The Peacocks Are Gone, but Artist Staying Close to the Family Nest
The screaming peacocks are gone. The pheasants have flown the coop. Now only the clucking chickens remain.
Kitty Botke, who grew up on a 10-acre slice of rural Santa Paula, has kept a rich artistic legacy alive for the last 30 years. Her grandparents, the late Cornelis and Jessie Arms Botke, are among California’s most celebrated artists, known for their landscape etchings and luminous bird paintings.
They bought a hilly patch of Wheeler Canyon in 1929 and built two homes, a studio and several aviaries among the rattlesnakes and apricot trees. They filled the cages with deep blue peacocks and golden pheasants.
Jessie painted the birds while Cornelis etched the towering eucalyptus trees. They called the place Screaming Peacock Ranch.
“We were really proud of them,” recalled Kitty Botke, 50, an artist who still lives on the property with her parents. “All the grammar school kids would come up here and they would all get a tour of the studio.
“There used to be nothing but ranchers up here. They chose this place because it was close to Los Angeles and far from everything else.”
Jessie Botke’s work can be found in art galleries and public buildings from Los Angeles to Chicago. One of her bird murals hangs behind the checkout counter at the Oxnard Public Library.
Her works can still go for up to $70,000 at auction, and many have been mass-produced as posters.
Museum Head Tries to Collect Works
Tim Schiffer, executive director of the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, is trying to form a larger collection of the Botkes’ work.
“We are trying to collect them in depth because of their importance to California art,” Schiffer said. “Both were classically trained. Jessie’s paintings are very pleasant to be around. She had a distinct style and she put gold leaf in the background of her work. Cornelis was a master etcher. Etching is an extremely demanding but beautiful medium.”
Donna Granata, who heads the arts education group Focus on the Masters, is producing a documentary on the Botke family.
“Kitty Botke is an outstanding artist in her own right, but I am after the whole package,” Granata said. “Her grandparents were two of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century. Jessie did big bold commercial illustrations. She met and was highly influenced by Georgia O’Keeffe. Cornelis was overshadowed by her, but he was just as skilled and respected.”
The pair met in Chicago in 1914. They lived in San Francisco and Carmel before settling in Santa Paula. The entire Botke clan lived on the ranch--Jessie and Cornelis, their children, and their children’s children.
Botkes Spent Most of Their Time in Studio
Jessie and Cornelis spent their days in the studio, although sometimes she would paint birds at the San Diego Zoo or at the aviary on Catalina Island.
“They were wonderful grandparents,” Botke said. “They were a lot of fun to be around. They weren’t rich but they made enough to travel around Europe during the Depression.”
Cornelis, who was born in Holland, died in 1954, and Chicago-born Jessie died in 1971.
Kitty is the only other member of the family to become an artist.
Over the years, she has produced second editions of her grandparents’ work while honing her own etching and painting skills.
Botke works in her grandparents’ studio, a converted horse barn with dark, creaky wood floors. Yellowed books with cracked spines line antique shelves, a brass Turkish coffee maker sits on a table and a silent grandfather clock stands in the corner--all remnants of Cornelis and Jessie’s life.
Having such famous grandparents hasn’t been easy for Botke.
“I really wanted to find my own way,” she said as she began etching a landscape onto a copper plate. “Through printmaking, I found my own voice.”
She would like to spend more time in the studio but it’s a big ranch. She cares for her parents, manages the help and keeps an eye on the chickens.
Artwork Is Meant to Be Powerful
Her closet is full of paintings of forlorn nudes with searching eyes, drunken cats and wind-blown trees on stormy plains. She says her work isn’t meant to be depressing, it’s meant to be powerful.
“I could have a house full of that and never feel sad,” she said. “I like etching because there are a million ways to make a print and it is so moody.”
While Botke’s work is often dark, her studio is lined with the ivory plumed peacocks, yellow pheasants and surreal landscapes of her grandparents.
This is where Jessie Botke would pause from her painting to read selections from Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories” to her grandchildren.
The book is still on the shelf.
Botke picked it up and flipped through it.
“This place is like a cathedral,” she said.