by Rebekah Altman
The awe that Santa Barbara County’s natural beauty inspires is nowhere as palpable as in the work of The Oak Group—a shifting consortium of artists who have captured the wild preciousness of this region in oils, acrylic, watercolor and (in one case) photography for 25 years.
Capped at 25 members, the group comes together throughout the year for special exhibits benefiting environmental organizations or targeted preservation causes. Two of the group’s earliest accomplishments were helping to save Carpinteria Bluffs and Douglas Family Preserve (then called the Wilcox property) from development.
“The formation of the group was about painting the land,” says co-founder Arturo Tello, “but we wanted to use our art as a tool.” For each exhibit, the region in question is the artists’ subject, making a pointed connection and an irreplaceable portrait of places in peril. Tello continues, “Once we lose these places, that’s it. These are the open spaces that Santa Barbara enjoys.”
Tello, who founded the group with the late Ray Strong, believes that The Oak Group was the first environmentally focused painting group, eventually becoming the “grandfather” of other similar groups.
Marcia Burtt, another long-time member, recounts: “It wasn’t just that we were starting out 25 years ago, it’s that the whole movement was starting out [following the rise of Modernism and decline of representational painting in the mid-20th century]. I’ve been all over, and there aren’t any better plein air painters…in terms of critical mass.”
Although the artists usually work independently, they get together for a paint-out once a year to celebrate the legendary Strong’s birthday. He is considered the “spiritual father” of the group. Says Burtt, “when I go out on location, I feel like I’m just living what I’m looking at, and it’s coming through my eyes, and I respond, and it comes out the brush… It’s not an intellectual process.”
Burtt sums up the longevity of the group and loyalty of its members: “The Oak Group has persisted partly through personality and partly through the devotion to the environment that we all have. And if you’re not a very political person, in the sense of not wanting to go out and make phone calls or hold rallies, this is something you can do where you feel like you’re constantly working for what you believe in.”
Current Oak Group members are Meredith Brooks Abbott, Whitney Brooks Abbott, Marcia Burtt, Chris Chapman, John Comer, William B. Dewey, Michael Drury, Erika Edwards, Michael Enriquez, Karen Gruszka, Whitney Brooks Hansen, Jeremy Harper, Ray Hunter, John Iwerks, Larry Iwerks, Manny Lopez, William Mitchell, Hank Pitcher, Ann Sanders, Richard Schloss, Skip Smith, Arturo Tello, Thomas Van Stein and Sarah Vedder. To see a video about the Oak Group click here. For information about upcoming exhibits, visit www.theoakgroup.info.