San Luis Obispo shelters a small enclave of cultural theorists who put their ideas and dreams into practice through their artistic pursuits, community organizing, and quiet interactions with the county's natural landscape. Their stories are a source of rich depth and understanding because of the commitment they hold to the community, and their identifiable points of view. These artists and architects are of two-minds and many have collaborated on designing their habitats for artistic expression and production. Their collective artistic approach has resulted in building and living that are inhabitable installations.
Gary Dwyer - Polymath of Design
Gary Dwyer minds his personal archive by chronicling his life in book form. He has self-published well over twenty-two books via entities like iTunes and Lulu. Books whose purpose are nebulous subjects meaningful to him, but strangely fascinating to the reader. His recollection of the textures of his favorite sweaters is carefully preserved in his book called, Yarns. "The book is about tales sweaters tell." Dwyer says. "I organized the chapters in the book the way I found the sweaters hanging in my closet and instead of photographing them I laid them directly onto my flatbed scanner."
Another book documents his meditative climb of Cerro San Luis Mountain in San Luis Obispo, California. "I went from a Neolithic journal writer with an overabundance of sketchbooks and struggling to find clarity in the artifacts left over from my former self and travels," says Dwyer. He describes these artifacts as triggers: "We connect them to gunfire and explosions of feeling. That gun is usually pointed directly at us and it is why we keep these mementos in a separate drawer because we know they are live ammunition. It was a chaotic time and I was subliminally making a life-changing shift, all that while running up the mountain."
The thought is interrupted as Dwyer points to a counter of small souvenirs and personal tokens of past travels and recounts a story of traveling throughout Europe in an old VW bus with his family. The interview turns from the mountain story to Dwyer's heartfelt recollections of raising his daughters and the day he first laid eyes on his current wife. His stories, seasoned with dashes of personal remembrances and observations, brought tears to his eyes.
The archive of his accomplishments is vast. During a conversation in his small studio in San Luis Obispo, Dwyer lists no less than a dozen occupations, but neglects to include "retiree." He recently retired from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Department of Architecture and Environmental Design where he taught Landscape Architecture for over 30 years. "Everyone who reads my CV thinks I am 100 years old because I have had so many careers," he explains. Dwyer adapted his teaching to expand his courses to topics of urban design, graphic design, portfolio production, drawing and photography.
Dwyer's artistic ventures include photography, sculpture, and public art installations. It is here his talents fall into a trifecta of expression. Dwyer has been awarded several international commissions for his outdoor public art installations-- including a monument to articulate the site of an ancient spring in Limousin for the French Ministry of Culture and to design and construct a memorial for the last battle of World War II in Slovenia for the Eastern European Artists Union.
The Slovenian memorial is located near the Austrian border in the town of Ravne na Koroškem and is a 27-ton steel and earth sculpture. Dwyer recalls when he first was awarded the commission: "Yugoslavia was still a country in 1984 when I won the international design competition. The project was to memorialize the last battle of WWII which was fought in Yugoslavia five days after the Nazi capitulation and at least 150,000 thousand people died. I had entered the competition because I had substantial experience in park design, had competed in war memorial design competitions and had many years of working in steel, both as an Ironworker and as a sculptor," said Dwyer. He navigated his way through the language to direct the assortment of Yugoslavian ironworkers helping him with the installation by speaking "rock and roll English" communicating using lyrics from the songs by the Rolling Stones. The memorial was dedicated in 1985 on the 40th anniversary of VE Day, and in 2000 it was declared a National Monument by the Slovenian government.
Dwyer's sculptures and installations can be found throughout the United States including San Luis Obispo -- both in private homes and public spaces. Dwyer infamously installed a controversial temporary public art piece in Triangle Park adjacent to the railroad district of San Luis Obispo. The piece "Tuscan Column" a 10ft high cast concrete column was in response to the heavily bureaucratic process of installing public art in the small community. Dwyer's invitation for the public unveiling noted the event as an "Erection Ceremony," an innuendo to the entire permitting debacle Dwyer had to go through to get the piece installed. "By this time in the early 1990s, public art for me had been an extraordinary elaborate process without the returns I wanted."
The studio he currently works from is Dwyer's second purpose-built studio and was built simultaneously as he renovated the home he shares with his wife Odile Ayral. The renovation and studio was accomplished with a small cadre of friends and designers close to Dwyer. "The entire studio construction and renovation project was only possible because of the diplomacy, consummate craftsmanship and congenial sub-contractors of Skip Moss of Moss Design and Construction, in Cambria. Skip was my former student." explained Dwyer. The studio's central feature is a cupola with expansive skylights. A second cupola bridges the house and the studio. The space has a south-facing wall with no windows, which Dwyer designed so that he could prominently feature his photographs taken on his travels around the world.
Dwyer finishes his thoughts about the mountain, referencing many passages from his mountain book. One passage stands out:
"Quite early on, coming to the mountain wasn't even a conscious decision. The straightforward path, had indeed, been lost. Even though I knew about mid-life difficulties, I had been taught artists were exceptional and I bristled at the thought of being ordinary. I didn't do any homework about what happens in mid-life and I was just going to skate over this one, thank you very much. Sure, things were hard, but I had much to be thankful for. I am one of the fortunate few, having lived many years in the golden and green fringes of rounded coastal mountains. These hills have always been enigmatic to me."
Jim Bagnall - Illustrated Journey
Landing in San Luis Obispo in 1969 to teach design at California Polytechnic State University's department of architecture, Jim Bagnall chuckles when asked about his occupation. "I teach - that is my art," he exclaims. "First of all I am a teacher. I spent forty-five years learning how to teach. I think I am good," he pauses. "But I am still learning. I've taught hundreds 'how' to draw, but didn't teach them 'why' to draw."
Bagnall co-authored the beloved design book Universal Traveler, described by former students and many in the design field as the touchstone textbook for their creative thinking process. It is a cultish self-help book in the form of a travel-guide instructing one how to unlock the design process and generate ideas based on projects. Bagnall wrote the book in the early 1970s with his friend, mentor, and former colleague at Cal Poly, Don Koberg who he credits as being the creative publisher. "My experience as a graphic designer contributed to the look and feel of the book. But Don's work was the guts with his research and brilliant way with words."
Spending the past four decades shaping and sharing his design philosophies, Bagnall has a romantic alliance with the sketchbook. "I call them illustrated journals," he said. "Draw what you see, so you can see what you draw; don't sit down and draw -- draw when you sit down," are inspirational idioms he often shares. Bagnall imparts the importance of drawing every day and to do one's thinking in a journal.
When Bagnall speaks about his drawing and teaching, he casts a quiet but distinct energy, which draws people in close to anticipate on his every word. "I believe in drawing and writing -- adding in additional poetry or a scrap from a trip. Illustrated journaling sparks your memory more than any singular photograph can ever replicate." His sketching and journaling aid in Bagnall's development as an artist. "At one time I felt I needed to master gestures better in my drawing" Bagnall describes. "Well I started with my first practice gesture at #1 and go to #1000 until I felt that I had mastered the technique." He pulls out a collection of cigar boxes. "I needed to master beetles. I drew inside fifteen cigar boxes until the shapes and concepts were right."
A close knit community, many of Bagnall's fellow artists gather once a week for his "breakfast club" and "lunch crew," fellow artist Gary Dwyer being included in the lunchtime meet-ups. These friends gather to discuss artistic ventures or discuss their current projects, often times participating in some form or another in each other's work. Dwyer's sculptures are featured conspicuously throughout Bagnalls' landscape.
Nestled in the small neighborhood under the shadow of Cerro San Luis Mountain, Bagnall originally designed his small house with 1 bath, no bedroom. (Yes, that reads 'no bedroom.') "It took my wife Sandra getting fed up with me for not adding on before I finally did add on -- I added a guest room then the pool. The addition of the studio was built by Gary Dwyer's cousin." says Bagnall. The property when he bought it was a long narrow lot and had old barracks from Camp Roberts and a dilapidated greenhouse. The main house home faces the street at a 45-degree angle with jutted pyramid windows and a recessed living room looking out onto the garden. The front entrance is as far away from the street as possible, "I went with the Frank Lloyd Wright concept -- make them look for the front entrance," replies Bagnall.
The walkway leading to the main house and studio was originally made of decomposed granite but Bagnall's wife Sandra with her dance background, had the inspiration to design a "choreographed" walkway-- a path that guides you to certain spaces in the garden-- a lavender plant, a sculpture, or a view of the mountainside. The angles from the walkway mimic the shingles on the house and studio. Sandra Bagnall quietly adds her sentiments about the walk way: "Dance was one of those things that directs you in life." Both Bagnall and his wife share the top floor in the studio. What joins their two workspaces is a large inspiration wall filled with sketches, handwritten notes, clippings, pieces of fabric, and other artist's work. From the south end of the studio space Sandra Bagnall spent 15 years crafting a documentary film on Millicent Hamburger, a modern-dance teacher who studied under Martha Graham, titled "When I Dance." From the north end of the studio Jim Bagnall worked on his own craft.
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Bagnall's design is rooted in chronicling his ideas, travels, and life in dozens and dozens of illustrated sketchbooks, "I counted 78 journals, 79 if you include the one that I lost." How a Sketchbook Can Save Your Life is the title of a new workshop Bagnall presented to Cal Poly Alumni. Saves as in both a means for the preservation of your life's history and as a vehicle for salvation -- both driving sketching so you can understand what is around you. During the workshop Bagnall retells the story of John Adams' parting advice to his son in 1815. "A journal; a diary is indispensable. Without a diary, your travels will be no better than the flight of birds, through the air. They will leave no trace behind them. Whatever you write preserve."
Heidi Harmon - True House
The familiar Yamaha keyboard music echoes throughout the Antique Center near downtown San Luis Obispo. Artist Heidi Harmon is in the shop to speak with its resident entertainer and Jill-of-all-trades, Diana Domenghini.
Domenghini offered to do a walk-through of Harmon's newly restored Queen Anne-style home a few blocks away. The walk-through's intent is to clear out any lingering spirits who may still be tied to the house and require Domenghini's coaxing to leave this world for the next.
A cool, radiant, and fashion-conscious artist, Harmon has an unconventional approach to her art, parenting, and life in general. She is an assemblage artist who came into her art later in life. Harmon home-schooled her two children, the eldest entered UCLA's film school as a junior at age 17. Her assemblage pieces often feature discarded photographs of families; images of masculine and female stereotypes, and found objects - ephemeral remnants holding tight to their memories of rural decay.
Speaking candidly about her life and art, Harmon described her divorce from her first husband and subsequent awakening to becoming the artist she is today. "I've always been creative and sensitive to my own space. When I first lived on my own, after my divorce, I felt like for the very first time I was free. I had my own space - my own apartment - I was in charge of that space." Harmon's aesthetic is unparalleled in its creativity. She can carve out a feeling, a moment, a memory by combining vintage pieces with a theatrical bent. "I am constantly experimenting and constantly trying to stretch the imagination." said Harmon.
Friends and local artists who know Harmon speak of her tendency to push boundaries. An example is a body of work for her show she dubbed "The Man Show," a collection of sculpture and collage pieces that focus on men from the feminine perspective. One example is a piece she titled, 'He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins.' She is unapologetic in confronting taboos depicted in her work.
Harmon says that she emerged as an artist with the encouragement of well-established artist friends. "Many of my friends are artists-- and in terms of their influence on my creativity and my life in general-- they had a profound influence on my artistic trajectory from buying art to making art." said Harmon. Her house holds an assortment of her own art as well as other local artist's works, including internationally known low-brow artist Mark Bryan, watercolorist Tracy Taylor, and the whimsical artist Carol Paulsen.
Harmon and her winemaker husband Larry Brooks took a leap of faith when they purchased their Queen Anne-style house in the historic Mill Street district in San Luis Obispo. The couple restored the house close to its original exterior, including the bay window, inset wooden panels, and corner boards but placed a modern spin on the interior restoration with bold color choices and a fully modernized kitchen. The house, built in 1899 took two years to restore. "We bought it knowing it was an old house but not realizing the amount of work. Together Larry and I took our shared erudite interest in history to find a house that had soul." Their shared studio is behind the house and is a replica of sorts of an old carriage house made mostly from redwood.
Harmon eyeballs the placement of art on wall that holds a trifecta of altered art, assemblage pieces, and collectibles. "This is my style I just have to start and just make mistakes then start again. I am as abusive to the walls as possible," she laughed. Yet she tenderly places a vintage landscape between two of her assemblage pieces. "This is my husband Larry's addition. It is a bit like playing the game Operation between our two styles, but we are so fitted to one another intellectually and harmoniously, that it all just seems to fit perfectly together."
Harmon sees her house and studio has a gathering place-- a salon of sorts, playing host to their family and friends. "This space we created is social in nature; a space where we feel comfortable and happy and artistically fulfilled, all the while jointly curious to see what our future holds."
Arts & Culture Along the El Camino Real set out to document San Luis Obispo County with a new voice. What emerged was an operatic note about the love for our county. These residents, occupants, transplants to the county are deeply invested in their community and stitching together their stories has built a road with an ongoing mix of voices, opinions, connections -- a road of people's dreams.
Top Image: "The place of broken promises" by Gary Dwyer. Yugoslavia, 1984. The sculpture was declared a Slovenian National Monument in 2000. | Photo: Courtesy of Gary Dwyer.
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