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Coastal Creativity: The Collaborations of Artist Suzi Bliss and Musician Vincent Bernardy

Painting by Vincent Bernardy of Suzi Bliss' lakeside studio.
Painting by Vincent Bernardy of Suzi Bliss' lakeside studio.

The Central Coast has many undercurrents of creativity, which coalesce divinely through the collaboration among local artists. Veering off into eccentricity and circling back to fuse art with song -- Suzi Bliss and Vincent Bernardy have built a mecca for musicians and fellow artists to congregate and feed off one another's artistic energy.

Suzi Bliss arrived in San Luis Obispo during the late 1970s as a Cal Poly Freshman, and fell in love with the Central Coast making it her permanent home. Armed with a degree in speech communication and teaching credential, Bliss amusingly remarks that her irrelative education fully prepared her for the arts and to start a business in interior design.

It was San Luis Obispo-based artist Tracy Taylor who shifted Bliss from interior design to the canvas. A hand-painted chair Bliss designed for her children's school fundraiser was the catalyst that brought the two artists together. "When I was a little girl I wished someday that wherever I was going to live as a grownup, that I would be surrounded by artists and paint among them," said Bliss. "Everything about Tracy [Taylor] was intriguing," continued Bliss. "I suppose that I am attracted to people who scare me. Tracy told it as she saw it." And it was this sway that Taylor convinced her to swap chairs with canvas and invited Bliss to paint with her at her Old Edna studio.

"La Playa" by Suzi Bliss.
"La Playa" by Suzi Bliss.

With her girlhood prognostications fulfilled, Bliss spent time honing her craft painting with Tracy Taylor and other locals. "People came and went and I never knew who would be there... but everyone was always ready to paint," said Bliss. "I loved the support -- sitting in the afternoon light, picking up on similar themes between our paintings and taking them in different but harmonious directions."

Inspired at an early age by her mother's collection of a Canadian cartoon called "The Shmoo," Bliss, as a little girl, spent hours creating her own version of these characters. She drew upon this whimsy later as an adult and worked with children's author Pam Copeland to illustrate the author's children's books, "I Liked You at Ten," "Just You and Me," and "Let's Make Believe." The illustrations were painted on large-scale canvases in acrylic. "My early paintings were a bunch of characters -- big mouthed smiley faces. I learned to draw first then fill in the lines with acrylic. But it is with oils where I really began to paint. My paintings just came off the canvas and breathed a new life."

Artist Suzi Bliss in her lakeside studio. The remote cabin overlooks Lake Nacimiento in rural San Luis Obispo County. | Photo: Catherine J. Trujillo.
Artist Suzi Bliss in her lakeside studio. The remote cabin overlooks Lake Nacimiento in rural San Luis Obispo County. | Photo: Catherine J. Trujillo.
Lakeside studio of artist Suzi Bliss. | Photo: Catherine J. Trujillo.
Lakeside studio of artist Suzi Bliss. | Photo: Catherine J. Trujillo.

The first public showing of her art was with Tracy Taylor in a small consignment shop. "Both of our work was sarcastic and all of the paintings had a humorous kick to them," said Bliss. "Sometimes painting funny things are an outlet for me -- laughing at things that are hard. When I look at the world through my art, nothing is truly that hard."

The female figure and women with strong personalities are often portrayed in her work and have a tendency to be depicted with a severe tilt of the head. Bliss shared why there is a proclivity for the off-centered nature of the head in her paintings. "Well it began when I painted too close to the top of the canvas and I had to either chop my subject off at the neck or tilt her head," laughed Bliss. Nevertheless she added, "I paint from the heart, that tends to also take root from what I am surrounding myself with externally at the time. Perhaps it is something I read by Rumi or music that is playing while I paint," shared Bliss. "My work has a different viewpoint, which my women take also to heart, so perhaps that is the reason for the tilt of the head."

Tilt of the head. Painting by artist Suzi Bliss. | Photo: Catherine J. Trujillo.
"Tilt of the head" painting by artist Suzi Bliss. | Photo: Catherine J. Trujillo.

Bliss is a nomadic painter. She has itinerant studio spaces peppered across the county. One remote studio overlooks Lake Nacimiento. Another is nestled in an old farmhouse landscaped with wineries to the south and old barns to the north. A third was in the backrooms of her downtown San Luis Obispo bed and breakfast, the Sanitarium. Her studio spaces are personal, wistful, and quirky. They are decorated with her own art, found treasures, and indubitably numerous paintings from her tribe of artist friends.

It was at her former San Luis Obispo studio at the Sanitarium where she and Bernardy began to collaborate creatively. Both hold an affinity for the obscure and a talent for making unusual spaces great -- filled with art and music. Interspersed with the Sanitarium's guests, Bernardy and Bliss would host pop-up living room concerts with art draped in the background of the performances. "The Sanitarium didn't have art shows or concerts per se. But rather a parade of new people -- who brought with them art, music, and new philosophies," said Bliss. "Painting under the harmony of musicians like Vince [Bernardy] is like a summit where opposite but not opposite come together. Kind of like an acoustical canopy." Because of Bernardy's musical roots and the artistic imagination of Bliss, The Sanitarium attracted a quirky collection of artists and musicians before closing last year.

Musician and artist Vincent Bernardy at Off the Grid studio of Blind Melon and Texas Light's, Travis Warren. His artwork is in the background. | Photo: Catherine J. Trujillo.
Musician and artist Vincent Bernardy at Off the Grid studio of Blind Melon and Texas Light's, Travis Warren. His artwork is in the background. | Photo: Catherine J. Trujillo.
Musician and artist Vincent Bernardy works with Travis Warren. | Photo: Catherine J. Trujillo.
Musician and artist Vincent Bernardy works with Travis Warren. | Photo: Catherine J. Trujillo.

Inspired by his experiences at the Sanitarium and his love of music and promotion, Bernardy began a new concept he titled SLO Tracks, a musical venue based out of Bliss' farmhouse in one of the refurbished 100-year-old barns. He started the project with an aspiration to enrich and inspire his community and people's lives through the positive power of music. "God gave me many gifts. I am trying to share them and use them for good," explained Bernardy.

Bernardy emerged as a rocker during the Minneapolis music scene in the heyday of the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, in the midst of grunge and punk. For the past 10 years he has lived in the Central Coast using the stage name St. Vincent Folk. His 2013 album "Moonlight Dream Bed" -- featured cameos by local singers Jade Jackson and Emily Wryn, as well as British singer/songwriter, Rumer. His album art derives from his own paintings and he sees many parallels between his music and art. "There are two different modalities," said Bernardy. "Painting is personal and music is for the people. Although music has a broader reach for me."

Detail of "Merrily Along" by Suzi Bliss.
Detail of "Merrily Along" by Suzi Bliss.
One of Vincent Bernardy's paintings at the studio of Travis Warren.
One of Vincent Bernardy's paintings at the studio of Travis Warren.

Consumed with working on a new album, Bernardy is steering away from the folk sound of previous albums and resonating with a more rock-orientated sound. Because of this switch he is working on the album's mixing and recording at Off the Grid Studio, founded by Blind Melon's Travis Warren. "Painting is solitary. Recording and putting down tracks is a different monster," related Bernardy. "SLO has so many pockets of national talent. I am blessed to work with guys like Travis and others in a sweet setting away from the big city hustle."

It is this type of network and crossover of music and visual art that has attracted musicians like Travis Warren and so many others to San Luis Obispo. "I was born in the Texas panhandle in a cow dunk town with no youthful music scene," Warren recalled. "When I came to back [to San Luis Obispo County] as a teen I was suddenly and for the first time surrounded by young musicians my age." This youthful music scene set the stage for Warren to find his tempo and join Blind Melon. After over a decade of touring his life came full-circle back to the Central Coast where he runs his music studio and formed his current band, Texas Lights. Warren still plays periodically with Blind Melon but is resonating with San Luis Obispo County's diverse music scene and its haven of artists. "Working with Vince I get exposed to more than just music," continued Warren, pointing to one of Bernardy's paintings hanging on his wall. "I get to see how music informs art and how it bleeds into my world."

"The Party" by Vincent Bernardy.
"The Party" by Vincent Bernardy.

The same passion that infuses Bernardy's music is also present in his artwork. Sharpening his painting skills while cranking out music, his gestural paintings hinge on an outsider aesthetic where art and music are interrelated. Local artist Mark Bryan describes him as "A random genius." Bernardy credits his personal aesthetic as having been developed from his years at Minneapolis College of Art and Design where he experimented with neon. His grainy and electric characters are placed within frenzied settings and are steeped in mythology and spiritual undertones.

Both Bliss and Bernardy explore the less-traveled road with their art and music but share the same sentimentalities with their artistic adjacencies. "Out of all the people I connect with, I don't know many who don't play an instrument or listen to music while working. Art is lonely enough without having to do it alone," explained Bernardy. These anecdotes say a lot about Bliss and Bernardy. The camaraderie they have built among the artists and musicians in San Luis Obispo share a common thread. They take their work seriously without taking themselves too seriously.

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"Merrily Along" by Suzi Bliss.
"Merrily Along" by Suzi Bliss.
Painting by artist and muscian Vincent Bernardy.
Painting by artist and muscian Vincent Bernardy.
"Goldilocks and the three beers" by Suzi Bliss. | Photo: Catherine J. Trujillo.
"Goldilocks and the three beers" by Suzi Bliss. | Photo: Catherine J. Trujillo.
Artwork by Vincent Bernardy.
Artwork by Vincent Bernardy.
Artwork is placed amongst the landscape at the studio of Suzi Bliss. |Photo: Catherine J. Trujillo.
Artwork is placed amongst the landscape at the studio of Suzi Bliss. |Photo: Catherine J. Trujillo.

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