Saturday, January 19, 2019     Volume: 19, Issue: 46

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on February 21st, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 51 [ Submit a Story ]
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A river runs through them: Six artists take 'A River's Journey' through the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley watershed at the Wildling Museum


View a slideshow from the hanging of the exhibit.

There is an idea of water.

There is an idea of how it bends. It cools, quenches, consumes. It drowns, rebirths, soothes. And it carries.


Artist Nicole Strasburg has been alive with all of these ideas about water for the better part of two years. Stepping back from a loosely scattered collection of paintings on the floor of the Wildling Museum in Solvang, Strasburg is tasked with turning her meditative thoughts into concrete ideas to hang on a wall for hundreds of strangers to analyze.

She ponders over thematic inferences, color schemes, and even the literal title of subject matter of the more than 100 works of art set to take over these walls for the museum’s new exhibit, A River’s Journey. Strasburg turns to fellow artist Holli Harmon as the two of them slowly retire into the comfortable debate of artists: purpose and meaning, shape and form.

“This is the real hard part,” she explains, only half kidding.

Strasburg’s purposeful obsession is the result of several years of fascination and study, aimed at creating an exhibit that tells the story of the Santa Ynez watershed, the lands fed and nurtured by the Santa Ynez River. Like a penitent monk devoted to scripture, Strasburg has slowly immersed herself in the water that flows through Santa Barbara County, all in the name of these small paintings gently laid out before her.

“In the womb you’re surrounded by water, it’s a natural state,” she said in an interview with the Sun. “It’s one of the things that we can’t live without. As a painter, just beyond the sheer beauty of it, these are the things I think about.”

Take a journey
A River’s Journey runs through July 9 at the Wildling Museum, located at 1511, suite B, Solvang. More info: (805) 688-1082 or

Originally inspired by the work of another environmentally conscious artist, Strasburg and five other artists set out to chronicle the watershed. Bonded by their love of art and passion for conservation issues, artists Libby Smith, Pamela Zwehl-Burke, Nina Warner, Connie Connally, Harmon, and Strasburg formed a collective known as Rose-Compass. After more than two years of research, contemplation, and painting, their final works, crafted in an unusual medium known as gouache, are now on display at the Wildling Museum. A River’s Journey features more than 25 paintings from each artist, each one presenting its own distinct vision and commentary on the water and the land it satiates.

But more than just an art show, the Wildling’s exhibit also seeks to draw attention to the very real issues associated with water usage in the greater Santa Ynez Valley. The artists of Rose-Compass hope that the show will engage viewers in a broader conversation about the fragility of the watershed and the way humans who depend on it interact with it.

It rhymes with ‘squash’

In 2014, the Wildling Museum in Solvang quietly unveiled what would become one of its most understatedly influential exhibits. Pennsylvania artist Thomas Paquette showed a group of paintings titled On Nature’s Terms, in a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

Paquette’s work was visually stunning and cerebrally unique. He chronicled years of his visits to federal wildlife areas all over the United States, including Arizona, California, Wyoming, and many more. Running through much of Paquette’s work was a strong message about the value of natural resources, like a stream of environmental consciousness.

The six artists of Rose-Compass— Connie Conally, Holli Harmon, Libby Smith, Nicole Strasburg, Nina Warner, and Pamela Zwehl-Burke— chronicled the journey of the Santa Ynez River from Jameson Lake to Surf Beach over the course of a year and half. Their work is on show at the Wildling Museum in Solvang through July 9.

But aside from being a collection of highly evocative landscapes, one thing in particular struck some in the crowds who milled around his work. In 12 of the paintings, the artist chose for his medium, the now relatively rare paint known as “gouache” (pronounced gwash).

Gouache, an opaque watercolor paint, is a centuries-old medium favored by artists who seek the durability of acrylic paints and the quality of watercolors. Painters in the 1700s first began using gouache to paint or illuminate manuscripts. Before digital art became the standard in the industry, commercial artists of the 20th century favored gouache as a way to create highly defined lettering for advertisements.

The artists who would become the collective known as Rose-Compass were intrigued by what the paint with the funny name could do on canvas. Warner said they were mesmerized by the work, fascinated by how Paquette had managed to capture so much radiant light and detail in such a small space.

“They looked like little postage stamps,” Warner said. “They were these beautiful bright little jewels. Paquette really got us looking at this medium.”

Like watercolor, gouache is made of color pigment and a binding agent, such as gum arabic. But gouache has a much higher pigment ratio and is often thickened with another agent such as white chalk or acrylic. Gouache is especially distinct from watercolor in that it does not absorb into the paper; instead, it dries thick and becomes rich with texture. That and its higher opacity give it a distinctive, if somewhat challenging, appeal to artists such as Smith.

The work of Nicole Strasburg, a member of the Rose-Compass artist group, is featured in the A River’s Journey exhibit at the Wildling Museum.

“It was very different,” Smith said. “It dries quickly, and it’s a completely different temperament and color. It gets a little chalkier feeling than oil. It was really tough in the beginning.”

Connally, a seasoned watercolor painter and former instructor, said the appeal lies in gouache’s ability to behave like a less temperamental medium, such as oil or acrylic.

“As a watercolor artist, you very much have to start from light colors and go to dark colors,” Connally said. “If you lay one color on top of another, it pulls the color from beneath and pulls them together. You have to keep building those dark colors until they are saturated enough. But with gouache, you literally can paint just as you would with oils and start with darker colors.”

Warner said in the beginning that she and the other artists were mainly focused on experimenting with the medium, curious to see what they could do with it.

“We were excited about working in it,” she said. “We just wanted to get together and paint and see where that took us.”

Where it took them was on a near 100-mile journey through the beating heart of the county’s most important natural resource.

Watershed down

It spans 92 miles and winds from the northern slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains in Los Padres National Forest all the way down to Surf Beach in Lompoc, where it pours back into the Pacific Ocean. A varicose tattoo bending through the oftentimes-arid lands of Santa Barbara County, the Santa Ynez River and its network of tributaries and reservoirs have been stretched to their very limits by decades of human consumption and encroachment.

For years, the region has strained to recover from the back-and-forth pull of drought and flood. In 2011, the water in Cachuma Lake Reservoir, one of three reservoirs that feed the residents of the watershed, breached the top of the spillway at more than 195,000 acre-feet of water. Less than seven years later, it dropped to approximately 76,000 acre-feet. In more understandable terms, that’s almost two years’ worth of water that simply vanished. In January 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in California, and Santa Barbara County quickly followed suit less than a week later by declaring its own state of emergency. Exactly one year later, the reservoir was at 28 percent of capacity, prompting the county to install a $5 million emergency pumping system just to get water to the desperately dry South County cities.

Libby Smith’s gouache painting, Scorched Earth, is part of the new A River’s Journey exhibit running at the Wildling Museum through July 9.

The women of Rose-Compass, many of them longtime residents of the region, were all too familiar with conservation struggles of recent years.

“We had all been very disturbed about the drought, so we started thinking about what we could do,” Smith said. “We started thinking about water and where it comes from and how it finally gets to our sinks. That’s when we started looking into the Santa Ynez watershed.”

Smith said they began researching avidly, even meeting with water conservation experts at reservoirs and dams to help them understand more technical aspects. Their research took them back to the days of the Chumash, as they studied how hundreds of years of fishing and agricultural irrigation impacted the current water supply.

But this isn’t a grad student’s thesis project. Rose-Compass is a group of artists, and it was art they set out to make. For about a year, once a month the women of Rose-Compass would get together and pick a spot within the Santa Ynez watershed to paint. Some would gravitate to the physical architecture of the dam or reservoir. Others were drawn to wildlife. Most were simply swept away by the beauty of the scenery, creating landscapes or still life paintings as they explored.

“We really covered it extensively.” Connally said. “But I don’t know that we really saw what [the project] would become. Originally we thought we were just going to have pretty paintings.”

That was until the fires came.

‘Standing in the middle of emptiness’

During the early days of Rose-Compass, in August of 2016, the Rey Fire hit the Santa Ynez Valley, burning more than 32,000 acres southeast of Lake Cachuma. Two more fires would pierce through the timeline of the project, the Whittier and Thomas fires, which came in July and December of 2017, respectively.

Connie Connelly is an abstract painter who is part of the Rose-Compass collective based out of Santa Barbara County. The six women of the group partnered to paint the journey of the Santa Ynez River and its corresponding watershed.

Visiting areas once green and lush now filled with the smoky black scar of devastation made the six women of Rose-Compass all the more conscious of the very real threats the fragile watershed faces.

“We saw the devastation of that fire and how much the drought had affected the Santa Ynez,” Connally said. “We were standing in dry riverbeds, standing in the middle of emptiness, with only small little puddles of water to gravitate to.”

Strasburg said the group wanted to tell each story of the watershed, from where the river bleeds out from the mountain, to where the tributaries branch out into their own lives, and to where projects like dams and steelhead conservation efforts reshape the natural layout of the river. The fires and ongoing yo-yo effect of the drought showed the artists there was a sense of immediacy they had not readily predicted.

“We thought we were going to be painting dry riverbeds for a year,” Strasburg said. “When you’re standing out there, taking pictures, hiking, seeing all this wildlife like birds, turkey, deer, butterflies—you just start realizing we all need this. There’s no life without it. You think there’s an endless amount of water, but when you’re standing in front of a dry riverbed it becomes very real.”

Smith said that when the heavy rains of February 2017 filled Cachuma to nearly 50 percent capacity she was surprised to hear people mocking the notion that California was still in a drought. There’s a danger in complacency, she pointed out.

“It’s important to keep reminding people about it,” Smith said. “We really are still in a drought. We can’t take advantage of water, and we really have to think about how we use it. I think this project will remind people and keep it in the forefront.”

To keep the discussion at the front of the public eye, the Wildling now has more than 100 small works hanging on its walls, part of an exhibit that will run through July 9. The watershed paintings reflect six different points of view from six very different artists. Spanning the visionary abstract landscapes of Connally to the more reflective moments seized upon by Strasburg and Smith, the impact of the watershed on each woman permeates through the opaque paint.

The women of Rose-Compass formed their collective after seeing the gouache paintings of Thomas Paquette in 2014. At first, the artists studied the medium, learning the different ways the opaque watercolor product behaves on canvas and in practice.

But in many ways, it’s the actual miniscule size of the works themselves that make the biggest statement about the watershed. At no more than about 4 inches by 5 inches in size, the gouache paintings reflect the scarcity of the region’s water by their very existence alone. Standing close and leaning in to examine the sacred details of each artist’s watercolor piece is a tactile way to remind oneself of just how precious and rare a resource like water is.

“We started out naively thinking ‘water is important’ and then started to really think about it,” said Strasburg. “We are living in a place where we are always going to have this problem.”

Connally and the other Rose-Compass artists agree that the project became much more than what they originally intended. She said she hopes people can appreciate the multiple facets of the exhibit, both as a display of beautiful artwork and as an important and timely message about their water.

“It’s really become more of an educational exhibit,” she said. “We’re trying to get the word out about how important it is to conserve and to take care of the environment that feeds the Santa Ynez watershed.”

Contact Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose at

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