Arturo Tello (left) and John Wullbrandt celebrate decades of friendship and painting in the two-person show, Dos Arbolitos
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then it’s a photo that inspired a thousand (or so) paintings when the Oak Group gathered under a vast eponymous tree along the San Marcos Foothill Preserve 35 years ago for a picture. Founded on the idea of painting the places of nature with the aim of drawing attention to the environmental risks of these same spaces, the group Oak has become a collective force of outdoor paintings and environmentalism.
The group was initially co-founded by painters and activists, Arturo Tello and Ray Strong, in December 1985. Over its 35-year history, the Oak Group has grown to 25 active members with more than 100 exhibits that have benefited more than 20 non-profit conservation organizations and whose sales $3 million to date has supported Open Space Preservation.
More recently, they came together again to recreate this same portrait, once again taken by an esteemed photographer and member of Oak, Bill Dewey; this time, unfortunately, without their co-founder Ray Strong, but with Jean Wullbrandt sitting in his place (and a similar profile).
It was within this image that the idea of a two-man show between Arturo and John really took hold. When meeting for the photo, Julie Morganwho runs the Santa Barbara Fine Art Gallery alongside her husband and renowned Oak Group artist, Richard Schlosshad already mentioned the idea of Arturo and John doing an exhibition together, but it was in front of this legendary oak tree that Arturo thought of the name of the exhibition: Dos Arbolitos (“Two dear little trees”).
While Linda Ronstadt’s song of the same title didn’t directly inspire the name, for Arturo its lyrics provided meaning and inspiration along the way. But in large part, the title is a symbol of their deep roots in Carpinteria, their long friendship, and the band’s influence along the way. Arturo, who also owns the Palm Loft Gallery in Carpinteria, adds, “John and I are interested in being a strong root for the community, branching out and just being a resource for the community. And so that’s part of the symbolism of that.
The resulting exposure, Dos Arbolitosopened September 1 at the Santa Barbara Fine Art Gallery and will run through November 27. The exhibition features a dozen new paintings by John and Arturo that cover their own style and address the subject, while also referencing the artists and Oak Group.
When developing the show, there was a natural tendency to invite other Oak members, but despite wanting their friends to join in, John and Arturo decided to stick with the idea. to keep it for them both. Both
artists note that a two-man show is quite rare and has a different dynamic to solo or group shows.
Two trees, two painters
For John, these days he will rarely go out and paint outdoors, mostly working in acrylics, which are more difficult to work outdoors. He uses a lot of drawings and photographs to preserve the images he hopes to paint. Over the years, his works have evolved from delicate miniatures to life-size murals, with two pieces in Dos Arbolitos being taller than five feet wide. He also notes that he never painted in one style or one subject.
This time around, John has chosen to focus his brush on the animals and features of life around his Carpinteria Ranch property. With about half of the paintings centering on surrounding wildlife, these works capture the graceful momentum of a red-tailed hawk or the weariness of a Back Burros after a day’s work (we assume).
In John Deere green, a lone tractor stands, almost proud but forgotten, surrounded by windswept grass and its top lines blending into the hill behind it. The seat, steering wheel, and other mechanical parts break the eye line as if trying to remember.
For Dos ArbolitosJohn painted other landscapes, including a tree scene, Crossroads, which he can see from his kitchen window. This one in particular he’s painted before, “but this time I painted it to emphasize the path,” adds John, “I thought, kind of a subtle reference to the the fact that Arturo and I have paths that cross, and so to this shows that our paths cross again.This site and its surroundings being the place where John and Arturo originally met, there is around 38, when Arturo, a young activist at the time, was taken there by John’s father, Ernie Wullbrandt, a town councilor and later mayor of Carpinteria.
Today, years later and after a long history of painting and activism, Arturo continues to work in the traditional form of plein-air paintings, mentioning that he practically lives in his van while working so he can paint on square. Approaching each painting, Arturo seeks to capture an “intimacy with my environment, nature and the surrounding environment”. He chose to paint many places in his “backyard” of Carpinteria for this exhibition, a setting that often inspires him and is reflected in his works.
Arturo has a background in figure painting, and although he no longer actively paints in that particular discipline, his influence is seen through his works. The trees will stretch out their limbs in the morning sun; hills and waves cross the composition with bodily curves. Many of his works have a moody palette – shadowswept views often receiving a hint of the last light of evening. These works seem to express how the landscape feels and how it moves through time, often featuring elements of light hitting surfaces and revealing life in the strokes of color. In Tar Pits Park in the foga dark, misty coastline is belied by the vibrant greens of the hillside and softened by the periwinkle sky.
He chose to take the Dos Arbolitos more literally theme for this exhibit, with the majority of the pieces featuring one or more trees in them. In one of his signature works for the show, Landmark Cypress, Tar Pits Park, Carpinteria, the distinct cypress tree stands prominently, stretching nearly the full height of the canvas, its impact magnified by the scale of the other cypress trees surrounding it. There are two paintings that feature the “Tenacity Tree”, which became a memorial and symbol for his mother, standing near where he and a friend picked up his mother’s ashes when she died. He notes, “The wonderful thing about this tree is that it looks completely dead, but it’s actually quite alive. And the part that’s alive is a big branch that goes down to the beach. He added that if the branch was straight, the tree would be as tall as the iconic cypress.
And just like their friendship with each other and with the other members of the Oak band, those relationships, steeped in history and a mutual love for the natural world, continue to grow with each day, the painting and even the occasional photograph.
See Dos Arbolitos at the Santa Barbara Fine Art Gallery (1321 State Street) or visit santabarbarafineart.com for more