Enigmas on Stone : Mystical Figures on Cave Wall Lure Artist Into Lifetime of Stalking Indian Rock Art

Times Staff Writer

Thirty years ago, on a fishing trip to the San Rafael wilderness outside Santa Barbara, Campbell Grant peered into a long-abandoned Chumash Indian cave and glimpsed his future.

In zinfandel reds and chalk whites, pictographs of animals, celestial objects and medicine men danced across the cave walls, images that were old before Columbus crossed the Atlantic.

“I was hooked,” the 79-year-old artist recalls. “I wanted to find the next one. They were being eroded and vandalized, and I wanted to save them for posterity.”

From that decisive moment came a lifelong passion for American Indian rock art and six books, including the 1965 classic “Rock Paintings of the Chumash.” The first published work on the subject, it records pictographs from 62 coastal mountain sites between San Luis Obispo and Malibu, including many in Ventura County.


Last week, Grant’s three-decade quest culminated in a show of his painted renditions of Chumash rock art at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Entitled “Cave Paintings of the Chumash as Recorded by Campbell Grant,” it runs through April 3 and marks the first time in 24 years that the collection has been exhibited.

“Campbell is one of the grand old men of California rock art,” said Ken Hedges, chief curator of the San Diego Museum of Man. “He established the credibility of rock-art studies as a legitimate scientific field.”

While there is a growing interest in rock art--seminars with field trips are offered through UCLA’s extension program--much of the ground-breaking work was done by people like Grant. When he began his research in 1960, armed with grants from the National Science Foundation, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and an archeological research foundation, there were only 18 known Chumash rock art sites.

He finished the project in 1964 with a list of 80 sites--some depicting scenes up to 30 feet long. The 22 paintings on display at the Santa Barbara museum capture the most vibrant and reflect years of sleuthing in scrub forests and rock formations, remote hills and high desert.

Grant pumped every source he could find, from local ranchers to forest rangers and hunters. He took two-day burro trips into the remote back country of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, hacking through the undergrowth with machetes to clear away cave entrances. One time, he sweet-talked an ornery, gun-wielding rancher into letting him explore his property.

The sweat and toil paid off. At one particularly memorable site in the Santa Ynez Mountains, Grant and his son--he often took family members along--found pestles sticking out of mortars used by the Chumash to grind acorns. It looked as if the Indians were coming back at any minute.

And Grant felt as Vasco Nunez de Balboa must have felt upon first setting eyes on the great Pacific Ocean.

“It just blew my mind. We knew very well that we were the first Caucasians to see it,” Grant said.

Another time, on a backpacking trip near the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in Ventura County, Grant heard a fluttering noise, looked up and spied a condor no more than 30 feet above him. Man and condor gazed at each other with surprise, then, with a giant rush of wind and flapping of wings, the condor took off.

One time, a local hunter took him to a site in Santa Barbara’s remote hills that the man had stumbled across 35 years earlier while tracking deer.

And ranchers would write him and say, “I have something you may be interested in seeing, but I don’t want a lot of people coming around,” Grant recalls.

The 3,000 or so mixed-blood descendants of the 15,000 Chumash Indians who once flourished in Ventura, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Kern and San Luis Obispo counties provided him with no new information, Grant said.

Because of disease, mistreatment at the hands of white settlers and invasion of their ancestral lands, the Chumash culture today is virtually destroyed, Grant said. Although the Indians are embracing their heritage and working to preserve it, scholars say no one knows exactly how to interpret the cave art.

What is known is that the rock paintings, which are thought to be 500 to 2,000 years old, recorded significant cultural and sacred events, depicting shamans, animals, insects and celestial occurences.

Scholars believe that some paintings were ceremonial pleas to the spirit world for fertility or rain. Others may have recorded a kind of creation myth, and still others depicted vision-quests undertaken at puberty. In his research, Grant concluded that many paintings were done by the shamans, or medicine men, who may have been under the influence of the hallucinogen jimsonweed in their attempts to commune with the supernatural.

To acquire the bright colors needed for these paintings, the Chumash ground minerals such as limonite and hematite, mixed them with water, animal fat or plant juice and daubed the cave walls with elaborate narratives in yellow, white, black, red and blue-green paints.

The paintings remain today, guarded zealously by researchers loath to disclose exact locations for fear of vandalism.

The researchers have reason to be cautious.

Painted Rock, on the Carrizo Plain in San Luis Obispo, is a three-story-high, horseshoe shaped rock covered with hundreds of paintings. The largest and most magnificent Chumash site, it has been “sadly neglected and vandalized,” Grant said.

“In the ‘30s, bad guys thought it was great fun to shoot up these pictures with a rifle,” he said.

As far back as 1904, concerned Santa Barbara residents installed a padlocked iron grille across the entrance to Painted Cave in the San Marcos Pass to deter would-be graffiti artists, whose scribblings there date to 1887.

In the early 1970s, Grant organized a group that raised $10,000 to purchase the Painted Cave and seven adjacent acres and transfer the property to the state for preservation.

Today, Grant still writes and researches rock art at the Carpinteria hacienda-style ranch house where he has lived with his wife, Lou, since 1946. Her parents built the sprawling home with the ocean view and avocado orchards in 1919, and she has lived in it all her life.

As a child, in a foreshadowing of her life with Campbell Grant, she played in the nearby hills and found Indian artifacts buried in the earth.

On a recent blustery day, the Grants gathered in Campbell’s study before a roaring fire. Books on Indians, art and history lined the study, along with Campbell’s renditions of rock-art paintings; even chair pillows bore the mystic rock-art symbols.

What drew Campbell Grant to Indian rock art?

“It’s strange and enigmatic. It’s not anything that can be deciphered, and yet this rock-art phenomenon is worldwide,” Grant said.

He grew up in Berkeley, inspired to a life of art by an uncle who painted sailing ships and an older brother who painted Southwest Indians. After high school, Grant studied painting at the California School of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and the Santa Barbara School of the Arts.

In the 1930s, he worked on a federal WPA project painting murals, including one at Santa Barbara High School. From 1934 to 1946, Grant also worked as an illustrator for Walt Disney Studios in Burbank on the movies “Fantasia,” “Pinocchio” and “Snow White.”

By 1946, he embarked on a career illustrating books--mostly about Indians, archeology and anthropology. It is clear even from those early drawings that Grant’s interest was piqued by the enigmatic anthropoid figures that marched across continents, leaving their imprints on cave walls from Lascaux to Alice Springs.

During this time, Grant became prominent in the local art world, serving as trustee and research associate of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and as trustee and later president of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

On the fateful 1959 fishing trip, a Sierra Club member told him offhandedly about a nearby cave that contained some Indian drawings and sparked his abiding passion for rock art.

While on reconnaissance expeditions, Grant takes detailed notes and slides, sketches the site and notes its longitude, latitude, elevation and significant nearby roads and markers such as trees.

Once home, he projects the slides on a wall, consults his field notes and reconstructs the original cave art with modern acrylic paints over a three-day period. His fondness for the art extends to the original artists.

“The fellows who did them must have had a sense of humor, of whimsy,” he said.

Unlike some of today’s cave reconstructionists, Grant does not show the erosion and seepage that can mar centuries-old cave paintings.

“Campbell’s work distills out all the glitches,” said Kathleen Conti, the show’s curator. Conti, who is also a rock-art scholar, has been commissioned by the city of Ventura to paint a wall mural for the City Hall atrium that reproduces Chumash rock art.

Grant is pleased at the growing popularity of rock art, but his interests are not limited to Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Among his other books are “Rock Art of the American Indian,” which covers North America. And in the 1950s he painted the first reproductions of Bonampak, a Mayan temple in Chiapas, Mexico, that contained murals of stunning complexity and color.

Unfortunately, however, one of his most lauded books, “Rock Paintings of the Chumash” published by the UC-Berkeley Press, is out of print. It fetches up to $175 when a copy does surface.

Grant says the color plates--which were made from the paintings on display at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History--have been lost and would cost as much as $20,000 to reproduce.

Still, Grant’s scholarly contributions endure.

“He was writing in an era when we knew virtually nothing about the Chumash,” said Hedges, of the San Diego Museum of Man. “His book still stands as one of our primary references. It is still the overview.”