Summer Flying Around the West for Art and Kids

Avalon Harbor - Catalina Island
Avalon Harbor – Catalina Island

Send your kids outside to college and well, you know, they often don’t return. As empty nesters, husband Dave’s and my art travel includes regular visits to our kids who reside on both coasts. So we stole a week of Alaska’s fleeting June to catch up with LA son Oliver and gf-Kate Vescera, and take in some summer art of the West. With our pets at Rabbit Creek Kennels and the lawn mowed, we packed lightly for three cities in a week.

We flew to San Francisco to see J.M.W. Turner, Painting Set Free (thru Sept 20) at the de Young. These paintings normally reside at the Tate, London. What a treat for us Westerners. Turner (1775-1851) attended London’s Royal Academy of Art becoming an accomplished draughtsman in portraiture. He also depicted myths and narratives that harken back to Greek/Roman-Classical/Romantic styles which the aristocracy bought up by the bushel. Turner journeyed through England and Europe, increasingly enchanted by ‘light’ when making traditional landscapes that idealized waterway transport or ruined architecture with its flurry of overgrown flora and fauna. He religiously stuck to a time honored four-color palette (red, yellow, blue with added black and white) even when his work loosened and became gossamer. On his deathbed he apparently said—The Sun is God.

Why Turner decided to turn up his aesthetic volume on an already accepted and lucrative painting career and still be admired by a stodgy bunch of art critics, is as amazing as what he produced—and he died very wealthy. Present day art history courses have only recently acknowledged Turner. Most lectures focus on French Impressionism with its primary colors for café and garden scenes and then pop over to America for post-war abstractionists, ignoring British art. It’s now realized Turner explored light and the psychological of place before Monet and Manet. What is great about his paintings is the overlay of genres. You can see 17th century big Dutch skies overlaid with French and Italian Romantic renderings of foliage, and still feel industrial changes to ‘England’s Green and Pleasant Land’ and the approach of Modernism. Mr. Turner (DVD-2015) is another way to experience the rather moody character of this painter-genius as well as viewing moors and mansions where he found creativity and emotional support.

Arabella Huntington by Sir Oswald Birley (1924)
Arabella Huntington by Sir Oswald Birley (1924)

The de Young Café is one of my favorite museum eateries for lunch or afternoon tea as its spatial dining area of glass walls and lollipop lighting opens onto more seating in the sculpture garden. In keeping with the Turner show we ordered ‘Painted Hills Farms Beef Shepherd’s Pie’ or a hearty English beef stew topped with mashed potatoes. The de Young is situated in Golden Gate Park along with the California Academy of Sciences. Not your old fish tanks that are seen as windows in a wall backlit by gloomy lighting, these aquariums allow visitors to walk through grasses and sand surrounded by sea creatures swimming in ample pools. We detoured from Turner to view Color of Life, an exhibit about nature’s color wheel naturally found in plants and animals, thus showing how early artists observed nature’s spectrum long before Isaac Newton made color a scientific theory and a circular wheel.

Dave and I find staying at the airport Hilton Embassy Suites (it has a bay view) and renting a car is the best way to see San Francisco as their public transportation has left us stranded. We drove over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin Headlands State Park, once a Nike missile base. Roads wind through rocky outcrops and pristine vegetation to open ocean, and only minutes away from San Francisco’s urban skyline and iconic Fisherman’s Wharf where we headed for dinner afterwards.

Bistro Boutin near the wharf’s logoed-wheel has levels of dining and a gift shop for those who enjoy wine and cheese gadgets. We ordered Cioppino (crab, mussels, and calamari swimming in tomato goop) with sourdough bread on their upper level which provides some view of the harbor but a better view of the street—a mix of street folks and tourists. June was still damp and chilly as we zipped up Polar fleece and walked about a half mile to the gaudy light bulb signage of Ghirardelli Chocolate. Their ‘famous hot fudge sundae’ was worth the hike uphill. The aroma of chocolate stayed with us on the drive back to the airport as we packed for our morning flight to Dallas/Fort Worth to discover Winston Churchill’s post-war Riviera digs. What the heck is Churchill’s summer hideaway doing in Dallas, you ask?

After a three hour hop, Dave and I landed at DFW and headed to a Hilton Garden Inn. Dallas was hot; and steel/glass skyscrapers appeared to rise out of endless grasslands. Very hungry, we found a nearby Olive Garden. Well it’s not gourmet, but like encountering McDonalds in strange places, you can’t get poisoned. The breaded chicken was a bit over cooked but the marinara sauce hid all their foibles and the extra bread sticks came in handy when we got hungry later.

We purposely arrived on ‘late Thursday’ at the Dallas Museum of Art which featured an after-work jazz concert. Attendees could sip wine or stroll through the galleries listening to the resonating sounds from below. But we had come all this way to see Churchill’s pied-a-terre. So after lunching on tomato soup and sharing a cheesy baked potato, we headed for Churchill’s faux Riviera, part of my PhD dissertation about his art.

America Sneezes by Nate Lowman (2015)
America Sneezes by Nate Lowman (2015)

In 1985, architect Edward Larrabee Barnes designed 16,500 square feet of DMA gallery space to resemble Villa La Pausa, the French Riviera home of Texan, Wendy Russell and her Hungarian-publisher-beaux, Emery Reves. The space was to house their art collections: Impressionism, vintage picture frames, antique door knockers and hinges as well as furniture belonging to Reves and Coco Channel, the former owner of La Pausa. Wendy and Emery weren’t married when Churchill lived with them which may have been why Mrs. Churchill wasn’t a fan of La Pausa or Wendy.

We found several Churchill Riviera landscapes and a still-life he copied from a Cezanne work. Sadly, a large box of paint tubes couldn’t be touched. But it appears Churchill liked a lot of colors, especially red, yellow and blue, an indication he was prone to a Modernist palette. La Pausa was situated in a beach resort but its dark wood furniture, needlepointed chair covers along with china, sterling and crystal tableware seemed out of place as today’s vacation spots have casual accoutrements in multi-colored plastics.

Dave and I took a quick detour to the Dallas Contemporary where David Salle’s (b. 1952) paintings were on view. Salle divides his canvases as if collaging. He also writes with paint and glues objects to canvas. This exhibition parodied the femme fatale, specifically alluding to Alex Katz imagery (his wife as model and Maine wilderness as backdrop). Artist, Nate Lowman’s exhibition (b. 1979), America Sneezes, shows a large US map, made out of stretchers in the shape of each of the 50 states. Drop cloths stained in faint red and blue splotches, all slightly different, cover each stretcher-bar-state, saying something about America?

Peace-Burial at Sea, by J M W Turner (1842)
Peace-Burial at Sea, by J M W Turner (1842)

Before finding dinner, we drove past the famed Texas School Book Depository that now houses the Sixth Floor Museum complete with gift shop and cafe. The street configurations seemed different than what we remembered as teenagers, when watching black/white television as we followed the real-time drama of Kennedy’s assassination. Dave and I passed up this venue as the live experience remained vivid from childhood. Before driving back to our airport Garden Inn, we ate at RJ Mexican Cuisine on North Market Street– faux Western ambience. Their tortilla soup had plenty of mushrooms and corn chips while their chicken chimichanga was light and non-greasy.

Early next morning Dave and I flew to LAX to hug son Oliver and gf-Kate. We all rendezvoused on a Long Beach pier and boarded the Catalina Express, a ferry-catamaran, for the ‘twenty-six miles across the sea’ made famous by the Four Preps crooning about Santa Catalina to fifties teenagers who swung to a post-war guitar beat wearing white dinner jackets and shirt-waisted-bare-shouldered frocks.

The hour long trip out of Long Beach begins by passing oil rigs, cargo vessels and the ocean side of the Queen Mary, thus comparing her early twentieth century hull to a modern cruise ship adjacently docked. As land disappeared, it was gray skies and some chop with seagulls until the crowded boat harbor of Avalon emerged out of the fog. Sitting on deck was chilly so the four of us moved indoors to a slightly grubby lounge where we sat on Amtrak-esque upholstery sipping Sprite for queasiness, glad for Polar fleece.

Named Santa Catalina by seventeenth century Spaniards, it was once a Native American village, morphing into an early nineteenth century coastal venue for slaughtering sea otters and engaging in smuggling/piracy. In the early twentieth century Chicago’s gum czar Wrigley developed a casino (a present day landmark) and conducted spring training for the Cubs. In the seventies, the Wrigley family made 90% of the island a nature conservancy. Before the island was appropriated for WWII training, it was a place of assignation for celebrities. The exclusive all-male Tuna Club listed members like Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin, writer Zane Grey and even Winston Churchill.

Dave, Oliver, Kate and I strolled Avalon’s main drag with its t-shirt shops and cafes overlooking beach umbrellas and kayaks at water’s edge. Fishing (sea bass), scuba diving (Avalon Underwater Dive Park) and all levels of boating are available harbor side. We found lunch at Maggie’s Blue Rose, a Mexican restaurant where we shared huge burritos. Before returning to Long Beach, the four of us ducked into CC Gallagher for mocha coffee and chocolate chip cookies.

Like a Turner painting, Catalina is a landscape in layers. Dockside, it resembles any summer tourist strip from Cape Cod to Juneau. Its colorful houses and hotels cling to rocky ledges like seaside resorts on the Rivieras. Visitors can day-trip as we did, or sleep over, renting bikes and golf carts (cars are not rentable). There are jeep-tours through the conservancy where the plants (chaparral) and animals (bison) were either imported or blown over for centuries.

Our last LA adventure was Sunday brunch at the Rose Garden Tea Room of the Huntington Library hosted by Kate’s parents who had recently completed a Princess cruise to Alaska. Henry E. Huntington (1850-1927) was the nephew of railroad baron Collis P. Huntington. Henry married his uncle’s widow Arabella, thus adding to his loot–large tracts of SoCal and various local railways. Supposedly, he accumulated the biggest collection of 18th century British portraits on earth. The Huntington is over 120 acres and is a great place to spend a day walking through the gardens or the art.

Brunch resembles British high tea with salads, sandwiches (crusts removed) and cookies. The ice tea flowed on an especially hot day—all perfect before viewing Glory after the Fall: Images of Ruins in 18th and 19th century British Art (thru August 10). John Ruskin’s (1819-1900) pen and ink of Kenilworth Castle is a good example of English Romanticism and their love of crumbling stone nestled among rough and smooth vegetation. At times, Churchill painted in this style but was more taken by French Impressionism and its vibrant palette.

Since TSA won’t allow our regular shampoo, we joked our trip was punctuated by a trail of half empty Clairol bottles left behind like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs. Dave and I flew home ready to enjoy another Alaskan summer. Keep sleuthing for Art in-state and beyond.

Catalogue, J.M.W. Turner, Painting Set Free and DVD Mr. Turner are available from Amazon.