Sunday, May 27, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 12

Santa Maria Sun / Art

The following article was posted on March 4th, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 52 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 52

Local nonprofits offer a glimpse into the lives of the Dunites


Read Chester “Gavin” A. Arthur III's magazine 'The Dune Forum', courtesy of the South County Historical Society.


One of the most prolific Dunite artists was Elwood Decker, whose abstracts show a connection to the ocean and the dunes.

I was ambushed by the commonplace,

     Led confidently to believe that I was merely walking from the

     ocean into camp,

Carrying my pack and eager to get the load off my back,

But always welcoming the grand freedom.”

—Hugo Seelig



Hugo Seelig is perhaps the most famous of the poets among the Dunites, but certainly not the most well-known artist. Many intellectuals of various styles found their way to the dunes, from visual artists like Elwood Decker or Dixie “Mrs. Robinson Crusoe” Paul, to writers and utopian hopefuls like Chester “Gavin” A. Arthur III. They came, stayed, and left for varying reasons, but we know them all as the Dunites.

“I break them down into three categories of people: the hoboes, the traveling produce workers, and then the religious mystics,” said Norm Hammond, author of The Dunites. “It was a paradise for them; there was no rent, no taxes, lots of clams in the ocean, and lots of vegetables nearby.”

The origins of Hammond’s book and his interest in the Dunites started in the early ’70s while he was out on a walk in the Dunes. He didn’t know it at the time, but he caught a glimpse of the last Dunite to live there. Since then, he’s put in countless hours of work doing research, coordinating, and volunteering to preserve the Dunites’ legacy. In addition to writing his book, Hammond serves as a board member of the Oceano Depot, where many Dunite artifacts—including a cabin—are housed and on display to the public.

Chester “Gavin” A. Arthur III, grandson of the U.S. President Chester A. Arthur, founded Moy Mell, a small utopian colony in the dunes in the 1930s.

The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center also does much to remind locals what the Dunites were all about. An upcoming walk called “Discover the Dunites” leaves from Oso Flaco Lake and takes hikers through much of where the Dunites called home. Docent and volunteer Jim Avila, who regularly leads hikes through the dunes, will relate much Dunite history and trivia on the walk.

“They were kind of spread out between Oso Flaco and … north to Oceano and Arroyo Grande Creek. It’s a pretty broad area,” Avila said. “There is no trace remaining of their cabins. Unless you dig deep into the dunes, you might find something, but I will be pointing out where they lived and relating some stories.”

Many of the Dunites lived in improvised structures, like driftwood huts or pup tents, but some were compelled, and had the means, to build more permanent structures. Some came to live at the dunes out of necessity, but others were drawn to the area for other reasons.

“There were some beliefs that there was a mysticism to the dunes, maybe a kind of power vortex, but they would call it something else,” Avila said. “They had lots of different mystical practices.”

Hammond’s research shows the rich diversity in the beliefs surrounding the dunes. One of the most famous Dunites and founder of The Dune Forum  magazine was Chester “Gavin” A. Arthur III, grandson of U.S. president Chester A. Arthur. A member of the Utopian Society of America, Gavin Arthur founded the small colony he dubbed “Moy Mell,” which is Gaelic for “Pastures of Honey.” It was believed to be a special place in heaven for Irish and Gaelic poets, Hammond explained.

Explore the dunes
The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center presents “Discover the Dunites” on March 8 from 10 a.m. to noon at the Oso Flaco Lake State Park, Oso Flaco Lake Road, Nipomo. Info: 343-2455 or
The Oceano Depot houses a wealth of Dunite artifacts, including a cabin, at the historic depot, 1650 Front St., Oceano. More info: is available at 489-5448 or

“It really depended on the person, and what they believed,” Hammond said, “like the poet Hugo Seelig said there were different vibrations in each cove and that the power would move. He lived in a tent and moved to experience the different vibrations in each cove, and he said each cove was like its own different universe.”

People’s perspectives of the dunes colored the art they produced. Arthur Alman, for example, created an illustrated book about the people of Atlantis. The artist Elwood Decker, who died in 1992, was a friend of Hammond’s and a source of much material for the book. Decker not only produced a huge amount of visual art inspired by the dunes, but he was also deeply involved in Hinduism, with an interest in the goddess Kali. Decker claimed that he was trying to illuminate a path to God with his artwork

“There’s almost nowhere else where you have a climate like this; what happens to the human spirit in those kinds of conditions I think is something we all fantasize about,” Hammond said. “A life away from the shave-and-a-haircut day of going to work for someone else.

“I think people wonder what it would be like if we didn’t have to deal with all this stuff and be free,” he continued. “I think that idea rings a bell in all of us. We resonate with that idea and being able to do that, and those people did.”


Arts Editor Joe Payne wants to enter the vortex. Contact him at

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