Montaña de Oro: San Luis Outdoor Painters for the Environment Go For Gold

Julie Dunn, "Montaña de Oro State Park."

"I go speechless when I think of Montaña de Oro. It's like magic," said Marguerite Costigan, poet, painter and emeritus member of San Luis Outdoor Painters for the Environment.

"From any vantage point in the park you can see where water and land interact in a sometimes amazing, violent way -- producing scenes that are so beautiful you want to go screeeam when you look at them," Costigan said, stretching her vowels out in ecstasy.

Her enthusiasm for Montaña de Oro State Park south of Los Osos is echoed by the other members of SLOPE, a group of local landscape artists dedicated to safeguarding the natural splendor of the Central Coast. For them, the park, known across California for its spectacular scenery, represents a special kind of wildness.

"It's still a very unspoiled, natural park," said SLOPE president Denise Schryver, who lives in Atascadero.

The group marks the park's 50th anniversary with the exhibition "A Visual Celebration: Montaña de Oro," running Feb. 4 through March 25 at the Morro Bay Museum of Natural History. A portion of proceeds from the tribute show and sale will benefit the Central Coast State Parks Association, a nonprofit organization that works in partnership with California State Parks to promote public awareness and stewardship of the region's natural resources and cultural heritage.

"It's really important for the Central Coast to be preserving the land now," said SLOPE emeritus member Dotty Hawthorne, "because later it will be too late."

Templeton artist Bruce Everett paints in Montaña de Oro State Park. | Photo: Courtesy of San Luis Outdoor Painters for the Environment.

According to Cayucos landscape artist Elizabeth "Libby" Tolley, who co-founded SLOPE with Templeton painter Karen Foster-Wells in 1993, the group is part of a decades-old tradition of environmental activism through art.

The Oak Group, a Santa Barbara-based group of outdoor painters founded in 1986, works with landowners and conservation groups to save some of that county's endangered landscapes from development. And Southern California Artists Painting for the Environment, which is also headquartered in Santa Barbara, has been working to protect open spaces since 2002.

Tolley first encountered the concept when she was hired by Pacific Gas and Electric to document the beauty of the Pecho Coast Trail, which takes hikers within sight of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near Avila Beach. Nancy Warner of The Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County served as her guide.

"While we were taking these incredible walks, I was learning so much," Tolley recalled. "Nancy would help me. She would describe every little bug and every little leaf as I was looking for places to paint."

It was Warner who encouraged Tolley to look into the Oak Group. "I could see how a group of painters could make a difference," said the painter, who was also struck by the sense of camaraderie and community she witnessed. "What I thought was, 'Here are people who can work together'... They all seemed very friendly with each other, supporting each other."

Deborah Veldkamp, "Morning Gold on the Cove."

SLOPE currently has about a dozen active members, and several emeritus members who remain in contact with the group, Schryver said. All are professional artists working in the California plein air tradition who share an active interest in promoting and preserving the beauty of the Central Coast.

"A lot of people love this area, and the reason they love it is the way it looks," Schryver explained.

Costigan, one of SLOPE's earliest acolytes, said the organization's philosophy "matches what the landscape means to me and to the artists in the area." The San Luis Obispo County poet laureate was one of seven local authors who explored the theme of "paradise in peril" in the 2008 poetry collection "Poems for Endangered Places"; she also painted the lush landscapes that grace the book's cover and pages.

Templeton painter Bruce Everett joined SLOPE in 2008, about a year after he moved to San Luis Obispo County. "I was really happy to have a readymade community of artists that I could relate to," he said, especially those who shared his interest in the natural world.

Peggy Turk, "Evening Gold at Montaña de Oro."

"Being a landscape painter, I'm naturally tied to the environment wherever I am," Everett said. "I've lived to see so many places plowed under or developed without any appreciation for the naturalness of the spot." 

"To some extent, we're all conservationists, us landscape painters," he continued. "It's a symbiosis. You have to continue to be an artist and continue to save the environment as best you can."

Since its inception, SLOPE has used art as a way to attract attention to local landscapes and to raise money to preserve those sites as open space, wildlife habitat and farming, ranching and recreation areas.

SLOPE held its first group "paint-out" in May 1993 at Sur Sur Ranch at Ragged Point, just south of the border between Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties. The resulting paintings were displayed at the U.S. Forest Service Office in Goleta, then at the Rayburn House Office Building and the U.S. Forest Service's national headquarters in Washington, D.C., reaching new audiences each time.

Bruce Everett, "Winter Surge."

It's unclear what role the SLOPE show ultimately played in the government's decision to purchase Sur Sur Ranch and nearby Ventana Ranch. But the group undoubtedly drew more attention to property that later became part of Los Padres National Forest.

"All this glorious land... could have been sold for residences," Tolley said. "To drive by there [now] and know that land is open -- that's pretty cool."

Over the past two decades, SLOPE worked with local nonprofits including the California Rangeland Trust, the Environment Center of San Luis Obispo County and Small Wilderness Area Preservation to safeguard many of the Central Coast's most treasured spots -- from Carrizo Plain National Monument to the Morro Bay estuary to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes

In 2014, for instance, the painters helped the county Land Conservancy raise more than $12 million to purchase 900 acres of private ranchland above Pismo Beach and set them aside as the Pismo Preserve. (Not all of SLOPE shows have focused on natural landmarks; the group has also highlighted local wildlife and showcased manmade structures such as the Point San Luis Lighthouse and the Octagon Barn in San Luis Obispo.)

"We get to paint in a lot of wonderful places that we wouldn't be able to get to otherwise," Everett said, such as Hearst Ranch in San Simeon or the Chimineas Ranch section of the Carrizo Plains Ecological Reserve in southern San Luis Obispo County. And, he added, group members get to spend more time exploring familiar places.

Larry Kappen, "Spooner Ranch House."

A prime example is Montaña de Oro State Park, which encompasses more than 8,000 acres of windswept coastal bluffs, sandy beaches and secluded coves. Monarch butterflies flutter through sun-dappled eucalyptus groves. Sea otters splash in the waves. Black-tailed deer graze on the shore.

"You go through the eucalyptus trees, and the light changes. They have sunsets there that just seem to go on forever," Schryer said, and spring wildflowers so vibrant that they gave the park its name, which means "Mountain of Gold" in Spanish.

Costigan, who's been painting in Montaña de Oro since the 1970s, called it "magical." But, she argued, even locals who live near the park sometimes forget just how special the spot is.

"The environment is... this bejeweled lady dancing all around us [who's] sort of invisible until we flick our eyes open," she said.

"Artists need to be interpreters of what's out there," Costigan said. "People don't connect to what's going on out there, and why it's fragile and why it matters to them."

"Instead of banging people over the head and trying to preach to them, we just present to people what [a place] looks like," she continued.

Tolley said SLOPE aims to recreate the experience of visiting these special sites on canvas. "The idea is to bring the outside in," the painter said. "My goal, when I'm out there, is to bring that painting back and let someone stand there in that spot and feel what I felt."

Story continues below

Laurel Sherrie, "Montaña de Oro, Spooner Ranch."
Rosanne Seitz, "Spooners Ranch and Cove."
Peggy Turk, "Evening Gold at Montaña de Oro."
Denise Schryver, "Shine Like the Sun."
Los Osos artist Larry Kappen paints in Montaña de Oro State Park. | Photo: Courtesy of San Luis Outdoor Painters for the Environment.


Top image: Larry Kappen, "Grotto Rock."


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