Art & Culture Along the El Camino Real: Travel along the coastal route of the El Camino Real with writer Pedro Arroyo and curator Catherine Trujillo as they explore the rich and diverse cultural and artistic identity of San Luis Obispo County incorporating personal narratives, photography, art, infographics, and sound.
San Luis Obispo County is a landmark destination with a cultural heritage paved by the historic El Camino Real. The region is wrapped in a pristine landscape fastened on its history and arts, with a "SLO Town" ethos, described by locals as a slow-paced and relaxed way of life without the big city hubbub. This Royal Highway has brought thousands of people to San Luis Obispo County. Spanish explorers, Dust Bowl refugees, Chinese railroad workers, Japanese farmers, Swiss-Italians, media mogul William Randolph Hearst, beat poet Jack Kerouac, James Dean, Mexican film star Pedro Armendariz and architects Julia Morgan, Richard Neutra, and Frank Lloyd Wright have left their mark on the area. Most recently indigenous people from Oaxaca and Michoacan call the Central Coast home and bring their music, art and culture too. Today the region is a stronghold of cultural entrepreneurialism with urban transplants and long-time residents working together to enhance the cultural identity and history of the county.
The iconic El Camino Real provides a backdrop for some of the historic and emerging communities in San Luis Obispo County. The artistic life of the county is just as diverse as the region and its people.
A cross-cultural cartography of the region
Driving along Monterey Street, in the historic center of town, the "Live Music" sign leans in front of an antique store and seems oddly out of place. An artist in her golden years, Diana Domenghini holds court at the Antique Center which her younger brother (aged 80) owns in the City of San Luis Obispo, California. She is 82 years old, and still very striking. Her hair is worn long and styled. An artist and musician, she performs live music every Saturday at the Antique Center on a Yamaha keyboard.
A native of San Luis Obispo, Domenghini grew up in See Canyon and Avila Beach. Both her mother and father came to the region by way of the Azores off the coast of Portugal, like hundreds of other Portuguese immigrants. Encouraged by her family, she learned to play the piano. Music was all around her. Guitars and harps lounged in their parlor; Domenghini played waltzes on a player-piano while her family danced. She eventually married into a Swiss-Italian family and ran one of the last dairy farms in San Luis Obispo County with her husband. There she built a ranch called La Paloma (the dove) where they played host to many California dignitaries including Ronald Reagan and Bob Hope. The ranch has a small studio where she paints and teaches art classes.
Claiming no title or ability to track time, she has many occupations, many different lives. She worked for William Randolph Hearst during his reign at his coastal estate known today as Hearst Castle. She took flight training classes at Cal Poly's aeronautics department, during a period when the university was only open to male enrollment. Later, she pilotted a small, Cessna 206 bush plane for the County Sheriff. Casual conversations with her reveal her past jobs: Psychologist, musician, massage therapist, minister, spiritualist, rancher, and art teacher.
Eccentricity is not a job, but at this, she excels. Her spiritualist qualities stem from a childhood experience that has shaped her life outlook, and connected her to a world beyond. "My art and music is enthused by the out-of-body experiences I have had in my life," she explains. "I first learned about astral projection when I was in High School during WWII. I developed pneumonia and began to have this weird sensation that began simultaneously at my feet and my head and met at my center. I was taken to a place that was out of the world as I knew it. And the colors were like, wow" She sighs heavily and continues the story. "I was left for dead. They covered me with a sheet and took me to the cold-box at the hospital. That's when I came back. The doctors and nurses fell over in shock that I was really quite alive!"
Music and painting are her main passion now. In the Antique Center, tourists fresh from stepping off Amtrak wander up to Domenghini and she invites them to sing with her. She smiles broadly through her bifocals, encouraging the signing and giving them a double hug. She shares her sage advice for a long life, "I say 'thank you' before I even get out of bed in the morning."
Temple of the People in Halcyon
Chris Thyrring is a jovial man, busily readying the Temple of the People for a community Easter egg hunt in Halcyon. He wears a baseball cap with the number 93421 imprinted on the front, the zip code of this small South County township. Halcyon was established in 1898 as a Theosophist community and is the home to the religious arts and sciences organization, The Temple of the People. Thyrring has been a member for 41 years.
The Temple's motto is enshrined over the entry arbor, "Creeds Disappear, Hearts Remain," with a small measure of their objective to promote the study and practice of the arts, sciences, and the fundamental facts and laws on which the sciences are based. The most prominent work of art is the Temple itself, the Blue Star Memorial Temple. Built in 1923 and designed by architect Theodore Eisen of Los Angeles, it is named in honor of the Temple's founder Francia LaDue. Temple literature describes the building in arithmetical metaphors: "Like other sacred constructions such as Stonehenge, the pyramids of Egypt and México, the temple was built on lines of mathematical and geometrical symbolism." One of the key numbers used in the design is the number seven with their belief that seven is the key number of the universe. The building is a convex equilateral triangle shape with triangular windows, rooflines, and altars with numeric symbolism in every detail.
The Hiawatha Lodge, which serves as the social center, houses The Temple's permanent art collection, primarily by artist Harold Forgostein, who integrated Theosophy with Native American culture into his art. The walls of the social center include a series of twenty-four paintings depicting events in the life of the Native American leader Hiawatha, founder of the Iroquois confederacy. Forgostein was a deep student of Theosophy and the Temple teachings and served as the fourth Guardian of the Temple in 1968, until his death in 1990.
Music plays prominently in the writings and ceremonies of the Temple. American composer and pianist Henry Cowell became involved in Theosophy when he befriended poet and amateur musician and then-leader of Halcyon, John Osborne Varian. Cowell's music is featured at the temple, many of which he wrote during his time at Halcyon. His first complete opera The Building of Bamba, to the words of Varian, takes place in Halcyon, California.
Musicians and artists continue to congregate to the Temple. Internationally-known folk-art singer songwriter Ivan Ulz splits his time between Greenwich Village and Halcyon, and is a 40-year member of the Temple. Frequently performing solos at the Sunday morning "Feast of Fulfillment" services for the Temple, he says his music is very much influenced by the meditative non-denominational setting. "I drifted into the Temple post-60's and never looked back." Actress and playwright Jane Scott has also found inspiration from the Temple. She wrote and produced a reader's theatre piece titled "Voices from Halcyon" which depicts the founding of the community of Halcyon by the early Theosophists and the artists and spiritualists who frequented the Temple.
Poetry off the Beaten Path
Gathered in a small cafe along the Los Osos Valley corridor, poet Ray Clark Dickson reads a line from one of his poems, "Sounds I Forgot to tell Jack Kerouac." A nonagenarian with an artistry imbued to his voice, Dickson spent a year in Mexico City writing in the same circles as Jack Kerouac. His lyrical voice stems from his experience as a jazz drummer and leader of a 12-piece Big Band he formed during college at the University of Oregon. Cal Poly Professor Kevin Clark describes Dickson as a raconteur of the lyrical narrative "whose poems live in the improvisational git-go bridge between the elegiac basso and the transcendent alto."
Balancing a book of his poetry in one hand and gesturing his other in rhythm with his words, Dickson interrupts his own reading to share a recent conversation he had with his son. "My son called me and said 'Dad you know your poem Lady in Red is all over YouTube?' All I could respond was 'how in the hell do I wipe it off?"
These are some of the personalities and communities who serve as guardians and modern day cultural explorers of San Luis Obispo County. Next time, El Camino Real takes readers to the rural San Miguel studio of painter David Scott Settino, watercolor artist Tracy Taylor in San Luis Obispo, painter and political provocateur Mark Bryan in Arroyo Grande and meet David Gurney's playful Dia de Los Muertos sculptures in his Nipomo studio. El Camino awaits those willing to travel the road.
Top Image: Diana Domenghini.