Arturo Tello (left) and John Wullbrandt celebrate decades of friendship and painting in the two-person show Dos Arbolitos
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then it was a photo that inspired a thousand (or so) paintings when Oak Group gathered under a sprawling namesake tree along the San Marcos Foothill Preserve to take a photo 35 years ago . Founded on the idea of painting places in nature to raise awareness of the environmental risks of those places, Oak Group has grown into a collective force of plein air painting and environmental protection.
The group was originally co-founded by painters and activists, Arturo Tello and Ray Strong in December 1985. In its 35-year history, Oak Group has grown to 25 active members with over 100 exhibits benefiting more than 20 non-profit conservation organizations and with sales to date supporting $3 million in space conservation.
They recently reunited to recreate the same portrait, again taken by a respected photographer and colleague of Oak’s. Bill Dewey; this time unfortunately without their co-founder Ray Strong, but with Johannes Wullbrandt sitting in place (and a similar looking profile).
It was in the setting of this image that the idea of a two-person show between Arturo and John really took root. At the meeting for the photo, Julia Morganwho runs the Santa Barbara Fine Art Gallery with his husband and the renowned artist of the Oak Group, Richard Castlehad previously talked about the idea of Arturo and John doing a joint exhibition, but in front of this legendary oak tree Arturo came up with the name of the exhibition: Dos Arbolitos (‘Two little dear trees’).
While Linda Ronstadt’s song of the same name didn’t directly inspire the name, for Arturo its lyrics provided some meaning and inspiration along the way. But for the most part, the title is symbolic of their deep roots in Carpinteria, their long friendship together, and the group’s influence on their path. Arturo, who also owns the Palm Loft Gallery in Carpinteria, adds: “John and I are interested in being a solid root for the community, branching out and just being a resource for the community. And that’s part of the symbolism of it.”
The resulting exhibition Dos Arbolitosopens September 1 at the Santa Barbara Fine Art Gallery and runs through November 27. The exhibition features around a dozen new paintings each by John and Arturo, embracing their own style and tackling the subject while also referencing the impact of the artists and the Oak Group.
During the show’s development, there was a natural inclination to invite other Oak members, but despite wanting to have their friends join in, John and Arturo decided to stick with the idea of just keeping it with the two of them. Both
Artists note that a two-person show is quite unusual and has a different dynamic than individual or group shows.
Two trees, two painters
John will rarely go out and paint outdoors these days and will mostly work with acrylics which are more difficult to work with outdoors. He uses many drawings and photographs to preserve the images he hopes to paint. Over the years his works have evolved from delicate miniatures to large scale two piece murals Dos Arbolitos be more than five feet wide. He also notes that he never painted in any one style or subject.
This time, John chose to focus his brush on the animals and life movements surrounding his ranch property in Carpinteria. Since about half of the paintings focus on the surrounding fauna, these works capture a red-tailed hawk’s graceful flight or fatigue Dos burros after a day’s work (one assumes).
in the John Deere green, stands a lone tractor, almost proud yet forgotten, surrounded by windswept grass and its top line leading into the slope beyond. The seat, steering wheel and other mechanical parts break through the eye line as if to be reminded.
To the Dos ArbolitosJohn painted some other landscapes including a tree scene, cross paths, which he can see from his kitchen window. He’s painted this one before, “but this time I painted it to emphasize the path,” adds John, “I thought it was kind of a subtle reference to the fact that Arturo and I have paths that cross.” cross, and so on. Our paths will cross again on this show.” This location and its surroundings was the original location where John and Arturo met some 38 years ago when Arturo, then a young activist, was married by John’s father, Ernie Wullbrandt, a councilor and later mayor of Carpinteria.
Now years later and after a long history with both painting and activism, Arturo continues to work in the traditional form of plein air painting and mentions that he practically lives in his van while working so he can paint on location. Approaching each painting, Arturo seeks to capture an “intimacy with my surroundings, with nature and my immediate surroundings”. He chose many of the locations in his Carpinteria “backyard” for this show, an environment that often inspires him and finds its way into his works.
Arturo has a background in figure painting and although he no longer actively paints in this particular discipline, its influence can be seen in his works. Trees stretch their branches into the morning sun; Hills and waves roll through the composition with physical curves. Many of his works have a moody color palette – shady vistas often get a hint of the last light of the evening. These works seem to express what the landscape feels and how it moves over time, often with elements of light hitting surfaces revealing life beneath the strokes of paint. in the Tar Pits Park in the foga bleak, misty tar pit coast, is deceived by the vivid green of the hills and softened by the evergreen sky.
He chose the Dos Arbolitos Subject more literal for this exhibition, the majority of the pieces highlight one or more trees in them. In one of his key works for the show Landmark Cypress, Tar Pits Park, Carpinteria, the prominent cypress stands out and almost spans the height of the canvas, its effect enhanced by the size of the other cypresses around it. There are two paintings of the “Tenacity Tree” which has become a memorial and symbol to his mother and stands near where he and a friend paddled out his mother’s ashes when she died. He notes, “The wonderful thing about this tree is that it looks dead but it’s actually quite alive. And the living part is a big branch that reaches down to the beach.” He added that if the branch were upright, the tree would stand as tall as the landmark cypress.
And just like their friendship with each other and with the other members of the Oak Group, these relationships, rooted in history and a mutual love of nature, continue to grow with each passing day, with each painting and even the occasional photograph.
See Dos Arbolitos at the Santa Barbara Fine Art Gallery (1321 State Street) or visit santabarbarafineart.com for more