Any discussion of Sonoma County artists known for working en plein air has to mention Jack Stuppin, Bill Wheeler, Tony King and the late Bill Morehouse, known as the “Sonoma Four.
The Four enjoyed each other’s company and loved to work outside. “It all goes to show you don’t necessarily need a studio to make art. That’s the bottom line,” said Bill Wheeler, the longtime Occidental resident who first gained Sonoma County notoriety in the 1960s when he hosted a hippie commune on his Coleman Valley Road ranch.
The Sonoma Four were originally East Coast artists. King was a New York City painter before moving to Sonoma County. He met Morehouse in New York. Wheeler studied at Yale in the 1960s before settling in at his ranch on Coleman Valley Road. Stuppin, now arguably the reigning contemporary among Sonoma County plein artists, grew up in Yonkers, graduated from Columbia University in New York City and was a successful investment banker.
Phil Linhares, a former chief curator of art at the Oakland Museum, found it noteworthy that the four, who were trained to work in various studio environments, had “embraced the plein air tradition at this time,” which was the 1980s and early ’90s.
“The question that occurs is what these artists of different temperaments and aesthetic concerns may be bringing to the expansion of open air landscape painting,” said Linhares, in “En Plein Air,” a pamphlet that accompanied a 1992 San Francisco exhibit of the Sonoma Four’s work.
“The outings are convivial but demanding and are serious working sessions lasting from early morning to sunset,” wrote Linhares. “The group chooses sites and alternates according to weather conditions and other factors. They sometimes meet early in Occidental for coffee and planning and are quickly off to the agreed upon location for the day’s work.
Linhares noted there was also an inherent political conviction among the Four who believed Sonoma County’s ruggedly beautiful natural landscape had a value transcending the pressures of the real estate market. Rural Sonoma County dwellers and visitors in the 1980s were worried (as they should have been) about the coastward march of urban sprawl. The town of Windsor, for example, was suddenly and quickly replacing formerly undeveloped oak woodlands with a paved suburb of thousands of tract homes. The Town of Windsor was incorporated in 1992, the same year the Sonoma Four’s exhibit opened in San Francisco at the John Berggruen Gallery.
As the Four became friends and began painting together in western Sonoma County, they eventually traveled across the U.S. to work en plein air. A catalog entitled “Cross Country” chronicles the historic trip of four artists driving around the U.S. to paint iconic American landscapes such as Yosemite’s Half Dome and South Dakota’s Badlands.
The painters endured bad weather, mechanical breakdowns and road weariness, wrote Linhares in his account. “The logistics of the trip were considerably simpler than those of earlier generations of artists,” wrote Linhares. “No horses, pack mules, salted provisions or guides were required. Tony King outfitted a rented yellow truck with racks to store wet paintings, fresh canvasses, paint, brushes, watercolor and drawing materials. Meals were taken at roadside cafes. Stuppin and Morehouse slept in motels, King and Wheeler, in the truck. Bill Morehouse’s venerable “Suburban,” an oversized station wagon, provided a backup car.
“The rigors of the trip emphasized — consciously or not — the performance side of making art,” wrote Linhares. The four artists “painted out of doors, under the sun, in the cold and the wind; they saw new light, form and color and expanded their vocabularies as artist in the process,” said Linhares.
“The trip was wonderfully successful and a lot of fun,” said Wheeler.
“We spent eight hours a day painting, eight hours a day driving and eight hours a day for everything else,” said Jack Stuppin.
Stuppin said he sometimes worked all day on a single painting. “I didn’t pay any attention trying to capture the light at the moment,” said Stuppin. “Most of my paintings look like they were painted at high noon.”
The most important message for plein air painters, said Stuppin, “is to develop your own style.”
“A lot of professional art people kind of scoff at plein air,” said Stuppin. “So much of it is trying to do what’s already been done. The four of us were really not paying attention to what had been painted before. We evolved our own styles.”
Stuppin’s work can be seen in prints at local venues such as the Sonoma County Museum, Copperfield’s Bookstores, Hand Goods gallery in Occidental and the Bodega Landmark Gallery. His work is in many public collections, including the Sonoma County Museum, San Francisco’s de Young Fine Arts Museum and the Oakland Museum. His original paintings are shown at ACA Galleries in New York; he has a show up through September 18 at Google headquarters in Mountain View.
Story by Frank Robertson
Photo by Joe Barkoff