Artists Find Inspiration in Tujunga’s Rural Oasis

There’s a mood of quiet serenity here. The mist rolls over the mountaintops. The sky greets onlookers with a distinctive sense of majesty. The sounds of nature--birds singing, insects chirping, wildlife scampering through the brush--all evoke the rustic sense of the wilderness.

But it’s not some remote getaway that provides this natural haven. It is the foothills surrounding the Sunland-Tujunga area. And nestled throughout this same area are artists enjoying the rural environment--and the inspiration it provides.

It’s difficult to pinpoint how many artists live in the vicinity. Earl Sherburn, director of the McGroarty Arts Center in Tujunga, estimates that at least 100 fine artists live in the immediate area. Some participate in the various art courses and exhibits at the 18-room mansion, operated under the auspices of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. About 40 are members of the Sunland-Tujunga Art Assn., formed in 1978 as an offshoot of another association, when members realized so many artists lived in the area.


The Sunland-Tujunga artists say the area provides them with an environment that helps their artistic expression--and that’s something they’re openly enthusiastic about.

‘Easygoing Atmosphere’

“There’s an easygoing atmosphere here,” said Chilean-born artist Pablo Campos. “The fact that people do leave you alone is conducive to art. You can work in tranquillity. There are fewer social commitments and the need to impress is absent.”

When Campos, 41, purchased his Tujunga house and accompanying half-acre in 1976, he did so because the area was “quiet, inexpensive and there weren’t tract homes. Everything was unique.” Other artists also named affordable housing as a reason for moving to the area.

The area continues to offer home buyers substantial savings compared to adjoining communities, said Bill Alfson, real estate broker and owner of the Tujunga Century 21 office.

“The properties are a lot more reasonable. In the early and mid-1920s, this was a resort area, and a lot of people built cabins here. So we have what are called ‘fixer uppers,’ homes with a lot of character that people buy and completely refurbish,” Alfson said.

He said the average two-bedroom home in the Sunland-Tujunga area now sells for $141,000, while comparably sized homes in La Crescenta-Montrose, La Canada-Flintridge, Pasadena and Glendale sell for $192,000, $332,000, $203,000 and $230,000, respectively.

Campos is one of the renovators, making his home appear much like a SoHo loft with its open spaces, sleek, modern furniture and sense of minimalism. On his property, he also has a studio where he spends a good portion of each day working on his vibrantly colored abstract paintings.

Watercolorist and oil painter Tyrus Wong, 78, who has lived in Sunland about 40 years, said it was the quietness of the area that first attracted him. On his 2 1/2 acres, he has maintained a secluded environment that abounds with artistic influences.

Wind chimes blow in the breeze, amid the painstakingly landscaped outdoors with its lush foliage and carefully placed rocks. Winding stone stairs lead to his studio, where Wong, a former preproduction illustrator for Disney Studios, now spends much of his time designing, constructing and painting unusual kites. Among his collection of several hundred are a swallow with an 8-foot wingspan, a 102-foot-long centipede and 25 butterflies that Wong flies simultaneously in a row.

Like Campos, Wong has renovated his home, going so far as to install a large picture window behind which stands a man-made waterfall. Intrigued with the outdoor environment and its capacity for inspiration, Wong placed several bird feeders throughout his property to attract wild birds. He finds enjoyment just watching the wildlife roam his land. “It’s ideal here for what I do,” he said. “I love the trees and the wild animals, the peace and quiet.”

For Gail Wolfe, a painter in her 50s who specializes in drawing and painting wildlife, the Tujunga area provides a wealth of subject matter. Among her favorite pastimes is observing the hundreds of birds that regularly visit her property--hummingbirds, orioles, chickadees, grosbeaks, blue herons--and the various animals, including raccoons, owls, deer and coyotes.

In 1969, when Wolfe and her husband purchased the property where their house now stands, their primary interest was to settle outside town. “We wanted to be on the edge of civilization,” she said.

In 1975, they moved a trailer onto the property, which is just inside the Angeles National Forest, and subsequently built their present residence. Since only nine homes are in this part of the forest, the area has remained much the same over the years.

The natural setting has continued to provide Wolfe with inspiration, she said. “As an artist, you need the solitude,” she said. “Living here, you feel like you’re a part of nature.”

Unlike many of the other artists, painter Lucille DeThomas is a relative newcomer to the area. In 1985, she moved to Sunland and said the neighborhood is the “kind of place I’ve always dreamed of. Everybody is very neighborly and there are big trees lining my street--and I absolutely love the mountains.” DeThomas also said she likes the fact that the community is growing, it’s easily accessible to the freeway and the housing is affordable. (It was in 1981 that the Pasadena Freeway was opened in the area. In 1983, the final section of the Simi Valley Freeway was completed, making its way through the Sunland-Tujunga area.)

In her home, DeThomas has designated two rooms as her workplace. In those rooms, she creates her impressionistic paintings and teaches privately. She also instructs classes in painting at the McGroarty Arts Center.

Another artist and art educator in Sunland is watercolorist Al Porter, who has been a professor of art at Cal State Fullerton since 1971. In 1954, he was attracted to the ruralism of the area and decided to build his home there. From his living room, Porter enjoys a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and shrubbery. Living in such an environment, with the canyons and characteristic weather patterns, has helped him in his work, he said.

“Working in watercolors, you enjoy the outdoor experience,” he said. “You have constant impressions of nature here. It’s the best of both worlds. There’s access to the city and the art museums, but there’s also a sense of being out in the country.”

The artists must travel to other parts of L.A. for art supplies, but for limited edition and fine art printing they need only travel to Foothill Boulevard for a visit to La Paloma. Artisan Ron McPherson, who grew up in the area, opened his printing shop in Tujunga seven years ago, mainly because he enjoyed the area and the commercial rents were reasonable. As a former artisan at Gemini in Los Angeles, McPherson had worked with such renowned artists as David Hockney and Roy Lichtenstein, among others, and now continues to work with top artists from around the country.

The artists living in Sunland-Tujunga said the area does have its drawbacks. As Campos sees it, one problem is the proliferation of apartment buildings in the area. Development “brings more traffic, more drugs, more crime,” he said.

But Sue Chang, Los Angeles city planning associate for the Sunland-Tujunga area, said that although there has been an increase in the number of multiple-dwelling complexes in the district during the past two years, “the trend has been citywide and not restricted to Sunland-Tujunga.” She cited zone changes and lower interest rates as the reasons for increased construction activity in the city of Los Angeles.

Still, artists in the area are concerned about what they view as increased congestion and the crime that goes along with it. Wong’s home has been burglarized five times in the last 10 years, and he said there have been several instances of vandalism. “Young kids throw rocks through the window,” he said. “It’s a nuisance.”

He knows that such problems exist all over. “I have friends who live all over L.A. and they tell me their homes have been broken into,” he said. “It’s happening all over the place. I just keep my fingers crossed that it doesn’t happen again.”

Wolfe said that because of the area’s seclusion, there are frequent problems with vandalism and theft, as well as with people shooting weapons in the canyon. Porter’s residence was broken into in 1976, and he since has had an alarm system installed. Nevertheless, within the past two years, there have been at least three attempted break-ins, he said.

Campos said that the weather can be more extreme in Sunland-Tujunga compared to the rest of Los Angeles, hotter in the summer and colder in the winter. When the warm Santa Ana winds blow, Campos often finds he cannot make prints of his work because the dry air causes the paper to shrink.

Living in the canyon also poses the additional threat of flooding. Wolfe’s house has suffered damage from three floods, including once when the entire house was flooded.

Despite some drawbacks, these artists share a certain connection with their physical surroundings, and often find themselves incorporating impressions from their living environment into their work.

“The environment can give you a sense of well-being or make you unstable,” Campos said. “Here there seems to be a sense of support for artists.”

Ziaya is a frequent contributor to Valley View.