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Back to the Landscape



Ask longtime Humboldt residents why they live here, and chances are they'll mention the beauty of this place, the forests, farmlands and beaches, the streams and rivers running from the mountains to the sea.

That love of nature is reflected in our vibrant art scene. You'll see it full force this weekend if you take a North Coast Open Studios tour, or attend Saturday night's Arts Alive! in Eureka. Particularly if you go see The Humboldt School of Landscape Painting exhibition at the Morris Graves Museum of Art.

Arcata watercolorist Alan Sanborn put the show together, inspired by the wealth of local landscape painters with a common vision. "All the artists involved share, in one way or another, the same goal: to express their reverence for the natural beauty of the place they have chosen to call home," he said, defining this Humboldt "school."

In the beginning, he had a group of 10 landscape artists in mind; he asked them who else should be invited. The field grew to 19 from all over the county, with one ringer, George Van Hook, who now lives and works on the East Coast.

Sanborn sees Van Hook as one of the fathers of the Humboldt School, along with Jim McVicker, both among the first to revive en plein air work locally. In Sanborn's version of Humboldt art history, the en plein air scene took hold at a time when "the university art scene had grown in new directions with the addition of back-to-the-landers -- it was a hippie artsy time. And the landscapes here are just beautiful," he said, referring to the vistas as much as the paintings.

Sanborn asked participating artists to contribute two landscapes they saw as their best work. He wasn't too specific. He accepted work that might stretch the definition of landscape, for example Alicia Treadway's bold oil, "Red Canoes and Other Stories," where a river scene is inhabited by boats and a woman in blue. One of Sanborn's own watercolors, "Neukom's Plow," is really a portrait of a farm implement, but he says the orchard and fog-shrouded mountains behind make it a landscape.

The resulting show is multi-faceted, displaying the range of artists working here and the wide variety in our landscape. A panoramic seascape by Ken Jarvela grabs your attention as you enter the room. It fits right in with a bucolic vista by McVicker and the impressionist work of artists like Van Hook, Randy Spicer, Lisa Marie Waters and Terry Oates.

Why this work, and why here?

It's simple for McVicker, who says, "The reason I paint here is the same reason I live here." His wife, Terry Oates, completes that thought, saying, "I love to paint the Humboldt landscape because our environment is dramatically varied, beautiful and mysterious."

You get a sense of that mystery and beauty in the paintings they chose: for Oates it was two oils reminiscent of Monet, showing the way light falls on the Mad River. Along with a more typical pastoral view, McVicker chose a subtly dramatic scene, an orchard on a rainy day, the sky streaked by a rainbow.  

Says Jarvela, one of several painters in the show born and raised here, "The variety of weather, geology, flora and fauna is always inspiring and is the main reason I became a landscape painter. Every region has its unique beauty, but Humboldt County is special."

Dolores Terry found that beauty in a gorgeous piece that shows the light filtering through mossy trees on a trail to a Trinidad beach. Steve Porter saw it in a crashing wave. For Leslie Reid, it was the play of light on water riffling over river rocks. Judy Evenson saw it in the rock face of the cliff behind a favorite swimming hole.

Another Humboldt native, Eric Fidjeland, says he finds himself "drawn to painting scenes that reflect a sense of tranquility, of finding beauty in unexpected places, indoor or outdoor." His watercolor of a field scattered with pumpkins shows his fascination with light and its subtleties.

Plein air painter John Crater says he seeks "that thrill of a new stretch of country or an ocean coast, the way the sunlight rakes across it in the morning and the evening -- that's what I'm trying to catch." He does so in bold strokes of color that capture a view of the rocky ocean through a stand of alders.

Stock Schlueter has a theory about why local landscapes have a different look: "There is a quality of light here in Humboldt County that is a result of the amount of moisture in the air. Like tiny prisms, it's always refracting the light, changing it on a daily, and even hourly basis."

For Schlueter, the work is about telling the story of why we live here, "and how fantastic it is just to be able to see the wonder and beauty of the world. The rich colors of the sunrise and the somber tones of the human condition all merge into a single tapestry of tone and design. I grew up here, and I never tire of the beauty of this place."

The Humboldt School of Landscape Painting show runs through June 23 in the William Thonson Gallery at the Morris Grave Museum of Art. Saturday's Arts Alive! reception also will mark the closing of the Redwood Art Association's 54th Annual Spring Juried Exhibition, another opportunity to experience Humboldt beauty through the eyes of local artists.



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