July 2018

Fly me to the moon: Santa Maria Public Airport's latest art display is filled with bold visions


The Santa Maria Public Airport is filled with quiet spaces–people reading books, waiting in line for car rentals, or sharing a meal at the restaurant. Hovering over all of them is an ongoing display of public art featuring painters and photographers from the community. 

The Santa Maria Public Airport offers a venue to display art publicly. Artists from the Valley Art Gallery such as John Card (work pictured) display their works for free throughout the building.

Valley Art Gallery is behind the colorful works that line the hall connecting the main terminal to baggage claim. Artwork at the airport changes every two months and is there for the public to view at any time. The art is also accompanied by a card along with the artists' name and price of the piece on display. It's one important way local artists can connect with the public who may be interested in learning more about them and their work. 

Artists currently on display include Marilyn Benson. Benson is part still life artist and part comic book colorist; her images feel bright and animated, a restrained nod to pop art of the 1960s. 

The airport currently features two excellent examples of Benson's work, Glorious Poppyand Pop Art PoppyGlorious Poppy features contrasts in both style and color. The red and black within the petals of the flower are more arid and fluid, conveying a strong sense of realism. Benson contrasts this with a vibrant green and blue background, putting the image somewhere between hyperrealism and pop art.

Marilyn Benson’s Pop Art Poppy is one of dozens of works on display at the Santa Maria Public Airport. Local artists use the space to share their work free for the community.

Elinor Plumer also tackles the same subject matter with Poppies, an acrylic painting of three wild-growing flowers in a field. Plumer has a beautiful eye for small details, utilizing a mix of abstract and realistic techniques in her work.

Another standout example is Linda Nelson's On a Quiet Beach. The acrylic painting features a wide and empty beach occupied by two seagulls. Nelson's choice of color is what makes the image work. The soft pastels bleed into each other, creating a hazy image where sky and sand are almost one, interrupted only by the rough bannister of a staircase jutting out out from one corner.

Joan Coy's Woman in Red is a portrait that stands out for its unique shape and perspective. The woman's eyes appear to be gazing at something specific while her expression remains stoic, yet slightly pleased. It's a memorable and unusual work within the collection.

Not all of the works are paintings. Photographers such as Pat Stalter also show their work at the airport. Stalter's digital artwork Oak Bridge is a stunning example of landscape photography. A fallen tree rests gently over a wooden bridge, creating an interesting dialogue about the utilitarian needs of humans in natural spaces. There is a sense of conflict; humans must destroy to create, and nature often returns the favor.

Heidi Gruetzemacher's work Orcutt Rain is giclee, a French term meaning "to spray." The word refers to fine art prints made using digital printers. Gruetzemacher's work is an audacious abstract, filled with fine details that can only be appreciated up close. The lighting is key to the work; from different angles the paint reflects different colors and shapes, making it one of the most compelling works of art in the show.

Take flight
The Santa Maria Public Airport is located at 3249 Terminal Drive, Santa Maria. More info: (805) 937-2278. 

The art at the airport proves yet again the value and importance of creating public spaces for art. Within this small space, dozens of artists have the chance to connect with an audience who may have never know of their existence in the first place. 

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose wants to play among the stars. Contact her at

June 2018

Artist Taffy French-Gray brings her seaside portraits to Valley Art Gallery


Taffy French-Gray is ready for her close-up.

After some hesitation and few quick adjustments, the artist proudly poses next to her work, a series of deceptively charming seaside portraits. She is bubbly and happy to chat about her new exhibit, which runs through June at the Valley Art Gallery in Orcutt.


Artist Taffy French-Gray spent most of her life with a sketchbook clasped firmly in her hand. The painter is the featured artist of the month in June at Valley Art Gallery in Orcutt.


French-Gray is the featured artist of the month at the gallery, a noteworthy accomplishment for an artist who spent much of her life drawing and only recently embraced art as a career.

When she was young, she kept a sketchbook with her at all times, sometimes sketching people she saw or knew. She also had a strong affinity for fashion, meticulously copying the figures of dresses and outfits she would find in pattern books.

“All of my friends would be riding bikes, and I would be in the bedroom,” she said. “My parents thought I was studying but I was just drawing, all the time. But I never took it seriously.”

A nurse by profession, French-Gray spent some time in Somalia with International Christian Aid. After that, she started work at French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo.

“I got married and was working part-time,” she said. “I would take classes on my days off. I had sold some of my art and that felt so good to me. My dad said to me I could do art or be a nurse, but I probably didn’t have the energy to do both. So I chose art.”


In capturing quiet visions of life along the beaches of the Central Coast, Taffy French-Gray said she wants viewers to write their own story on what they think the images mean or depict.


Twelve years later, French-Gray doesn’t regret her decision. She sells her work steadily and still enjoys the habitual practice of life as artist, dutifully seeking out subjects or inspiration for her work in her everyday life.

“I love color and light,” she said. “I love the way light shows off color. Talk to any artist, and that’s what gets us.”

She said one of the biggest challenges was incorporating paint into her lifetime of sketch work. Learning how to put color into her work and thinking about the way light changes color was an important step in her evolution.

“I have learned that people are naturally good with drawing or good with color,” French-Gray said. “Of course there are geniuses that are good with both. I tend towards the drawing, so color is harder for me. I have to really work at what colors to put together. But it’s a fun thing to work at.”

She said she gets inspiration from some of her critiques. When an art instructor at Allan Hancock College told her she could work on some of her color values, she immediately took note.


Taffy French-Gray describes her artwork as “simplified impressionistic” painting. Her work features portraits and seascapes from local beaches including Avila Beach.


“Color is so seductive. You can get going on the color and can’t really make out what the lights and darks are,” French-Gray explained. “But it’s the light and dark that makes the composition. It’s how you can read it easily from a distance. It simplifies it.”

Heidi Gruetzemacher, vice president of the Valley Art Gallery organization, sees hints of famed artist David Hockney, a famous British pop artist of the 1960s, in French-Gray’s work. As she scrolls through images of Hockney’s seated portraits, it seems that she may be onto something. It’s easy to look past the expressions (or lack thereof in some case) on the faces of the subjects in French-Gray’s work and mistake them for breezy seaside landscapes. But it’s when one hovers over the faces that something deeper appears.

The women and young children in French-Gray’s paintings, taken from trips to local beaches to observe visitors, are telling their own narrative, albeit one the artist is explicitly reticent to share. She allows the viewers to make up their own stories, wondering if a woman pictured with two children is their mother, ecstatic or exhausted, or perhaps an unrelated party altogether. A young girl in a beach blanket gazes into the horizon, blankly contemplating the effortlessly vibrant world she inhabits.


Study in color
Beach Beauties, a new show by artist Taffy French-Gray runs through June at Valley Art Gallery, 125 W. Clark Ave., Orcutt. More info: (805) 937-2278.


But French-Gray, humble and sincerely endearing, shies away from too much haughty introspection. She calls her work “simplified impressionistic,” an apt descriptor for the paintings now hanging in Valley Art Gallery.

“It’s fun, quirky, colorful,” she said. “I want people to feel good when they see it. I want to make them smile or laugh. I’m not an edgy person, I’m not trying to say anything deep. I just want people to enjoy it.” 

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose is pretty sketchy. Contact her at

May 2018

Firefighter Andrew Klein documents the work of battling blazes


An orange rage tears through a smoky sky. Silhouetted in black are two figures, frozen in the moment, seemingly transfixed by what lies before them.

It takes the eye only a moment to recognize the figures as firefighters, their signature bell-shaped hats piercing the horizon. The graceful brutality of the moment was captured by Orcutt photographer Andrew Klein, who’s a firefighter himself.

Firefighter Andrew Klein uses his spare time to document blazes in Northern Santa Barbara County. His show On Fire debuts May 1 at Orcutt’s Valley Art Gallery.


“With my photos I try to demonstrate what we do as public servants,” Klein said. “It’s all about helping people. And people can see what they really get out of their tax dollars. They can see the hard work that we do.”

Klein is the featured artist of the month for May at Valley Art Gallery in Orcutt, where he resides with his two daughters and wife. His collection of images highlights the immensity of battling blazes but also documents some of the lesser known aspects of fighting fires, putting a human face on the revered profession.

The firefighter started studying photography as a student at Ernest Righetti High School. He began shooting fires more than a decade ago and has had his work published in several magazines, including Firehouse. Klein has worked at the Santa Monica Fire Department for five years, previously serving with the Orcutt and Vandenberg Air Force Base fire departments for 13 years.

“Early in my career, I worked a number of fires where there were photographers on the scene, capturing great images,” Klein said. “But then the newspapers would publish images that weren’t as action-packed.”


Valley Art Gallery’s featured artist of the month in May is Andrew Klein, a Santa Monica firefighter who lives in Orcutt with his wife and two daughters.


Klein said he noticed there were a lot of images the public was seeing that featured the aftermath of a blaze—burned-out buildings, collapsed garages—but not of the actual fires themselves.

“That doesn’t really paint the picture of what we do for the average person,” he said. “I thought that was kind of weird.”

So Klein set out to document what it looks like to actually face down a fire on a daily basis. Klein doesn’t shoot any of the fires he battles with his department (the obvious demands of the job supersede his photography) so in his off-duty time, he documents the work of other departments in and around North Santa Barbara County. He has also traveled to Detroit to shoot the infamous “Devil’s Night” on Oct. 30, which often results in dozens of acts of vandalism and arson. He said his main goal is public outreach and improving a community’s understanding of what their firefighters do.

Klein also has firsthand experience with the astounding power a single image can have. In 2017, a photo of Klein resuscitating a small dog rescued from a fire in Santa Monica went viral, making him a brief and beloved internet sensation. The story ran on several major sites including Time and People. The fame wasn’t necessarily wanted, but Klein said it helped show the public that firefighters do more than just save people.

“It very quickly went from just another day at the office to ‘this is way too much,’” he said of his viral fame. “But it shows how powerful images are. Photos do tell stories.”


Andrew Klein said he wants to document the process of fighting fires with his photography.


Klein said he still keeps in touch with the owner of the dog and sees the moment as an opportunity for more public outreach, just like his own photographs. The photographs of fires can also help in training and education, he explained. After a building collapse in a fire, for example, departments can examine the images learn to spot the signs of an impending collapse, possibly helping prevent future injuries or deaths.

Klein’s work is distinctly humanistic. His images capture a raw fragility in the work that is often unseen in pop culture surrounding firefighters. Yes, here are the heroic men and women, climbing ladders and staring the face of death squarely in the eye. But there are also the darker places: the haunting look in a man’s eye; the scarred uniforms, charred and stained to the point of exhaustion; or the face of a school bus, torn beyond recognition.

But Klein doesn’t ask for pity or hero worship in his work. Rather, he bends the eye to the commonplace, highlighting the everyday nature of traumatic work. The firefighters Klein captures are doing a job, albeit a highly dangerous one, and within that simplicity lies the heart-wrenching truth.

He shoots with two Nikon digital cameras, a D90 and a D80, having learned from his role as a firefighter to always think of a backup.


Fired up
Firefighter and photographer Andrew Klein’s show On Fire runs May 4 through 31 at the Valley Art Gallery. A reception is planned for May 4 from 5 to 7 p.m. The gallery is located at 125 W. Clark Ave., Orcutt. More info: (805) 937-2278.


“All the other [photography] training I’ve had is from experience,” he explained. “It’s from trial and error. Being a firefighter you never want to be empty handed. You always want to have a tool in your hands. If a lens gets broken or a battery goes bad, you rely on a backup set.”

He is currently working on a book about his experiences as a firefighter and has explored the idea of putting a photo book together. Mostly he hopes his work will show the public the true impact of firefighting.

“The mission for me is to share the story of what we do as firefighters,” Klein said. “It’s not always a glamorous job. You know, we don’t always get to save lives. But that’s what we want to do.”

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose always has a backup. Contact her at

April 2018

Valley Art Gallery features Jill Iversen


Valley Art Gallery in Orcutt announced Jill Iversen as the featured artist of the month for April.


Iversen's collection, Down on the Farm, is available for view in the gallery from April 3 through 29. Iversen graduated from the Art Center School of Design at Pasadena and works in oil, acrylic, and watercolors. She is author and illustrator of two children's books and now focuses on her career in art after she moved back to the Orcutt area with her husband, who was himself raised on a local dairy farm.

Iversen worked as a ranch hand beginning at age 14 and continued that lifestyle for 20 years. She married and set down roots in that community of ranchers, observing the horses, goats, chickens, dogs, and cats in her daily work. She is also the current artist in residence at the Santa Maria Valley Discovery Museum.

"I love the way that producing art at the Discovery Museum begins as a repetitive cycle," Iversen stated in a press release. "Observe, organize, create, clean up, repeat; but as in any creative process, there are myriad possibilities for outcome."

A reception for the artist is planned for April 6 from 5 to 7 p.m. Valley Art Gallery is located at 125 W. Clark Ave., Orcutt. More info: (805) 937-2278.

February 2018

Valley Art Gallery's new Orcutt digs features bold work from Heidi Gruetzemacher


Heidi Gruetzemacher has traced out the path to the heart and nailed it to the wall.

Heidi Gruetzemacher’s Hearts Desire features acrylic paintings reinterpreted as digital art. Her finished prints are then matted and framed as a continuation of the images created, to merge the artwork and presentation as one.

Her explorations on the topic are highlighted in Hearts Desire, an exhibit currently featured at the Valley Art Gallery. Back in September, the gallery moved from its previous home down Clark Avenue to a new-to-them space in Old Orcutt, right across from the bustling crowds at Naughty Oak Brewery and ice cream vendor Doc Burnstein’s. From the looks of it, the longtime Central Coast gallery may have hit a sweet spot for local art.

Gruetzemacher, a painter, photographer, and owner of the Frame Gallery in Orcutt, hosted a reception for the new show at the gallery space on Feb. 2. Her work features a variety of subtle abstracts and still lifes, muted shapes and figures giving way to bright colors and organic lines. In her series Beach Light, featuring four acrylic pieces, Gruetzemacher captures the essence of the ocean’s horizon in different luminescence.

“Hearts Desire is an expression of color as paint that is then re-interpreted as digital media,” Gruetzemacher wrote in her artist’s statement. “The finished prints are then matted and framed as a continuation of the images created, to merge the artwork and presentation as one.”


The Valley Art Gallery, open at its new location in Old Orcutt at 125 W. Clark Ave., currently features the work of Heidi Gruetzemacher. Hearts Desire features Gruetzemacher’s take on the symbolism of the heart.


Gruetzemacher’s buoyantly vibrant heart images seem to serve their namesake well, providing a center of balance for the large collections of paintings, sketches, sculptures, and other projects that surround her show within the new gallery space. Her piece, Path of the Heart, is a swirling breath of bright hues and able-handed expression. It’s not quite clear if the viewer is looking at a horizon or perhaps the inside of a capillary, and that’s the beauty of the work.

Gruetzemacher is skilled with restraint yet playful enough to let go of any formality of symbolism. The artist understands her palette and how to bring each color into a bigger existence on canvas. The work is delicate yet firmly skilled and eye-catching.

“I am not always sure what that next work will be or what it will mean to me,” she explained. “I do know that it will find my heart and that I will create it.”


Hearts on fire
The Valley Art Gallery is located at 125 W. Clark Ave., Orcutt. More info: (805) 287-9402,