December 2019

Art Squared exhibit showcases acrylic pour paintings at Valley Art Gallery


Described as a study of color, form, and line, Beverly Johnson’s current exhibition at Valley Art Gallery features more than 50 abstract paintings displayed in multiple groupings. Pieces were grouped together based on color and other factors to form a collage of canvas tiles.


Be there or be square
Art Squared will remain on display through Saturday, Dec. 28, at Valley Art Gallery. The show is open to the public during the gallery’s regular hours: Tuesday through Friday from noon to 6 p.m. and every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The gallery is located at 125 W. Clark Ave., Orcutt. Call (805) 937-2278 or visit for more info.

Beverly Johnson’s acrylic paintings were grouped together based on color and other factors to create various configurations, as featured in her latest exhibition, Art Squared.


“The color palette of each grouping is very instrumental to the final outcome,” Johnson told the Sun.

One grouping, for example, entitled Harmony, is a collage of eight different canvases that all share shades of blue, teal, and vibrant gold.

The canvases also vary in size and depth—ranging from 4-by-4 to 20-by-20 inches—and each grouping is of six, eight, or occasionally more tiles. Each is a perfect square, hence the show’s title, Art Squared, which runs at the gallery through Dec. 28.

Although the groupings were specifically chosen, Johnson noted that each set of tiles can be arranged or hung in different configurations to accommodate different wall spaces. However, buyers also have the option to purchase paintings individually, just in time for holiday gift-giving.

To create her abstract tiles, Johnson employs an acrylic pour method she’s been experimenting with for the last several years. One of the tricks to pouring, she said, is anticipating the flow of the paint and its dynamics. Although the process can be challenging, the difficulty is part of the fun, Johnson added.


To create her abstract tiles, Beverly Johnson employs an acrylic pour method she’s been experimenting with for several years. More than 50 of her pieces are on display at Valley Art Gallery.


“This medium is challenging, but I love the randomness of this process, and knowing when to stop is so very important,” she said. “Sometimes it’s about just knowing when the piece feels finished.”

Experimentation is another factor of the pouring process Johnson enjoys. A full-time artist and part-time art teacher, Johnson’s long career has led her through trying various media and styles. Originally interested in capturing realism, Johnson’s passion began with landscapes and animal studies in oil and watercolor during her youth.

“Ever since I can remember, my love of art has been at the forefront of my expressions,” said Johnson, who began drawing and painting early in childhood. “I love the explosion of surprise when painting on canvas, paper, silk, and sometimes on whatever I can find—rocks, wood, shells, etc.”

As an adult, Johnson became interested in silk painting, creating colorful silk scarves, garments, and other wearable items. Over the last 30 years, Johnson has been contracted to teach special art workshops—including classes on acrylic pouring—at various local schools, both public and private.


The Central Coast-based artist also teaches classes by appointment at her Orcutt studio, Beverly Johnson’s Studio C, located less than a stone’s throw away from Valley Art Gallery. Johnson has been a member of the gallery for almost 10 years and currently serves as the gallery board’s president (since late 2018).

“I started looking for an art gallery and to be around like-minded people,” Johnson said, describing what attracted her to join Valley Art Gallery in 2010. “Since then, I have been selected to be the featured artist several times.” 

Arts Editor Caleb Wiseblood’s pieces are black and white and red all over (he hopes). Contact him at

October 2019

Laura-Susan Thomas captures humanity through animal paintings at Valley Art Gallery


Santa Maria was never part of a long-term plan for artist Laura-Susan Thomas and her husband, who moved up from Los Angeles about two decades ago.


No matter how small
Laura-Susan Thomas’s Creatures Big and Small exhibition runs at the Valley Art Gallery in Orcutt through Saturday, Nov. 30. The show is open to the public during the gallery’s regular hours: Tuesday through Friday from noon to 6 p.m. and every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The gallery is located at 125 W. Clark Ave., Orcutt. Call (805) 937-2278 or visit for more info.

Local artist Laura-Susan Thomas used her dog, Roo, as the subject of one of her animal paintings, currently on display at Valley Art Gallery in Orcutt.


“We both had constantly moved growing up, so figured we might be here three years or so,” Thomas told the Sun. “Now 20 some years later, two grown kids, a house, and a community of lifelong friends, we have put down roots for the first time.”

Formerly a designer for Walt Disney Imagineering, Thomas worked as a freelance illustrator for several years after relocating to the Central Coast before taking on her current job at Allan Hancock College, where she teaches digital art classes. Thomas is also the director of the school’s exhibition center, the Ann Foxworthy Gallery.

“When Marti Fast, the previous director of many years and a friend, retired, she asked me to take the position,” Thomas said. “I mentored with her for a semester, learning the ins and outs of gallery work.”

From artist to curator, one of the aspects Thomas appreciates most about working as the gallery’s director is getting to interact with other artists from the community and beyond.

“It has been such a wonderful opportunity. I get to meet all sorts of artists, visit studios, and live, work, and be inspired by art all of the time,” Thomas said. “There is a burgeoning art community on the Central Coast, with many artists working and living here, from Santa Ynez to Cambria up the coast.”

Thomas described her goal as the gallery’s director to “bring in a variety of art, artists, and ideas we in Santa Maria don’t always have the opportunity to see.” Embracing unique subject matter to raise awareness for specific issues is a goal that carries over into Thomas’ own artwork as well. Fresh from the studio in the backyard of her Orcutt home, Thomas hopes her latest creations will inspire proactivity in wildlife conservation.


Creatures Big and Small at Valley Art Gallery features animal-themed paintings Laura-Susan Thomas completed in her studio, located in the backyard of her Orcutt home.


“I love painting animals and making a connection between the human and the animal world,” Thomas said. “Most of my animal paintings I approach more as portraits, trying to find ways to connect their human viewers with the subject of my work.”

Thomas’ paintings are currently being showcased in Creatures Big and Small, an exhibition at Valley Art Gallery in Orcutt. Most of the featured pieces were created with oils, although some pieces incorporate collage work as well. Thomas’ artistic style is heavily inspired by the works of Howard Post and Wayne Thiebaud, she said.

“Their bold strokes are simply delicious,” explained Thomas, whose other influences include the ballpoint drawings of Andrea Joseph and the digital paintings of Craig Mullins and Bobbie Chu.

Creatures Big and Small runs through Saturday, Nov. 30, at the Orcutt gallery. Birds, sheep, giraffes, dogs, and coyotes are just a few of the non-human subjects included in Thomas’ works.

“Coyotes are one of my favorites to paint. They just do what nature tells them to do, and many times it is humans encroaching on their world that causes the problems,” said Thomas, who strives to shine a light on animals that are either endangered or popularly depicted as “the bad guys.”


Dogs, birds, sheep, and giraffes are just a few of the non-human subjects depicted in Laura-Susan Thomas’s paintings.


“I hope we can connect people emotionally to these animals so we can be more proactive in how we interact with them and look to conserving the habitats and wild places in our world,” she said.

Earnest intentions aside, many of Thomas’ works currently on display share a whimsical tone. Thomas even used her own dog, Roo—adorably attired in a ballerina tutu—as the subject of one of her paintings. But even this and some of Thomas’ other lighthearted works maintain the artist’s goal to inspire sympathy toward animals, by incorporating human activities and mechanisms into the animal world.

“Perhaps you know someone like Sheila, my sheep in red heels, or a friend with the goofy personality of my own dog, Roo, in her tutu,” Thomas said. “My hope is the human personalities I try to convey make a connection on a familiar or emotional level.” 

Arts Editor Caleb Wiseblood needs a tutu for his doggo before Nutcracker season ends. Send tutu funds to

August 2019

Passages exhibition explores the journey between birth and death at Valley Art Gallery


Local beaches serve as the backdrops for photographer Heidi Gruetzemacher’s latest figurative works, currently on display at the Valley Art Gallery in Orcutt. The new exhibit is named Passages, and it will run through Saturday, Sept. 28, at the gallery. 

Each featured piece centers on a woman during different stages of her life—more specifically, her spiritual journey. In some instances, the model (whose name was asked to be withheld from the article) appears to us as a transparent, ghostlike figure. In The Reward, for example, we can see the ocean through the model’s torso as she approaches the shoreline. 


Pass it on
Heidi Gruetzemacher’s Passages exhibit runs at the Valley Art Gallery in Orcutt through Saturday, Sept. 28. The show is open to the public during the gallery’s regular hours: Tuesday through Friday, from noon to 6 p.m., and every Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The gallery is located at 125 W. Clark Ave., Orcutt. Call (805) 937-2278 or visit for more info.

Valley Art Gallery’s new exhibit, Passages, features conceptual and figurative photography from local artist Heidi Gruetzemacher.


“Passages is part of an ongoing body of conceptual photographic work exploring life, death, and the metaphysical realm of the spirit,” said Gruetzemacher, who has been using figurative photography to translate such concepts since the early-to-mid ’90s. 

The first of Gruetzemacher’s spirit-themed exhibitions was Spirit and the Feminine, which showed at Allan Hancock College’s gallery (before it became known as the Ann Foxworthy Gallery) in 1994. The exhibit consisted of black-and-white silver gelatin prints, accompanied by hand-colored details. A second showcase debuted in 2014, exhibiting black-and-white montage works, making Passages the third series in Gruetzemacher’s ongoing project. 

“It really occurred to me that I am drawn to expressing the same questions in each series,” Gruetzemacher said. “Eventually, I would like to create a book, but that is down the road a bit.”


“Passages is part of an ongoing body of conceptual photographic work exploring life, death, and the metaphysical realm of the spirit,” artist Heidi Gruetzemacher said, describing her latest exhibit.


For Passages, Gruetzemacher specifically chose to shoot near the sea for thematic purposes, using Avila Beach, Oso Flaco, and the Guadalupe Dunes, among other local destinations. 

“The sea was the beginning of us all and is abundant with life. Where there is life on Earth, there is also death,” Gruetzemacher said. “Life is the journey between birth and death. Spirit leads us to our paths, without our even knowing it. The choices that we make become our lives.”

As for the artist’s own journey, Gruetzemacher first became passionate about photography while studying at Hancock. She valued the program for not only teaching the craft and process of photography but for offering a wealth of information on the subject in a Google-less world, she explained.

“The photography courses at Hancock exposed me to the contemporary fine art photography world for the first time,” Gruetzemacher said. “Keep in mind there was no Google nor search engine of any kind available to us back in 1984 when I began to study.”

Some of Gruetzemacher’s former instructors included Steven Lewis, founder of the school’s photography program, and Nat Fast, founder of the Santa Maria Arts Council. During college, Gruetzemacher also worked as a photography lab assistant, which encouraged experimentation and helped hone her printing craft, she said. 

“I was able to begin experimenting with different processes in the dark room,” Gruetzemacher said, “such as printing from multiple negatives, solarization, etc.” 

Not long after taking on the assistant position, Gruetzemacher quickly became lab manager, and later started working as the staff photographer for the school’s Media Services Department. To further supplement her income, the artist began picking up freelance work shooting weddings and portraits. From that point on, Gruetzemacher made an informal pact of sorts, she explained.


“The sea was the beginning of us all and is abundant with life,” Heidi Gruetzemacher said about choosing to shoot at coastal locations. “Where there is life on Earth, there is also death.”


In Heidi Gruetzemacher’s The Reward, the subject appears to us a transparent, ghostlike figure, tying into the exhibit’s spiritual theme. 


“I made a decision in my mid-20s that I would accept no work that was not art related,” Gruetzemacher said. “I never looked back.”

In 1995, the artist began her career as a designer and framer for Frame Gallery in Orcutt. She became owner of the gallery five years later. Aside from running the business to this day, Gruetzemacher also volunteers at Valley Art Gallery, currently serving as the board’s vice president. 

Arts Editor Caleb Wiseblood also loves working in an art-related field. Reach him at

April 2019

Valley Art exhibit features local artists John Card, Beverly Johnson, and more


It's always refreshing to see the work of Orcutt painter John Card on the wall at any gallery or public exhibit.

This time it was at the Santa Maria Public Airport, where members of Valley Art Gallery are showing some of their latest work. As usual, the new pieces from the artists are surprising, both on an elemental and a subjective level. The collection ranges from photography to painting, both realism and abstract. But even in this diverse group of painters, there is always a cohesion that speaks to the hyperlocal nature of their collective.


The latest Valley Art Gallery exhibit features the work of many artists, including Beverly Johnson, who specializes in acrylic pour techniques. Her pieces, such as Waterfall, feature a blend of realism and abstraction. 


Card's work this time dabbles in abstraction. He's not a painter who shies away from experimenting in different formats. He came to art somewhat later in his life, as an adventurous retiree, seeking self-expression and a challenge. Card has steadfastly refused to allow himself to be pigeonholed in any one genre, which is why his paintings can often take you by surprise. The minute you think you know what to expect, he delivers something bold and out of his comfort zone. It's artists like Card who make the local art scene so vibrant and entertaining.

For this latest exhibit, Card pounces with a piece called Firestorm, an ambitious acrylic painting that focuses on a certain kind of duality. Card really lets himself go, mixing inherently unpragmatic colors (purples, oranges, yellows, etc.) creating a bifurcated canvas where one side juxtaposes the next. No, he isn't an expert in abstract painting, but he's certainly diving into the form without hiding his enthusiasm or naiveté.

Another familiar face to the world of abstraction and still life is Beverly Johnson. Johnson is relatively new to the format, having taken it up a few years ago while looking for a break from her traditional work. But it's clear that she's quickly becoming an expert at the method, which involves using generous amounts of paint and manipulating it while moving the canvas (by spinning or tilting it) and then using tools such as an artist's palette knife to create shapes and bring new colors to the surface.

Her piece in this latest exhibit is called Waterfall, and it represents a merging of her two worlds as a painter. The waterfall behind the neat color arrangement of long waving flowers is made using the pouring technique. Johnson then wipes through the paint she pours, using the knife to create the illusion of water reflecting dozens of colors and light variations.


Get in the spotlight
Valley Art Gallery’s latest exhibit features a collection of work from many of its members. The work is on display through May 31 at the Santa Maria Public Airport District, 3900 Terminal Drive, Santa Maria. For more information, call (805) 937-2278. 


Like Card, Johnson doesn't stay chained to any one strict format or genre. She likes to play with her ideas and let her subjects dictate where to go. There's a pleasant familiarity in her work, even when she branches into new places—and it's work that should definitely be seen in person, to give the true scope of how well she balances fundamentals such as texture and light.

Another local artist (who tackled a subject out of our region) is Suzanne Rynders, an artist who is relatively new to me. Her piece in the exhibit is Bixby Bridge, Big Sur, a colorful landscape that feels playful and evocative. Rynders doesn't shy away from bold pops of color to create a portrait of a landmark that's increased in popularity over recent years.

I especially loved the way she parked her setting in bright daylight, allowing the intensity of the whites to glow in the piece. It's a work of art that feels casual but has more moving parts within the palette and composition than is immediately detectable.

Rynders' other piece is Dolphins Leaping, another acrylic painting that gives a good insight into her restraint as a painter. Rynders is skilled at creating shapes and letting the brain fill in the rest of the story, while focusing on playing with shadows and color gradients.

While all of the artists have unique points of view and styles, everything feels uniformly Californian (there are hints of the original California Scene Painters in almost every inch of canvas). But they speak specifically to the Central Coast; these are local artists putting their special stamp on culture, scenery, and the lifestyle specific zip code.

The exhibit is free and open to the public at the airport, which is a great place to see paintings and other artwork by some of the region's top artists. Free public art is increasingly difficult to come by in certain regions, and no one should miss the chance to experience it while they can.

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose is purely abstract. Contact her at

March 2019

Painter Rachel Lee's new exhibit embraces her California roots


In food writing, the word succulent conjures up images of something juicy, ripe to the point of perfection, or beautifully fork-tender. In nature, it evokes a sense of heartiness, a sturdy will against rough or turbulent times.


Artist Rachel Lee returned to California after spending 10 years in Italy. For her latest show, Lee chose succulents to celebrate her homecoming to the Golden State.


Succulents are plants that can withstand great environmental upheaval, such as a drought or a blizzard (or even a terrible green thumb). Images of cacti and other such plants and trees spring to mind, and it's often difficult to picture them as anything other than the foreboding manner they present—prickly and dangerous, meant to ward off predators who seek the sacred water inside them.

But for artist Rachel Lee, succulents possess a more comforting beauty, found not just in their shape and color, but in what they represent to her personally. After spending 10 years in Italy, Lee has returned to her Central Coast homeland to share a new body of work devoted to succulents in a show that runs at Valley Art Gallery in Orcutt through March 31.

The first thing that captures you when entering the space is how important light is to paintings such as these. The sunlight in the gallery's main room takes the viewer out of a formal setting and gives each piece a more natural perspective. Lee has a masterful way with color and light; she is an expert at drawing the eye into the darker areas of her canvas, where the light glistens on each fleck of paint.


Valley Art Gallery in Orcutt hosts a new exhibit, Succulent, by painter Rachel Lee. Lee’s exhibit runs through March 31.


The artist spent a decade in Italy learning about food and working as a chef, and she had a difficult time saying goodbye to the European country. As part of her homecoming, Lee decided she would commemorate some of the things she loved about California. She chose succulents because, as a SLO native, they reminded her of home. In her latest exhibit, she does a strong job highlighting the everyday flora of our community and their distinct beauty.

Dancing Succulent is one of the strongest pieces in the show, and the piece demonstrates Lee's keen ability to create shapes within narrow definitions of a subject. The texture on this painting is also quite remarkable; Dancing Succulent feels extremely organic, as though it would be soft and inviting to the touch (an immediate betrayal of its subject matter).

Flapjack flowers are a succulent plant known for their bright and diverse colors, and in her painting of one, Lee doesn't disappoint. Flapjack Flower has an almost alien-like quality to it; as one traces through the layers of thick petal-like leaves, it begins to feel like a birth, as the new leaves slowly push back and emerge from the pod. Again, Lee allows the light to tell a story, as it welcomes smaller petals into the brighter parts of the canvas.


Welcome back
Rachel Lee’s show, Succulent, celebrating her return to the Central Coast after 10 years in Italy, runs through March 31 at Valley Art Gallery. The gallery is located at 125 W. Clark Ave. in Orcutt. For more information, contact (805) 937-2278.


In paintings such as Pearls and Hens and SLO Agave, Lee reminds the viewer that she is here to celebrate a homecoming, embracing realism and allowing her skill as an oil painter to shine through.

In addition to her canvas work, Lee also does some paintings on hardwood panels. The surface allows for the paint to move more smoothly and easily. The technique is effective in work such as Zucchini Blossoms, which shows her ability to blend and effortlessly merge colors together in longer shapes and movements.

Lee's next body of work is devoted to feminist icons, and it is perhaps fitting that she has first presented this succulent collection. As she broaches the prickly points and off-putting spikes, Lee calls attention to a necessary danger of the beauty in nature, one that asks to be understood and embraced carefully.

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose is quite prickly. Contact her at

January 2019

Shamrock Acosta's daring sculptures break out of the box


The work of Shamrock Acosta doesn’t take long to jump out at you.


Shamrock Acosta spent 43 years as a general contractor in Los Angeles before turning to the art world. His sculptures breathe new life into found objects such as tools and other heavy machinery.


Bold yet unapologetically playful, Acosta’s pieces are an expression of synergy between all of the best elements of art and are largely created from found or repurposed items. A saw with a grinning face. A robot with the body of an antique radio. But the unusual fruits of his labor don’t mean that he immediately always sees himself as an artist.

“This is by accident,” Acosta said of his second career. “It’s an anomaly as far as I’m concerned. There are no so-called artists in my family. I’m the lost link.”

Much like his reshaped and reformed objects, Acosta himself has found a new purpose and meaning through his artwork. For years the Orcutt-based sculptor worked as a general contractor, spending more than 40 years doing construction at the homes of some of the world’s most wealthy and famous people, such as actor Kirk Douglas, whom Acosta recalled fondly. But the celebrity world never really went to his head.

“I’m just a very simple guy,” Acosta said. “I guess I never really understood where I really was. It was just unbelievable. I saw amazing art, and I was given amazing opportunities with these people.”

A stint working for famed Los Angeles designer Rose Tarlow showed the contractor a wealth of possibilities when it came to creating unusual projects or pieces for home and office spaces. Acosta’s projects and work over his decades in contracting ranged from cabinet installation to more unique client requests, such as turning a railroad caboose into a bed.


Sculptor Shamrock Acosta finds ways to bring inanimate objects to life. 


When it comes to describing the origins of his artistic drive, he finds himself at a loss for words. He said he closed a chapter of his life when he retired four years ago as a builder and creator and didn’t think he would ever pursue it again. Nor did he ever see himself becoming an artist.

“I wasn’t really a painter,” Acosta said. “I’m a fish out of water when it comes to the art scene.”

An ill-fated attempt at a yard sale is what ultimately launched his second career as an artist. Acosta tried to have a sale to get rid of some of his old carpentry tools. But the sale proved be almost entirely fruitless and it was then that a creative spark ignited within Acosta. He decided that he would try to reinvent his tools into something else.

“I took them apart,” Acosta said. “I re-created them. I made something that looked like a wolf. I made a little robot.”

A trip to a junkyard with a close friend also helped him begin to see possibilities in discarded or found art. A small sprocket became an eye, wires became fingers, and metal began to feel alive.

“It was like magic,” Acosta said. “I never had that feeling. It just traveled through my mind.”


Valley Art Gallery is the home for much of Shamrock Acosta’s work. His sculptures and creations transform everyday objects into whimsical designs imbued with human touches.


Later on, a woman looking for a unique birthday present for her husband stumbled upon one of the sculptures Acosta had designed to resemble the iconic robot from the television series Lost in Space. He saw it as his “firstborn,” one of his originals, and he was initially reluctant to let it go. He finally parted with it, earning a little less than $200 for the sale.    

“That was my first real sale,” Acosta said. “I thought, ‘Well maybe there is something to this then.’”

Even as his sales have grown, Acosta hasn’t let go of his blue collar roots as an artist. Many of the ideas come from experiences he’s had on the job as well as his expertise with tools and construction materials that others might find burdensome or difficult to work with. The elemental nature of his work is strong—steel and copper and other mixed metals feel almost absorbent to human connection. 

But make no mistake; Acosta’s work isn’t kitsch. These aren’t toy figures cutesily clamoring for anthropomorphism. They are achingly antique, fixed to a time and purpose no longer warranted by human consumption. They are a testament to consumerism, innovation, and evolution all at once.


Giving new life
Shamrock Acosta’s sculptures are available to view at Valley Art Gallery, located at 125 W. Clark Ave., Orcutt. For more information, visit or call (805) 937-2278.


What Acosta has really thrived on since becoming an artist is his own staunch belief in himself and the possibilities of his work. He seems to see endless possibilities, not just in the discarded or seemingly broken elements of his art he gathers, but in himself as well. He said that’s what drove him to pursue art.

“I didn’t see that I had limits,” Acosta said. “I wasn’t limited as far as what I wanted to do. I wouldn’t take anyone telling me I couldn’t do something.” 


Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose is made entirely out of old junk. Contact her at

January 2019

Artist John Card celebrates long history with Valley Art Gallery


John Card has drawn since his earliest days growing up in Montana, but it wasn't until his retirement on the Central Coast that his "spare-time diversion" became a more serious artistic endeavor.


John Card has spent more than a decade as a part of the Valley Art Gallery. His art reflects a delicate and intimate personal style, in a diverse variety of media.


Since then, Card has expanded his range of media and has become a familiar face in the local art scene. For more than a decade, Card has been involved with the Valley Art Gallery in Orcutt, a nonprofit co-op gallery run by artists. The Sun recently connected with Card to speak about his work, inspiration, and being involved with the gallery. 

SunHow long have you been with the Valley Art Gallery?

John Card: I started at the art gallery when it was at the Veterans' Memorial [Hall]. In 2006, we moved over to Town Center West at the mall. ... We were there for awhile and then we moved out to Orcutt. I was on the board of directors from 2006 to 2017, I believe.

Sun: What are some of the things they do that you support or feel are important?

Card: We help with a scholarship fund for [Allan] Hancock [College] art students, ... we provide a $1,000 scholarship every year. We've held shows all over town at different venues. We also have a partnership with the Santa Maria Library where we have children's art classes.


Artist John Card began painting in 1997 after he retired. Since then, he has taken a series of local art classes, practicing in almost every medium from pencil drawing to silk painting.

Sun: How did you get started as an artist?


Card: I retired in 1997 and didn't have any real hobbies, so I decided to take an art class at Allan Hancock College. I took a drawing class and then my daughter had taken a watercolor class and didn't like it so she sent me all her equipment that she bought. So I signed up for a watercolor class. I've taken a lot of classes at Hancock; it's amazing, how well they treat the senior citizens. That's how I got started. I just continued to take classes. I'm still taking classes over there.

Sun: What are some of your favorite subjects to paint?

Card: I go out to my little painting room during the day and I don't even know what I'm going to do. Something strikes me–it might be a watercolor or it might be an acrylic. But the subject can be almost anything. I don't really stick to one subject matter. I liked to paint just about anything. I've never stuck to one subject or even one medium. I do watercolor, silk painting, acrylic, pencil drawings, pen and ink. I like it all but I've never tried oil.


Drawn from memory
For more information on John Card’s work, visit Valley Art Gallery at 125 W. Clark Ave. Orcutt,, or call (805) 937-2278.

Sun: How would you describe your style and the way that you paint? What are some of the things that have helped or inspired you along the way?


Card: I really don't know how to describe it. It can be almost anything. Fortunately, I was in a class with [former Ann Foxworthy Gallery director and teacher] Marti Fast, who retired last year, and her class and the students in it were very imaginative and very cooperative. Everyone had lots of different ideas. She would give us a topic and you'd have 30 different responses to that topic that next week in class. A lot of my inspiration just came from this vague topic thrown out and watching what everybody did with that in mind.

Sun: Some of your paintings feature remote rural areas, farms, grain elevators, and trains. What were those based on or where did you get the idea for them? 

Card: It had to be more than 10 years ago; I was traveling from my hometown in Whitefish, Montana, to my birth town of Havre, along Highway 2. I passed a grain elevator and took a photo of it. I did several paintings of that grain elevator. I put them in with boxcars that came from the Great Northern Railroad. I've used that grain elevator in quite a few paintings.  

Sun: What's a highlight of being part of the art community in greater Santa Maria?

Card: The art crowd in Santa Maria is very sharing in their techniques and ideas. It seems like there is a lot of camaraderies and that is exciting in itself. If somebody comes up with something new, they are always more than willing to try it out. 

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose has another quippy close for arts secondaries. Contact her at

December 2018

Artwork at the Santa Maria Public Airport District shows a diverse group of visionary artists


The holiday season has brought with it a new series of artwork at the Santa Maria Public Airport, with a lot of new pieces from local artists.

The show is curated by the Valley Art Gallery in Orcutt and features many of the nonprofit's members. One of the first things I was immediately impressed by was the sculpture work of Shamrock Acosta. (Look for his pieces in the glass case.) Acosta is doing a lot of fun things with found materials, especially vintage audio/radio equipment. Acosta's work has echoes of Isaac Asimov, an examination of a future world as envisioned by scientists 70 years ago. 

Every one of Acosta's pieces has its own sad and beautiful story to tell–an attempt to create life out of the wreckage of human existence. These creatures seem to have molded themselves, desperately trying to piece together their own vision of humanity in an effort to survive human recklessness. I am excited to see more of Acosta's work and glad that it has such a prominent public arena for display.


Marilyn Benson’s Juicy Fruit is a strong example of the artist’s mastery of Renaissance-era techniques. Her painting is part of the current show at the Santa Maria Public Airport District.


Another artist whose work stands out is Suzanne Rynders. Her After Glow, Morro Bay, an oil painting, is a nice departure from the traditional landscapes of the famed Morro Rock. Bathed in an eerie orange light, Rynders uses a strong palette of simple colors, experimenting with gradation and light in a whimsical and retro style. 

Marilyn Benson, one of my favorite local painters, is represented with a captivating still life entitled Juicy Fruit. Benson's work always has a hint of Renaissance technique and style, and the painting of the three pears is no exception. I love when artists focus on simple subject matter as a way to highlight their technique, and Benson is a master of this.

The trio of pears presents an interesting dynamic in shape and how they each affect the lighting. Benson chooses to tell her story through light, creating dramatic shifts in tone and brush technique, playing off the elaborate juxtapositions in light and dark. It's a captivating piece that stands out, despite its humble subject matter.  

John Card's Zantedeschia is a good example of still life deconstruction. Zantedeschia is the scientific name for Calla Lillies, and Card captures the familiar white bloom in a bold way, choosing an extremely limited color palette and sharp determined lines to draw the reader through the space.


John Card’s elemental portrait of a grain elevator and train is one of many pieces currently on display at the Santa Maria Public Airport through Dec. 31.


Card's work stuck out among the others for offering a bold look at nature, taking the organic into a more structured zone. Another one of Card's stunning pieces features a railroad on an isolated open field next to a red grain elevator. It's a remarkable use of composition and open space, telling a broader story with very few elements.

Photographers are also represented, including Sharon Foster with her Coastal Fog II. Her photograph is utterly captivating for its scope and subject matter. Foster caught the coastline of Highway 1 just as a heavy blanket of fog rolled in. The contrast between the dusty cloud of fog and the swirling bright ocean beneath it is rather striking, complemented by the hints of wild fauna on the cliffs.

Public art is an important element of any community, and Santa Maria's airport provides a needed access point to media created by artists from the community. Once again, the show demonstrates the eclectic nature of the creatives who make up the Santa Maria Valley and the unique ways they see the world around them. 

Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose is mostly made of trash. Contact her at

November 2018

Jan Howard debuts solo show at Valley Art Gallery


You won't find Jan Howard's work on any website or social media platform.


Jan Howard has grown a following as a local artist in the Santa Maria Valley. The landscape and still life painter is featured in a solo show at Valley Art Gallery in Orcutt through Nov. 30.


The painter, who is featured as the artist of the month through Nov. 30 at Valley Art Gallery, doesn't put her work online. She's never downloaded Snapchat and doesn't have a Facebook to promote her work. She doesn't use email, so if you want to track her down, you'll have to go old-school and make a phone call.

On the phone, Howard is gracious and grandmotherly, pleased to talk about her show.  

"I like to share," she said. "I just enjoy sharing my work, whether it's with friends from church or people at the gallery. It's just nice for me."

As a longtime member of Valley Art Gallery, Howard has obtained a sizable following of fans who are impressed with her keen eye for color and composition. And perhaps her distance from the frantic pace of social media and the instant gratification of online interactions is what makes her work so special. She's always been patient and practiced with her work, even when she began years ago.

When Howard and her husband first moved to Arnold, California, a neighbor approached her and asked if she'd like to join an art class with her. Howard enthusiastically agreed.

"I had dabbled in a lot of things at that point," she said. "We had just moved to that town. I went and it just took, big time."


Jan Howard was inspired by her uncle, an ornithologist, to study nature and wildlife as a painter. She is currently featured at Valley Art Gallery through Nov. 30.


She started painting birds, a subject near and dear to her heart. Her uncle was Harvey Fisher, a well-known ornithologist. Fisher published numerous technical books and papers on birds, including studies on the albatrosses of Midway Island in the Pacific. In 1955, Fisher became chair of the Department of Zoology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. That was around the time a young Howard took an interest in her uncle's meticulous studies of birds. 

"It was just a natural thing for me to take off from what I'd learned from him," Howard said. "I just enjoyed it. Part of it was I began to realize there were some beautiful birds around the world. He was really encouraging to me."

A major turning point was when she entered the Calaveras County Fair in 1993. Some of her paintings won a couple of awards, including a Best in Show, a pleasant surprise for the up-and-coming artist. The success encouraged Howard to move forward with her art. 

"It started out as a hobby," she said. "I was doing some other things and my husband said to pick one. So I chose fine arts."

The couple had wanted to spend the rest of their lives in Arnold, on the outskirts of the Stanislaus National Forest. But health issues, including a Parkinson's diagnosis for her husband, caused them to make the move to the Central Coast in 2009, where their daughter resides.

She said the move was good for her work as an artist.

"There are a lot of artists and organizations, and I really appreciate that," Howard said. "I've been with [Valley Art Gallery] since we came here. It's been really good for me."

When it comes to her process as a painter, Howard prefers to be spontaneous, going with whatever feels natural at the time. She paints plein air occasionally but does most of her painting in her home studio. 


Quiet life
Jan Howard’s paintings are now on display at Valley Art Gallery through Nov. 30. The gallery is located at 125 W. Clark Ave., Orcutt. For more information, call (805) 937-2278.


She works off of photographs for much of her work but said that she tries to start paintings on the spot, like when she's on vacation or traveling. 

"I have a painting that's of a divi-divi tree," Howard said. "I started that while we were on a cruise down in the Caribbean. I've also done paintings I started while we were in Australia. Those were mostly birds–one is a black swan, one is a crimson rosella." 

Both of those paintings are featured in Howard's show at the Valley Art Gallery. In addition to her paintings of birds and landscapes, she also has a fascination with structures, such as barns and the missions that dot the landscape of the Central Coast, as well as the work of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. 

For Howard, an important aspect of being part of the gallery is the work members do for young artists, especially students who have seen their arts education erode over the past several years due to funding cuts and program priorities. Howard said Valley Art tries to help young artists through scholarships and by including them in a lot of the activities and programs they set up. 

"They are very interested in the young artists," she said. "Our group has helped out a lot there. I feel like we're picking up where the schools have left off. We're doing what we can." 

 Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose also hates the internet. Contact her at

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,