Summer in San Luis Obispo: Artists Celebrate SoCal Swimming Pools

"Lakeside Swim" by Tracey Sylvester Harris
"Lakeside Swim" by Tracey Sylvester Harris is among the paintings featured in the exhibition "Lost Holidays" at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.

Is there anything as alluring as a swimming pool?

Southern California's pools -- turquoise seas of tranquility bordered by grey concrete and emerald lawns -- have served as powerful symbols of a regional obsession with health, leisure and luxury since the 1920s, when architect Julia Morgan oversaw the installation of the sumptuous Neptune Pool at newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon mansion, La Cuesta Encantada. (Hearst was following the lead of silent film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who added a massive pool to their Beverly Hills estate, Pickfair, in 1920.)

Over the decades, pools have become as ubiquitous as palm trees and tile roofs -- documented by the likes of painter David Hockney, multimedia pop artist Ed Ruscha and photographer Julius Shulman, immortalized in movies ranging from "Sunset Boulevard" to "The Graduate" to "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Found on the grounds of suburban homes, apartment complexes, condominiums and hotels across the state, they signify wholesome fun to some, affluence to others.

But Southern California's swimming pools may soon be the latest casualties of a catastrophic drought that has left the state parched for the past four years.

A handful of California communities have banned the building of new pools or put restrictions on the filling of pools and spas. (In response, the California Pool and Spa Association launched the "Let's Pool Together" campaign last August encouraging customers to be more water-efficient.) They're concerned that pools -- which, left uncovered, can lose about 20,000 gallons a year on average due to evaporation, according to the Los Angeles Times -- represent an unnecessary drain on a dwindling resource.

In celebration of summer, here are two Central Coast artists who find inspiration in Southern California's precious pools.

"Pool Tranquility" by Tracey Sylvester Harris
"Pool Tranquility" by Tracey Sylvester Harris.

Tracey Sylvester Harris: Diving Into the Past

Old movies taught San Luis Obispo painter Tracey Sylvester Harris about transience.
While watching black-and-white films, "I remember (my mom) telling me, 'That was years ago. They're not young anymore. Maybe they died already,' and my brain could not (process that). I just couldn't believe it," Harris, 49, recalled. "Every time I'd watch a movie I'd do the math to hope the person was still alive.

"In a way, it's been my way of dealing with our transient lives and coming to terms with that."

The artist addresses ideas of love, loss and leisure in the exhibition "Lost Holidays: Paintings by Tracey Sylvester Harris," running May 15 through June 28 at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. The large-scale oil paintings depict men and women of a bygone era splashing in swimming pools, surfing ocean waves and lounging by the lake.

The daughter of a landscape painter and a graphic designer, Harris had no shortage of art instruction or supplies as a child. She took up oil painting at age 17, just after her family moved from Las Vegas to the North Coast hamlet of Cambria; her parents currently own and operate Cambria's Melanee Sylvester Gallery.

Harris studied art at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo under the mentorship of Morro Bay artist Marian Stevens Loomis.

"Lady in Lavender" by Tracey Sylvester Harris
"Pool Tranquility" by Tracey Sylvester Harris.

She started out painting smaller-scale urban scenes. But her work took a dramatic turn in scale and subject when she turned 40 and reassessed her career.

"I finally realized, 'No, I don't want to be doing these small, urban paintings... I need to take a risk here and do what I really want to do,'" she said, specifically bigger, brighter works.

Harris stumbled upon the inspiration for "Lost Holidays" around 2008 while searching for images of beach sand on the Internet. "I happened to see this photo from the '40s," she said, describing a black-and-white snapshot of a woman and child reclining on a beach towel. "I was so captivated by that photo. It was just incredible. I just went, 'Oh, that's it. That's what I need to start with.'"

Since then, the artist has sought out other images of pleasure seekers, combing through antique stores, book shops, yard sales and websites for old photos, postcards and advertisements. (On occasion, she's even used family photos.) She prefers candid, high-contrast shots that show the interplay of sun and shadow.

Since the images tend to be in black-and-white, Harris incorporates her own vibrant color palette -- bright blues, greens and purples, eye-popping reds, creamy tans and sunny yellows. She also plays with scale and framing, dramatically cropping scenes by trimming torsos, removing heads and chopping off limbs.

"Polka Dot Seaside" by Tracey Sylvester Harris
"Polka Dot Seaside" by Tracey Sylvester Harris.

When a figure has been visually pared down, Harris said, "We can identify with (it) as more of an iconic figure. It becomes a little more abstract, more contemporary... This is a symbol for enjoying the moment in the sun."

Although some of her paintings depict ordinary people, others show models, actresses and aspiring Hollywood starlets. Sylvester acknowledged that there's an element of sadness in the sight of these beauties in the bloom of youth, a recognition of the fleeting nature of glamor and the artificiality of California's carefully landscaped twist on the American Dream.

"It's not all palm trees and sunshine. There's more to it," she said.

She's not the only one who sees that subtext.While on display at Skidmore Contemporary Art at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, Harris's paintings caught the attention of Dallas-based producer Tom DeNolf, then scouting for art to showcase in the 2014 indie drama "The Face of Love."

The movie follows a widow (Annette Benning) who falls in love with an artist (Ed Harris) who bears a striking resemblance to her late husband. "(DeNolf) was told to look for artwork that is California... big, splashy figures, colorful," Tracey Sylvester Harris said, pieces that Ed Harris's character would have painted. Her work fit the bill.

She contributed several paintings to "The Face of Love" and even taught Ed Harris how to paint in her style. She also has a small cameo in the movie.

Although the "Lost Holiday" paintings possess a certain poignancy, Harris works hard to avoid sentimentality in the series. "I don't want it be sappy or nostalgic." she explained. "That's where the brushwork and the composition can keep it really current."

"Lady at the Lake" by Tracey Sylvester Harris
"Lady at the Lake" by Tracey Sylvester Harris.

Neal Breton: Escape to the Deep End

Whenever his mother visits the Central Coast, San Luis Obispo artist Neal Breton goes on vacation. More specifically, he checks into the same hotel and enjoys a miniature "stay-cation" free of work duties and social obligations.

"Those are really nice times when I can get them. I feel like I can escape pretty much everything," the 40-year-old painter said.

Breton's "Pools" paintings, which depict swimming pools at their most serene, offer viewers a similar sense of calm. They go on display June 27 as part of a group show at The Bunker art collective in San Luis Obispo.

A Southern California resident since 1982, Breton moved to the region at age 8 when his parents divorced. He'd spend the school year in Glendale, where his mother lived, and summer and winter vacations visiting his dad in New Hampshire.

"It was always a weird transition," he recalled, because he never felt fully at home in either place. "It was awful not to fit in."

"Hotel Pool" by Neal Breton
"Hotel Pool" by Neal Breton.

That feeling didn't come until Breton's first year at Pasadena City College, where he studied under representational painter Douglas Bond. He dropped out in 1996.

"A little bit of me wishes I had stayed in school and learned to appreciate things," Breton acknowledged, "(but) I'm not ashamed of where I'm at and I'm not ashamed of how I got there."

The artist spent 25 years living and working in Los Angeles before moving to San Luis Obispo, where he opened an art supply store. After that venture folded, he and artist Jeff Claassen launched Fiasco Gallery in August 2013, originally housed at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles.

They currently share studio space with Bret Brown at The Bunker, which officially opened its doors in December. Breton is also the organizer of the annual "Savages" group show, being held this September at Steynberg Gallery in Luis Obispo.

Breton said the inspiration for his "Pools" paintings came, not surprisingly, in a swimming pool. As he bobbed in the water, "this wave of serenity washed over me," he recalled.

Breton bases his acrylic paintings on actual pools, some surrounded by hedges or wooden fences. But he works without visual references, preferring to channel his memories and emotions directly into art.

"Palm Springs Sunset" by Neal Breton
"Palm Springs Sunset" by Neal Breton.

"I'm trying to catch my feeling and then compress it and edit it in the most simplistic way possible to paint that particular structure," he said. "If I need to skew a shadow a little longer to make a composition look more balanced or look more beautiful, then I'm going to subvert reality and create my own environment."

"I'm editing the story myself in hopes the viewer will fill it in," he said.

At the bottom of his canvases, Breton often lays out solid blocks of color. (The artist acknowledges that his palette, which typically includes pink, teal and yellow, is uniquely Californian.) "That little space down there... is usually me working something out," he explained. "If it's a math problem, I'm showing my work right there..."

Eschewing detail, his paintings focus on clean lines and simple planes, with "no noise of humanity," he said. That's not to say that the human element is missing; it's indicated by the presence of deck chairs, life preservers or, in the case of "Breakfast by the Pool, half a pink grapefruit perched on a diving board.

"Poolside 2014" by Neal Breton
"Poolside 2014" by Neal Breton.

In "Poolside 2014," which depicts the aftermath of a wild party, someone has left a beach towel lying next to a red polka-dot bikini top. One wonders if the owner of the swimwear is floating just out of the frame, navigating an inner tube through a minefield of empty plastic cups.

Breton currently experimenting with incorporating people -- nude women, specifically -- in his "Pools" paintings.

"What's really important to me is to get that aspect of luxury. It's a vacation for me, so I'm visiting a place that I could never live in that painting," he said.

On the other end of the spectrum are Breton's "Clouds" series, which use images of clouds, raindrops and thunderbolts to offer a silent prayer to "the Gods of Precipitation." "We're in a place of perpetual summer in California," Breton said. "It's either hot or it's dark -- those are the two kinds of weather we have."

"Clouds" and "Pools" may share an aquatic motif, but any similarity is purely superficial. The former deals with "growth and struggle" whereas the latter represents "me giving myself a break," Breton said.

"The pools are always my vacation from thinking about real life," he said.

Story continues below

"Suburban Pool" by Neal Breton
"Suburban Pool" by Neal Breton.
Breakfast by the Pool by Neal Breton
"Breakfast by the Pool" by Neal Breton.
"Rainy Day Pool" by Neal Breton
"Rainy Day Pool" by Neal Breton.

Dig this story? Sign up for our newsletter to get unique arts & culture stories and videos from across Southern California in your inbox. Also, follow Artbound on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading

Full Episodes