement of tectonic plates under California. “We’re the front bumper of a plate, and for the last 200 million years, we’ve been scraping exotic terrain from another plate onto our plate, so we’ve got all this stuff jumbled together here.”
The Valley was appealing to him partly because it hadn’t already attracted generations of famous painters. It was vast, it was subtle, and it was lonesome. “It’s hot. It’s humid. There are all these lonely roads in the middle of summer with 105-degree heat. It’s all very subtle terrain, all the greens and grain colors. It had all this kind of hidden suggestion of color. It was a cornucopia of color.”
Like his peers, Gross was influenced by Thiebaud and Kondos, but he doesn’t believe that every painting of a river or a field deserves to be called a “knockoff.”
“I would love to do a Thiebaud knockoff,” said Gross, “but his colors are much more … extraordinary and wild.”
Gross finds that he returns to various themes over and over again. He likes viewers to feel as if they could walk right into his paintings and sense the vastness through an ever-disappearing horizon line. When he can, he lets the sun backlight his subjects, rimming trees and buildings with a warm, golden light in the late afternoon. It’s called “contre jour,” he said, working “against the day.”
Though he works regularly with other painters, he’s not sure if that makes him part of a movement. “We’ll see over time,” he said, adding, “I like the idea of being part of it.”
Pat Mahony is also influenced by the work of the painters who came before her, though she doesn’t join others for “plein-air” painting excursions. Instead, Mahony paints daily in her airy, well-equipped studio on the top floor of her home, preferring to collaborate through viewing and soliciting critiques from painters she admires.
“Sacramento has a wealth of talented painters. I can’t imagine a community that has more talented people and successful people and serious artists, but it’s a small community. So you see everyone’s work. You see it being reviewed. You see it at the galleries. You know most of the artists. … I would find it impossible not to believe that there was a Sacramento Valley school of landscape painters, because we’ve all been influenced by one another.”
Mahony, a woman in her mid-50s who left behind years as a stockbroker in favor of a painting career, finds that when other artists paint something, she sees it as material for the first time. She still remembers looking at Kondos’ paintings of local haystacks in the 1980s. The square bales of hay, “like a block of ice or a block of wood,” were fascinating, she said, but she never would have dreamed of painting them before.
“So, all of the sudden when someone else has done a crop of trees, an orchard, you tend to look at an orchard and say, ‘You know what? I see what he saw. I see what that person had in mind. I see those
shadows. I see the colors.’ It’s really an education in learning to see.”
And there’s a lot to see.
“Once you go across the causeway, once you get to the Sacramento River, you get nothing but landscape,” she said. “It used to be that if you went north of downtown, there was nothing but landscape to the airport. You go south to Courtland, you’ve got all the pear groves. South, you’ve got the tomato fields. If you look east, you tend to see more foothills and the mountains.”
With all that material, Mahony stays close to the
landscapes she’s most intimate with. After watching the seasons change the river over the years, she learned to paint it from memory, to paint with abandon, like a singer using her whole heart and soul to sing.
“I’ve traveled extensively, and always in search of new subject matter, new light, new circumstances, new inspiration—and I always come home to what I know.”
Roy Tellefson was a student of both Thiebaud and Kondos, and the two professors encouraged him to attend the San Francisco Art Institute, which he did in the 1970s. Slides from that time show a starry-eyed, longhaired young man sitting in front of large, frenetic landscape paintings.
Though Tellefson worked for decades as a drafter with the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, he retired in the mid-1990s and was able to paint exclusively for a couple of years before he died of cancer in 1996.
Tellefson left behind a number of landscapes in private collections and along the walls of his family home, where his wife, Sue Tellefson, reminisced about the couple’s regular Sunday drives looking for material to photograph and paint.
“Oh, God,” said Sue. “We went everywhere. We’d go toward Stockton, out to the countryside. We’d be gone for hours.”
The couple’s son Kevin recalls that those drives were a lifelong pleasure. Even as a child, Roy spent days riding through the rural landscape. “He was fascinated by the concept of the big sky. So, they’d be out in rural areas, and he would see an isolated building with the big sky behind it.”
“I always loved his skies,” said Sue. “He just wouldn’t do a blue sky.”
In an essay prepared shortly before his death in 1996, Roy spoke about his attachment to the land: “About 15 years ago, I realized that as a painter my interests were moving toward the Sacramento Valley landscape. I began to understand that I was being drawn toward something in the land that gave me spiritual fulfillment and emotional satisfaction.” That satisfaction came from his engagement with “the land and its symbols.” He wrote, “I do believe that we see the landscape in terms of raw archetypes of powerful emotions.”
Speaking specifically about our valley, Roy added, “Within the Great Central Valley, the most significant feature is isolation. We are overwhelmed by the space in, around, and above objects. Farm houses become overly significant because of their isolation within the total framework. The meandering shape of a tree grove or river levee can become a significant symbolic wonderment when played off of ground and sky. This is something we all have a collective experience toward.”
Did that collective experience secure the survival of all that open ground and sky?
“I think he recognized the value of the unadulterated environment around him,” said Kevin, “because he knew it was going to change.”
Diana Childress, a sweet-faced woman with high cheekbones and a disarming honesty, is primarily a pastel artist who spent most of her adulthood as a weaver. Standing in her studio among a stack of newly commissioned pastels, she mentioned that some of her woven clothes show up in John Travolta movies.
Like Tellefson, Childress’ early love of the Valley came from years of driving through it as a child.
“As we drove along, you’d see those rows of fields that would run by the car as you’re going by. I just thought that was fantastic. And the tall eucalyptus trees, and the windbreaks when you get up there in the fields.”
One of the ways her parents kept her quiet on drives was to ask her, “Do you know what’s growing out there?”
“Little by little, through that, I learned about what tomatoes look like in the field, or potatoes, or onions, or orange groves,” she said.
Childress, also in her early 50s, came to the Sacramento Valley to raise her son. “At first, it was kind of hard living here. I’d always lived in these really beautiful areas of California along the coast. But just in living here year-round, I discovered that it’s really beautiful.”
She now has favorite places. “One of them is Willow Slough, which is just north of the causeway. … If you
look north, of course, you see the railroad trestle and the bridge there. Beyond that, and between the county landfill and the dump and all that, is this huge, wonderful stretch of swampy land that’s all natural, and that’s Willow Slough. … It’s irresistible.”
Childress, with her one-room studio in Winters and her seven-day workweek, hasn’t participated in a lot of dialogue about the “school” with painters like Mahony and Chandon.
“I think that maybe this particular area, this part of the county, hasn’t really been portrayed in painting, so people who love this area are jumping at the chance to have something that connects them to that. … More than a ‘school’ really, it’s the community responding to me and all these other artists. We’re all educated enough now that we know our farmland is on the verge of disappearing, maybe is at risk. This is a way for all of us to hold on to some of that.”