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Our Inevitable Place: The Artistry of Carmel-by-the-Sea

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Miss [Gertrude] Stein…announced she would not set foot in their town- nor would she meet any of its residents during her stay in the Monterey Bay region. Inhabitants of the village, she commented tersely, are “high brows.” She took rooms at a hotel inland from artistic Carmel with its cobblestones, poets and pines... “I have no use for art colonies,” said Miss Stein. “I like ordinary people who don’t bore me.” - Los Angeles Times, 1935

Carmel-by-the-Sea, with its fairytale cottages, cypress covered sea vistas and hidden courtyards, is so beautiful that it almost seems sterile -- more a Disneyland resort than a real, breathing village. With a population of less than 4,000, the town caters to its weathly inhabitants and a plethora of enchanted tourists. Everywhere there are art galleries selling generic seascapes, high-count linen stores, and quaint, overpriced tea shops.

Recently, I spent the morning exploring Carmel, impressed by its beauty, but left cold by the endless jewelry shops selling estate diamonds and the luxury cars parked in front of thatched roof homes. Where was the soul of this famous art colony, the wild country where the likes of Jack London, Ansel Adams and Sinclair Lewis roamed the sea-sprayed cliffs like modern-day Heathcliffs?

Through a window, I spied a young man sitting at an easel, painting intently although it was scarcely 9 a.m. His name was Scott Jacobs, and surrounding him were vibrant, raw portraits of celebrities -- President Obama, and Bill Murray. We spoke for a few minutes, and I learned about his inspiring life story. He was a veteran, who had lived out his van for a time, and had been saved by his talent. As I left his gallery, I breathed a sigh of relief. New artists and new ideas were still occurring in Carmel-by-the-Sea; you just had to look past the veneer of glitz and commerce to see them.  

carmel bay beach.jpg
Photo: Hadley Meares

From the beginning, the natural loveliness of this bay in Monterey County was evident to all who saw it. Around 1880, Dr. Davis Starr Jordan wrote in a report for the United Census Bureau:

Of all the indentions on the coast of California, the most picturesque and most charming is the little bay of Carmelo, which lies just south of Los Pinos, between this and the rocky cape of Los Lobos, its blue waters sheltered from the northwest trades by the pine-clad peninsula which ends in the reefs of the Point of Pines. No one lives on this bay at present except a farmer or two, a little colony of Chinese fishermen who have a pescadero or fishing camp in the edge of the pines, and a little group of Portuguese who watch for whales on a rocky ledge near Point Lobos.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before developers swept into Carmel. In 1900, San Franciscans Frank Devendorf and Frank Powers bought all the available land in the area, and formed the Carmel Development Company. Drawing on the secluded nature of the area (which could only be reached by stagecoach) and its extraordinary beauty, the men marketed their new development to “the school teachers of California and other brain workers at indoor employment” working at Northern California colleges. Along with professors, the company also wooed artists and bohemian types with Carmel’s affordable land and picturesque vistas. Powers’ wife, the influential painter Jane Gallatin, was one of the first people to establish a studio in Carmel. A brochure put out by the company explained their vision:

The settlement has been built on the theory that people of aesthetic ( as broadly defined) taste would settle in a town…provided all public enterprises were addressed toward preventing man and his civilized ways from unnecessarily marring the natural beauty so lavishly displayed here.

However, it was an epic natural disaster that would make Devendorf and Powers’ dream of a utopian art colony a reality. With the great earthquake of 1906, thousands of San Franciscans found themselves homeless, and their city in chaos. Artists from San Francisco began to flock to Carmel, and soon their friends joined them. The colony, with its unpaved roads, rough cottages and temporary tents, quickly attracted many influential artists of the day.

Two of the first artists to settle the area were the sisters Alice MacGowan and Grace MacGowan-Cooke, successful writers and literary highbrows. The poet and playwright George Sterling, author Jack London, photographer Arnold Genthe and writer Mary Austin, dubbed “the most intelligent woman in America,” would often crowd into singer Mable Gray Young’s redwood cottage after a morning of solitary pursuits. “We work in the morning, and everyone works hard at Carmel-by-the-Sea,” Austin explained. “In the afternoon we have mussel bakes, cut down boe trees, and sit on the front of the hills and look out over the sea- and we talk, always we talk.”

carmel artists
From Left: George Sterling, Mary Austin, Jack London, and Jimmie Hooper at Carmel-by-the-Sea, early 1900s | Source: Public Domain

Austin, author of Western classics like 1903's "The Land of Little Rain," wrote in a roofless treehouse built between three pine trees, and could often be seen ambling through the woods in the middle of the night, searching for inspiration. Her brooding counterpart Jack London could also be found exploring the woods, drinking martinis and shooting so many ducks that George Sterling finally captured a pair to ensure the local fowl population’s survival.

The California press quickly began to report on this new, hard-to-reach hot bed of progressive ideas and artistic souls. In 1910, the same year Carmel’s legendary Forest Theater was built, a visitor from the Los Angeles Times was clearly amused by this village where “the butcher reads Browning, and the liveryman wears long hair”:

In a shady pine shadow sat a masculine tuft of hair in front of an easel. He was doing the sunset. But the sunset was divinely indifferent- it didn’t know what was happening to it. From a bosky glade nearby, an athletic figure snarked forth. It was Jack London, the progenitor of the red corpuscle in literature. He was joined by two languorous females, and they in turn gathered about them other persons of various dimensions and temperaments. And toward the beach they plodded merrily, calling to the houses as they passed: “Come, the sunset!” When the beach was reached, they seated themselves along a lupine hummock of posies: and what they did to that sunset was a-plenty. It was an adjectival orgy.

He went on to describe the general layout of the tiny settlement:

It is considered a crime to cut the trees or shrubbery, and the result is that the many little bungalows, of which the town is comprised, are hidden from sight until one is very near to them. Carmel has the general appearance of being a primeval, uninhabited spot and little does one suspect what cultured things are going on there. There is a…hotel on the main street, one or two grocery stores, a bakery, a plumbing establishment, a candy shop, a livery stable and a drug store- oh let us not forget the drug store. I put emphasis on this establishment, for what would seem a very irrelevant reason, namely, that Carmel is a temperance town. Parenthetically, I would suggest to the stranger within Carmel’s gates that he get an introduction to the druggist. He is a man worth knowing.

This bucolic seclusion was not to last. In 1916, the same year its most famous sometimes citizen Jack London died, Carmel, boasting a population of around 300 people, was officially incorporated as a town.

carmel by the sea hadley meares.jpg
Photo: Hadley Meares
carmel church ca
Photo: Hadley Meares
carmel blue windows.jpg
Photo: Hadley Meares

Soon, the idle rich of California began to descend upon Carmel, buying up land and pushing up prices. According to one reporter who visited in 1921:

With this era came the passing of Carmel’s “exclusive” art coterie, for no longer is it “exclusive.” Although there are innumerable coupes, sedans, and limousines seen on Carmel highways and byways, yet the spell of Carmel remains unmarred, for, unlike conditions at the communities with which it brushes elbows- Pebble Beach and Carmel Highlands- the cheerless glare of wealth limits itself to the shining surfaces of motor cars, and with cottages and gardens remaining unmarred in their chaste charm.

Despite these changes, artists continued to move to Carmel. In 1914, famed poet Robinson Jeffers and his new wife, Una, fell in love with Carmel while on their honeymoon. “When the stagecoach topped the hills from Monterey and we looked down through the pines and sea fogs on Carmel Bay, it was evident that we had come without knowing it to our inevitable place,” Jeffers remembered. In 1919, they began building their home, Tor House, a magical castle built with local stones and sweat. A reporter for the Los Angeles Times described visiting the couple at home:

robinson jeffers hawk tower
Robinson Jeffers' Tor House | Source: Public Domain

Through the thick walls of stone chosen and erected by Mr. Jeffers, who assisted Mike Murphy, builder, could be heard the sea sighing over the rocks, while outside the whispering of the tall pines over the roof and the flapping of pigeons on the tower blended into a strange incantation. From the fire poured out the magic fragrance of sandalwood, and as the windows blazed and paled in dying sun, Mrs. Jeffers lit the candles: electricity has never been introduced in “Tor House.”

Jeffers worked in a stone tower adjacent to the main house, in a picturesque room which could be reached only by a winding, handmade staircase. In the haunting poem Tor House, he wrote an ode to the home he would live in until his death in 1962:

If you should look for this place after a handful of lifetimes: 
Perhaps of my planted forest a few 
May stand yet, dark-leaved Australians or the coast 
cypress, haggard 
With storm-drift; but fire and the axe are devils. 
Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my fingers 
had the art 
To make stone love stone, you will find some remnant. 

While artists like Mary Austin departed Carmel in search of more secluded haunts, still others came to take their place. During the 1920s, recently arrived wealthy residents fought to improve roads and expand business opportunities in Carmel, while the artistic community attempted to maintain the status quo. People like Perry Newberry, the editor of the local newspaper The Pine Cone, ran successful city trustee campaigns with slogans like, ''Don't Boost . . . If you truly want Carmel to become a boosting, hustling, wide awake lively metropolis, don't vote for Perry Newberry.''

But artistry continued to flourish, even as tourists began to flock to the picturesque village and expansion began to take hold. According to one reporter:

Among their number are such as Cornelius Botke, and his wife, Jessie… whose ideally planned house contains the spacious gray-tinted studio wherein the one produces his beautiful pastorals, while the other devotes her time to her inimitable decoratives. There is M. deNeale Morgan, who long ago chose Carmel trees as her forte, carrying on her notable work in tempera chiefly...William Silva has his stucco studio at the foot of a slope, while upward though his flowery domain stands his dwelling with its far views of the sea. When in the lofty ceilinged reception room Mrs. Silva, who does not paint, will open the massive door leading to a miniature courtyard glowing with flowers and pointing to it with pride, explains, “There is my picture.”

By the 1930s, the artists and their capitalist neighbors seem to have come to a comfortable truce, which has continued into the present day. They attend the same exhibition openings and party at many of the same soirees. The artists and artisans produce; the wealthy consume and fund. Sometimes they are even one in the same, with many film and TV stars (like one-time mayor Clint Eastwood) calling Carmel home.

Many would agree with the sentiments of George Sterling, who helped found the artist colony of Carmel over 100 years ago: “Carmel was the only place fit to live -- it was the chosen land.”

carmel beach ca
Photo: Hadley Meares

Top Image: Photo by Hadley Meares

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