David Laws

About David Laws

David Laws is a photographer and writer living in California. A former Silicon Valley technology executive, he recently developed a digital guide to the people and places that informed the life and work of John Steinbeck.

East of Eden: A Pilgrimage in Pictures to John Steinbeck’s Salinas, California

Image of John Steinbeck marker in Salinas, California

East of Eden, the autobiographical novel John Steinbeck described as his “marathon book,” portrayed Salinas, California at the turn of the 20th century as a small place with big problems. Steinbeck characterized the culture of the town where he was born in 1902 even more critically in “Always Something to Do in Salinas,” an essay he wrote for Holiday Magazine three years after completing East of Eden. His description of Salinas sins and shortcomings in “L’Affaire Lettuceburg” was so negative that he recalled the manuscript and prevented its publication. Eventually Salinas forgave the injury, naming the town library in Steinbeck’s honor and building a center devoted to his life and work on Main Street. But main street Salinas, California fell on hard times after John Steinbeck left, the victim of suburban sprawl and competition from Monterey, Carmel, Pebble Beach, and Pacific Grove, where Steinbeck preferred to live and write. With this in mind, I made a pilgrimage with my camera to record changes in Salinas since East of Eden and to discover how Steinbeck is remembered today, almost 50 years after his death.

Image of John Steinbeck mural in Salinas, California

John Steinbeck’s Salinas, California Starts on Main Street

I started at the National Steinbeck Center, built 18 years ago at One Main Street to house the John Steinbeck archive, attract visitors, and educate residents about the town’s most famous son. Inside, I relived scenes from East of Eden and other works through video clips, stage sets, and documents about Steinbeck’s boyhood in Salinas. Guided by Steinbeck’s words—and by murals, plaques, and signs memorializing his life—I set out to explore the links to the past provided by buildings that survive from Steinbeck’s era.

Guided by Steinbeck’s words—and by murals, plaques, and signs memorializing his life—I set out to explore the links to the past provided by buildings that survive from Steinbeck’s era.

Seen from the center’s front steps, Steinbeck’s craggy visage dominates the mural on the building across Central Avenue where the grocer and butcher patronized by his mother did business 100 years ago. Looking down Main Street, I saw Mount Toro, the backdrop for The Pastures of Heaven, the stories about trouble in paradise written by Steinbeck 20 years before East of Eden. Mentally uprooting trees and planters and replacing sleek SUVs with boxy black Fords, I tried to imagine Main Street as it appeared to Steinbeck when he was writing his stories. The effort was complicated by a pair of modern structures built to bring people back to town: the Maya Cinema multiplex and the world headquarters of Taylor Farms, edifices that face one another, literally and symbolically, across the Main Street divide.

Image of John Steinbeck house in Salinas, California

Life Along John Steinbeck’s Central Avenue Then and Now

From One Main Street I retraced the steps of Adam Trask, who in East of Eden “turned off Main Street and walked up Central Avenue to number 130, the high white house of Ernest Steinbeck.” Today the Central Avenue home where John Steinbeck was born is number 132, and the white exterior of Steinbeck’s era has been replaced by cream, blue, and tan tones highlighting the Queen Anne-style frills and furbelows. Inside, high ceilings, dark polished wood, and Victorian decor greet lunch patrons at the Steinbeck House restaurant, operated by the nonprofit organization that purchased the home after it passed through stages of ownership and decay following the death of Steinbeck’s father in 1935.

Today the Central Avenue home where John Steinbeck was born is number 132, and the white exterior of Steinbeck’s era has been replaced by cream, blue, and tan tones highlighting the Queen Anne-style frills and furbelows.

A Steinbeck House volunteer greeted me in the room where the writer was born; the maternal bed, a finely crafted period piece, can be seen in the gift shop downstairs. I dined next to the fireplace where Olive Steinbeck, a schoolteacher, nourished John and his three sisters on a diet of classical music and great books that fed the imagination of the budding author, who observed life on Central Avenue from the gable window of his bedroom. “I used to sit in that little room upstairs,” he recalled, “and write little stories.” Parts of The Red Pony and Tortilla Flat were written while Steinbeck tended his mother at home before her death in 1934. “The house in Salinas is pretty haunted now,” he confided to a friend. “I see things walking at night that it is not good to see.”

Olive Steinbeck, a schoolteacher, nourished John and his three sisters on a diet of classical music and great books that fed the imagination of the budding author, who observed life on Central Avenue from the gable window of his bedroom.

A block away, Steinbeck spent happy hours playing with the Wagner brothers, whose mother Edith, an aspiring writer in whom Steinbeck confided his own ambition, provided material for  Steinbeck’s story “How Edith McGillicuddy Met R. L. S.” One brother was involved in the throwing of a roast beef through the glass door of city hall, an act attributed to Steinbeck, who recalled that “[Max] worked so hard and I got all the credit.” Steinbeck and the Wagner boys eventually made their way to Hollywood, where Jack helped with script writing for the film adaptation of Steinbeck’s short novel The Pearl. Max, an actor, played bit parts in movie versions of The Grapes of Wrath and The Red Pony. Jack recruited Steinbeck to help with screenwriting for the 1945 motion picture A Medal for Benny. Max also participated.

Image of Roosevelt School in Salinas, California

In Trouble as a Boy and as a Man in Salinas, California

At 120 Capitol Street, not far from Central Avenue, Roosevelt Elementary School replaced the grammar school that John Steinbeck and the Wagner brothers attended. The school is depicted somberly in East of Eden (“the windows were baleful; and the doors did not smile”) and in the journal Steinbeck kept while writing the novel (“I remember how grey and doleful Monday morning was. . . . What was to come next I knew, the dark corridors of the school”). Steinbeck’s ambivalent feelings about schooldays in Salinas failed to improve with time. Once he was famous, he objected to the idea of naming a school in his honor: “If the city of my birth should wish to perpetuate my name clearly but harmlessly, let it name a bowling alley after me or a dog track or even a medium price, low-church brothel – but a school – !”

Steinbeck’s ambivalent feelings about schooldays in Salinas failed to improve with time.

Courthouse bas-relief in Salinas, CaliforniaUnlike his pals up the street, John Steinbeck’s parents respected the social and political order of Salinas, the seat of Monterey County. Steinbeck’s father served as county treasurer, and law-abiding pioneer faces stare down from the walls of the town’s Art Moderne courthouse today. Like bas-relief marble panels and bronze door embellishments that celebrate the agricultural workers immortalized in Steinbeck’s fiction, they are the work of Joe Mora, a WPA artist. Steinbeck gathered material for East of Eden at the Art Moderne newspaper building across the street; he played basketball and attended his senior prom at the nearby Troop C Armory building, “where men over fifty . . . snapped orders at one another and wrangled eternally about who should be officers.”

Steinbeck’s father served as county treasurer, and law-abiding pioneer faces stare down from the walls of the town’s Art Deco-style courthouse today.

Image of John Steinbeck Library in Salinas, CaliforniaLike Main Street viewed from the National Steinbeck Center, Lincoln Avenue in downtown Salinas is dominated by an imposing image of John Steinbeck, this in the form of the life-size statue installed outside the public library that now bears Steinbeck’s name. Inside the modest brick building I browsed the wealth of Steinbeck books, articles, and clippings accumulated over decades by scholars, friends, and fans. Steinbeck wasn’t always popular with librarians or readers, however. According to Dennis Murphy, the son of a Steinbeck friend and neighbor, angry locals burned copies of The Grapes of Wrath at the corner of San Luis and Main Street. The venue for their act of rage was the Carnegie Library, since torn down, where according to Steinbeck, an unsympathetic librarian “remarked that it was lucky my parents were dead so that they did not have to suffer this shame.”

Image of Art-Moderne newspaper building in Salinas, California

Edifices in East of Eden and The Winter of Our Discontent

Some Main Street storefronts are now covered by stucco facades. The surface of one, a six-story bank at the corner of East Alisal and Main Street, is faced with Art Deco terracotta tiles; others hold memories that were painful to John Steinbeck and his family. Ernest Steinbeck’s fledgling feed store at 332 Main Street failed when cars replaced horses. “Poor Dad couldn’t run a store,” Steinbeck wrote in his journal—“he didn’t know how.” Steinbeck fictionalized the failure of his father’s store in The Winter of our Discontent, the semi-autobiographical novel he set in Sag Harbor, New York, a small town that feels like early 20th century Salinas when you read the book now.

Steinbeck fictionalized the failure of his father’s store in the semi-autobiographical novel he set in Sag Harbor, New York, a small town that feels like early 20th century Salinas when you read the book now.

At the Cherry Bean Coffee Shop, a thriving concern occupying part of the site where Ernst Steinbeck opened his store, I dallied over a “Steinbeck brew” and listened to regulars discuss issues of the day, just as Steinbeck did at the main street Sag Harbor coffee shop when he was writing The Winter of Our Discontent. As noted in “L’Affaire Lettuceburg,” Salinas was less democratic in Steinbeck’s time, with “cattle people” at the top of the social stratification he satirized in “Always Something to Do in Salinas.” “Sugar people joined Cattle People in looking down their noses” at lettuce-growers, he recalled in 1955. “These Lettuce People had Carrot People to look down on and these in turn felt odd about associating with Cauliflower People.” Today, complaints heard at the Coffee Bean Shop on Main Street in Salinas revolve around “Silicon People,” commuters with high-paying tech jobs who are inflating home prices.

Salinas was less democratic in Steinbeck’s time, with “cattle people” at the top of the social stratification he satirized in “Always Something to Do in Salinas.”

Image of Muller's Funeral Chapel sign in Salinas, CaliforniaMuller’s Funeral Chapel, another East of Eden landmark, is commemorated with a plaque dedicated to H.V. Muller at 315 Main Street, where John Steinbeck’s mother was prepared for burial in 1934. Today a beauty parlor occupies the space at 242 Main Street where Bell’s Candy Store stood back in 1917, when Steinbeck was a teenager and  “the rage was celery tonic.” According to the proprietor at the time, “John was a good boy, but you had to keep your eye on him around the candy!” Across Main Street from Bell’s, Of Mice and Men played at the Exotic Fox Californian Theater when the movie—the first ever made from a book by Steinbeck—opened in 1939.

Today a beauty parlor occupies the space at 242 Main Street where Bell’s Candy Store stood back in 1917, when Steinbeck was a teenager and  “the rage was celery tonic.”

Image of Monterey Bank Building in Salinas, CaliforniaGenerations of agricultural wealth in Salinas, California built banks at the four corners of Gavilan and Main streets and held strong views about John Steinbeck. Reporting on local reaction to The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck wrote: “The vilification of me out here from the large landowners and bankers is pretty bad.” Today the four banks are gone and food and antiques are sold in temples where money was once dispensed in an attitude of quiet reverence captured by Steinbeck in East of Eden. Cal withdraws 15 crisp new thousand-dollar bills, and Kate deposits her whorehouse earnings, in the Monterey County Bank building at 201 Main Street. The vaulting structure, recently restored, may also have been the inspiration for the cathedral-like bank that Ethan Hawley decides to rob in The Winter of Our Discontent. Forty years after Steinbeck’s last novel, it served as the location for Bandits, a movie starring Bruce Willis.

Image of Hamilton family gravesite in Salinas, California

Main Street South to John Steinbeck’s Final Destination

Returning to my car, I left Main Street and turned onto Market (formerly Castroville) Street, the setting for several scenes in East of Eden. “Two blocks down the Southern Pacific tracks cut diagonally,”  Steinbeck recalls in the novel: “Over across the tracks down by Chinatown there’s a row of whorehouses.” Driving to the Garden of Memories Memorial Park west of town, I found the simple bronze plaque marking Steinbeck’s final resting place, the end point of my pilgrimage to Salinas, California. Nearby, major players in Steinbeck’s life and fiction—including his wife Elaine, his grandfather Sam Hamilton, and the aunts and uncles celebrated in East of Eden—cohabit peacefully in “that dear little town” where the imagination and conscience of John Steinbeck were kindled a century ago.

This is an updated version of an article published in the Fall 2001 issue of Steinbeck Studies. Our thanks to Carol Robles for correcting several factual errors introduced in the editing process. The Garden of Memories, located southeast of downtown Salinas, contains more than one Hamilton family plot. The headstone shown here is not the one marking the site of John Steinbeck’s ashes. The burning of The Grapes of Wrath in Salinas is attested in various sources, including an interview with the writer Dennis Murphy, the grandson of the Salinas physician who treated Steinbeck as a boy. The Murphy interview is one of a number available to Steinbeck scholars and students in the National Steinbeck Center archive.—Ed.

“The Valley of the World”: John Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley in Color Photography Inspired by East of Eden

Composite image of East of Eden photos by David A. Laws

More than 60 years after it became a national bestseller, John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden remains one of the writer’s most widely read works of fiction. Set in California’s Salinas Valley, where the author grew up and is buried, East of Eden recreates a turbulent era in American life, the period from the Civil War to World War I, through two generations of a pair of Salinas Valley families whose individual lives intersect dramatically during an era characterized by change and conflict in the Salinas Valley and on the world stage. In describing the novel’s setting as “the valley of the world,” John Steinbeck clearly meant East of Eden to be read as allegory, like the Old Testament story mirrored in its title, and as autobiography—intended, he said, for his two young sons, growing up far from the Salinas Valley after World War II. In 2010, the Steinbeck scholar Michael J. Meyer asked David A. Laws, a gifted photographer known for his bright images of John Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley, to take a series of photos to illustrate a book of literary essays on East of Eden. Meyer died in 2011, but the process of collecting and editing essays by various scholars of John Steinbeck was picked up and completed by Henry Veggian, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The result was East of Eden: New and Recent Essays, published by Editions Rodopi (now Brill) in 2013 and reviewed here.—Ed.

Images of the Salinas Valley Inspired by East of Eden

My contribution to East of Eden: New and Recent Essays appeared as a black-and-white photo essay—“Literary Landmarks of East of Eden”—comprised of 15 images that I look of locations around the Salinas Valley inspired by passages from John Steinbeck’s epic novel. The text I wrote remains the copyright of Rodopi, but I retained ownership of the following images, published here for the first time from my original color files. Although much has changed since John Steinbeck returned to his hometown in the early 1950s to recall the “sights and sounds, smells and colors” of the Salinas Valley that fill East of Eden, and even more since Adam Trask arrived in search of his own Eden, these images are recent examples of the scenes and settings that informed the author and that continue to convey the essence of those times. Page references quoting the novel are from the edition of East of Eden published by Penguin Books in 2002, John Steinbeck’s centennial.—David A. Laws

Image of ranch in the Gabilan Mountains by David A. Laws

Ranch in the “wilder” foothills of the Gabilan Mountains

“I would like to write the story of this whole valley, of all the little towns and all the farms and ranches in the wilder hills.”—Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, ed. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten (Penguin Books, 1976), p. 73

Image of Fremont Peak by David A. Laws

Fremont Peak from Elkhorn Slough, Moss Landing

“The river mouth at Moss Landing was centuries ago the entrance to this long inland water.”—East of Eden, p. 4

Image of Monterey County Courthouse bas-relief by David A. Laws

Bas-relief sculpture by Jo Mora, Monterey County Courthouse, Salinas

“Then the hard, dry Spaniards came exploring through, greedy and realistic. . . . Of course they were religious people, and the men who could read and write, who kept the records and drew the maps, were the tough untiring priests who traveled with the soldiers.”—East of Eden, p. 6

Image of King City ranch by David A. Laws

Dwarfed oaks near the Hamilton’s “old starvation ranch,” King City

“There were no springs, and the crust of topsoil was so thin that the flinty bones stuck through. Even the sagebrush struggled to exist, and the oaks were dwarfed from lack of moisture.”—East of Eden, p. 9

Image of Plaza Hall in San Juan Bautista by David A. Laws

The Plaza Hall in San Juan Bautista played the role of the King City hotel in the 1981 “East of Eden” TV mini-series.

“One morning she complained of feeling ill and stayed in her room in the King City hotel while Adam drove into the country. He returned about five in the afternoon to find her nearly dead from loss of blood.”—East of Eden, p. 133

Image of live oaks on Salinas ranch by David A. Laws

Live oaks shade the road to the entrance of a ranch on Williams Road, Salinas.

“Later Samuel and Adam walked down the oak-shadowed road to the entrance to the draw where they could look out at the Salinas Valley.”—East of Eden, p. 293

Image of Highway 198 near San Lucas by David A. Laws

Tracks to the “worn and rutted hills,” Highway 198 near San Lucas

“They left the valley road and drove into the worn and rutted hills over a set of wheel tracks gullied by the winter rains. The horses strained into their collars and the buckboard rocked and swayed. The year had not been kind to the hills, and already in June they were dry.”—East of Eden, p. 137

Image of field worker mural near Salinas by David A. Laws

John Cerney’s field worker mural at The Farm, Highway 68, Salinas

“’This will be a valley of great richness one day. It could feed the world, and maybe it will.’”—East of Eden, p. 145

Image of La Gloria Schoolhouse, King City, by David A. Laws

La Gloria Schoolhouse, Monterey County Agricultural and Rural Life Museum, King City

“In the country the repository of art and science was the school, and the schoolteacher shielded and carried the torch of learning and of beauty. The schoolhouse was the meeting place for music, for debate. The polls were set in the schoolhouse for elections. Social life, whether it was the crowning of a May queen, the eulogy to a dead president, or an all-night dance, could be held nowhere else.”—East of Eden, p. 146

Image of eucalyptus windbreak near Greenfield by David A. Laws

Eucalyptus gum-tree windbreak near Greenfield

“’I don’t know whether you noticed, but a little farther up the valley they’re planting windbreaks of gum trees. Eucalyptus—comes from Australia. They say the gums grow ten feet a year.’”—East of Eden, p. 164

Image of former Monterey County Bank Building by David A. Laws

Former Monterey County Bank building, Main Street, Salinas

“At eight-thirty on a Wednesday morning Kate walked up Main Street, climbed the stairs of the Monterey County Bank Building, and walked along the corridor until she found the door which said, ‘Dr. Wilde—Office Hours 11-2.’”—East of Eden, pp. 240-241

Image of Garden of Memories Cemetary, Salinas, by David A. Laws

Samuel Hamilton family plot, Garden of Memories Cemetery, Salinas

“The traditional dark cypresses wept around the edge of the cemetery, and white violets ran wild in the pathways. . . . The cold wind blew over the tombstones and cried in the cypresses.”—East of Eden, p. 309

Image of Los Coches Adobe, Soledad, by David A. Laws

Boarded–up Los Coches Adobe, Arroyo Seco Road, Soledad

“The ‘dobe house had entered its second decay. The great sala all along the front was half plastered, the line of white halfway around and then stopping, just as the workmen had left it ten years before. . . . A smell of mildew and of wet paper was in the air.”—East of Eden, pp. 342-343

Image of the Steinbeck House in Salinas by David A. Laws

The Steinbeck House, 132 Central Avenue, Salinas

“When Adam left Kate’s place he had over two hours to wait for the train back to King City. On an impulse he turned off Main Street and walked up Central Avenue to number 130, the high white house of Ernest Steinbeck. It was an immaculate and friendly house, grand enough but not pretentious, and it sat inside its white fence, surrounded by its clipped lawn, and roses and catoneasters lapped against its white walls.”—East of Eden, p. 382

Image of Alisal Creek at Old Stage Road, Salinas, by David A. Laws

Alisal Creek at Old Stage Road, Salinas

“It’s a pleasant little stream that gurgles through the Alisal against the Gabilan Mountains on the east of the Salinas Valley. The water bumbles over round stones and washes the polished roots of the trees that hold it in.”—East of Eden, p. 589

John Steinbeck Inspires Monterey County Visual Arts Masters, Past and Present

Image of Monterey County painters Warren Chang and David LigareThe rugged coast and majestic mountains of Monterey County, California, inspired awe-struck visual arts professionals and amateurs long before John Steinbeck appeared on the scene. So it seems natural that Steinbeck, born and raised in Monterey County, was attracted to the visual arts and met well-known artists of the period, such as E. Charlton Fortune and Armin Hansen, California Impressionist painters who lived and created much of their most popular work in Monterey County.

Writing in and about Monterey County in the 1930s and 40s, Steinbeck befriended a host of younger artists who were, like the author, perfecting their craft in the company of colleagues, friends, and lovers. But the ripening John Steinbeck-Monterey County-visual arts connection didn’t end with the author’s death. Forty-five years later it continues in the work of contemporary Monterey County painters including Warren Chang (above left) and David Ligare (above right), successful artists who differ in technique but share a source of inspiration in the literary landscapes of John Steinbeck.

John Steinbeck and the Visual Arts in Monterey County

Steve Hauk—the Monterey County writer and art dealer who co-curated This Side of Eden – Images of Steinbeck’s California, the inaugural exhibition of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas—is an expert on John Steinbeck and the visual arts, past and present, in Monterey County. He was interviewed for films on E. Charlton Fortune and on John Steinbeck and his Monterey County artist circle for the 100-Story Project, an archival narrative of Monterey County history and culture. Among the best known members of Steinbeck’s circle were several artists—notably James Fitzgerald, Ellwood Graham, Judith Deim, and Bruce Ariss—who created notable portraits of the author, a shy person who enjoyed being painted but didn’t like to be photographed.

Image of John Steinbeck portrait by James Fitzgerald

Portrait of John Steinbeck by James Fitzgerald
Charcoal on paper (1935)

John Steinbeck also befriended artists beyond Monterey County. Among his closest confidantes was Bo Beskow, the Swedish painter who completed portraits of the author at Steinbeck’s request in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. The American painter Thomas Hart Benton, whose perspective on his native Midwest mirrored Steinbeck’s passion for Monterey County, never met the writer but shared his populist politics and anti-elitist aesthetics. Benton’s illustrations for a special edition of The Grapes of Wrath captured the book’s spirit so well that the writer and the artist became synonyms for sentimentality among critics of their work. 

Today the Canadian painter Ron Clavier continues the John Steinbeck-visual arts tradition beyond Monterey County in paintings that portray passages from The Grapes of Wrath. A neuropsychologist by training, Clavier unites science and the visual arts in painting that would have appealed strongly to Steinbeck’s sense of unity, universality, and nature. “As a visual artist,” says Clavier, “I dream that I might replicate the magnificent imagery of the world, and by doing so, remind others of their own core decency,” adding that “each day, I try to experience what American author and Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck described as awe, humility, and joy.”

The Visual Arts in Action: Warren Chang and David Ligare

David Ligare and Warren Chang are leading examples of contemporary Monterey County artists whose work reflects Steinbeck’s empathy for the dispossessed and the author’s love of the Monterey County landscape. River/Mountain/Sea—Ligare’s current exhibition at the Monterey Museum of Art—is a compelling example of the John Steinbeck-Monterey County-visual arts phenomenon that has made Monterey County a mecca for aficionados of the visual arts and Steinbeck fans alike. Similarly, Warren Chang’s 2012 ten-year retrospective at the Pacific Grove Art Center shows the inspiration provided by Steinbeck’s rich human material—in Chang’s case, Steinbeck’s stories of marginalized Monterey County farm workers, a major subject of the author’s early writing.

Like John Steinbeck’s fiction, the paintings of David Ligare and Warren Chang are technically superb, thematically coherent, and emotionally riveting. While acknowledging Steinbeck’s impact on the development of their very different versions of visual-arts realism, each also notes the influence of European classicism in their work. Chang’s style owes much to the paintings of Jean-Francois Millet, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. Ligare notes the rules of visual arts structure exemplified by Nicolas Poussin as an influence, along with classical art and literature—a lifelong interest of John Steinbeck, who acknowledged the role of Greek and Roman authors in his literary development, as Ligare does in the visual arts.

Like Steinbeck, Chang portrays the pain of the human condition and the triumph of the human spirit: his paintings of farm workers toiling in Monterey County fields depict disenfranchised members of modern society, as Steinbeck did in his most memorable fiction of the 1930s. By contrast, Ligare’s Monterey County landscapes are devoid of human artifact or activity, relying on dramatic lighting and carefully crafted composition to suggest the tension and complexity beneath the pastoral surface.  Steinbeck achieved a similar effect with words, notably the extended description of the Salinas Valley that opens East of Eden, as well as the stories, letters, and essays in which he described the Salinas of his boyhood as a placid town with an undertone of evil.

Warren Chang’s Stories on Canvas

Chang was born and raised in Monterey County and attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, where he received his BFA in illustration in 1981. After working as an award-winning illustrator in California and New York, he eventually returned to Monterey and transitioned to an equally successful career as a fine artist. Today he is one of only 50 artists recognized as a Master Signature member of Oil Painters of America.

Chang’s portfolio features interior and landscape subjects including portraits, still-life paintings, and scenes from his home, studio, and the San Francisco Academy of Art University classroom where he teaches. As Steinbeck observed, the visual arts, like literature, can tell dramatic stories that draw viewers into the picture—a truth demonstrated in Chang’s Monterey County landscapes, where a single moment captured on canvas suggests the ongoing narrative of which it is a part. Chang’s paintings of Monterey County field workers have been compared to the Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Examples from Warren Chang Narrative Paintings (Flesk Publications, 2012) are shown here with the permission of the artist, whose paintings can also be seen at Hauk Fine Arts in Pacific Grove and at the Winfield Gallery in nearby Carmel. (For more information, visit Chang’s website.)

Image of "Approaching Storm," painting by Warren Chang

Approaching Storm
Oil on canvas by Warren Chang, 30” x 40” (2006)
Courtesy of the artist. ©Warren Chang

Approaching Storm is a dramatic study of Monterey County workers hurrying to complete the broccoli harvest before an unseasonable storm that could destroy the crop and their livelihood. Agriculture is a major Monterey County industry: the fields dotting Monterey County’s coastline and valleys produce lettuce, broccoli, and artichokes in abundance.

Image of "Day's End," painting by Warren Chang

Day’s End
Oil on canvas by Warren Chang, 20” x 30” (2008)
Courtesy of the artist. ©Warren Chang

Day’s End portrays laborers leaving the artichoke fields near the Monterey County town of Castroville at the end of the work day. John Steinbeck, who worked alongside migrant laborers as a young man, conveyed the mood and feeling of Monterey County’s farm fields in carefully chosen words. Chang accomplishes the same purpose through deep shadows and late afternoon lighting rendered in subdued colors.

Image of "Fall Tilling," painting by Warren Chang

Fall Tilling
Oil on canvas by Warren Chang, 34” x 40” (2010)
Courtesy of the artist. ©Warren Chang

Fall Tilling recently won Best of Show in the 2013 RayMar Fine Art Competition. Except for the cell phone and Coke clutched by the female figure in the foreground of the painting, this characteristic Monterey County scene could have been painted using the same essential elements—mountains, fields, workers—at any time in the past 200 years. Chang’s reply to a question about the meaning of his works could have come from John Steinbeck, a writer who demurred when asked about the meaning of his books. “No one interpretation is necessarily more accurate than another,” says Chang. “You have the freedom to take from each painting what you will.”  Ut pictura poesis: the visual arts, like literature, create images that invite us to draw our own conclusions.

David Ligare’s Paintings from the Pastures of Heaven

Unlike John Steinbeck and Warren Chang, David Ligare is not a Monterey County native. Born in Oak Park, Illinois, he traveled to Los Angeles to study at the Art Center College of Design. From there—inspired, he recalls, by the writings of John Steinbeck and Robinson Jeffers—he moved to Monterey County, where he lived and worked in a small house on the Big Sur coastline, experimenting “as young artists do, with new styles and concepts.”

Ligare’s experimentation led to a distinctive style that he describes as “Post-Modern, Neo-Classical American,” weaving contemporary retelling of Greek myths into landscapes that are instantly familiar to Monterey County residents. His paintings have appeared in numerous solo exhibitions and can be found in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi in Florence, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Art in Madrid.

The following examples of the artist’s work span the period from 1988 to the present and are shown with the artist’s permission. Several recent paintings appear in River/Mountain/Sea, the exhibition showing at the Monterey Museum of Art through April 27, 2014. Others can be viewed at the Hirschl & Adler Modern Gallery in New York and at the Winfield Gallery in Carmel. (For more information, visit Ligare’s website.)

In “John Steinbeck and the Pastoral Landscape: An Artist’s Viewpoint,” a lecture delivered in 2002 at the National Steinbeck Center, Ligare explained his purpose: “I have basically made a career of pulling the past into the present.” Landscape with a Man Drinking from a Spring is set in the Gabilan Mountains, not far from the site of Steinbeck’s novella The Red Pony. Ligare’s depiction of “a celebration of a wholesomeness that embraces both life and death”—a pervasive theme of Greek and Roman writing—shares two key symbols with Steinbeck’s description of the boy Jody, drinking from a mossy tub on the Tiflin Ranch, in the first part of The Red Pony. In both painting and story, the clear spring represents life while the cypress tree beneath which Carl Tiflin slaughters his pigs signifies death, unavoidable and often dirty.

Image of "Landscape with a Man Drinking from a Spring," painting by David Ligare

Landscape with a Man Drinking from a Spring
Oil on canvas by David Ligare, 60 x 90 (1988)
Courtesy of the artist. ©David Ligare

After Ligare moved to Monterey County’s Corral de Tierra, the setting of John Steinbeck’s novel The Pastures of Heaven, the Monterey County landscape emerged from the background to dominate his paintings. David Ligare, a catalog published by the Hackett-Freedman Gallery in 1999, contains nine plates; six are panoramic views of Steinbeck’s heavenly valley by the artist that could easily serve as illustrations for the novel. The subject of the catalog’s cover illustration—Landscape with a Red Pony—refers to Steinbeck’s story of adolescent initiation in rural Monterey County, written when the struggling author and his wife Carol were intimately involved with Monterey County’s Depression-era visual arts scene.

Image of "Landscape with a Red Pony," painting by David Ligare

Landscape with a Red Pony
Oil on canvas by David Ligare, 32” x 48” (1999)
Courtesy of the artist. ©David Ligare

Ligare explains why he likes to paint in the “golden hour” of the late Monterey County afternoon: “No matter whether I’m painting a simple rock or a figure in a landscape or a still life, it’s important to me to use the late afternoon sunlight and to create a sense of wholeness by recognizing all of the direct and indirect light sources. Everything in nature is a reflection in one way or another of everything around it.”

Image of "River," painting by David Ligare

Oil on canvas by David Ligare, 60” x 90” (2012)
Courtesy of the artist. ©David Ligare

River is one of three monumental paintings in the River/Mountain/Sea exhibition created by the artist in homage to his adopted Monterey County. Like Mountain and Sea, it represents an iconic Monterey County location featured in Steinbeck’s fiction. Ligare’s river scene shows the Salinas River as it emerges from the valley’s mouth into its broad agricultural plain. Mountain depicts majestic Mount Toro and Castle Rock—the rock formation that fired John Steinbeck’s boyhood imagination—as shadows fill the folds on Mount Toro’s western flank. In Sea, the third painting, granite tidal rocks are lit by the last rays of the evening sun near Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove.

Visiting Monterey County? Don’t Miss Masters in Miniature

Miniatures, the Monterey Museum of Art’s annual holiday exhibition and fundraiser, features 300 paintings, photographs, prints, sculptures, and mixed media works contributed by Monterey County artists for purchase through the sale of raffle tickets. Paintings by David Ligare and Warren Chang are among the most highly sought-after works featured at the event each year. Chang and Ligare’s 2013 offerings capture the essence of their art in the 7 x 9 inch-limit format mandated by the museum for paintings contributed to the show: Ligare’s Pinax, a meticulously rendered image of a Monterey County pine cone on a polished pine wood mount, refers to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine who sported a pine cone on top of his staff. Chang’s Master Study of Velazquez’s “The Fable of Arachne” displays the artist’s trademark use of highlights and shadows in an intimate portrait of a woman winding a ball of wool. Miniatures is open through December 31. If you’re visiting Monterey County during the holidays, don’t miss it.

Photo of Warren Chang by Sonya Chang, courtesy of Warren Chang. Photo of David Ligare courtesy of David Ligare.

John Steinbeck Celebrated in Old and New Public Art

John Steinbeck statue at Salinas Public Library shownSalinas and Monterey—the two cities most closely associated with John Steinbeck and his California stories—both celebrate the life and work of the writer though a variety of public art projects. Although few of the murals and sculptures along Cannery Row in Monterey or in Steinbeck’s home town of Salinas approach the level of fine art, they enhance their surroundings while serving social, educational, and sponsorship interests in Steinbeck Country. When Steinbeck lovers visit, most view the works in a spirit of understanding.

The tradition of spreading political and religious messages through large-scale mural paintings originated with the Olmec civilization, the first major civilization in Mexico, and continued through the Spanish Colonial period to the time of the Mexican Revolution and beyond. With a current Hispanic population approaching 75 per cent, it is not surprising that mural representations of Steinbeck and his works are found in the City of Salinas. Thanks to financial support from the Cannery Row Company, works of sculpture predominate in nearby Monterey. Best of all, new art inspired by Steinbeck continues to be produced.

John Steinbeck mural at National Steinbeck Center shown

Detail of the mural outside the National Steinbeck Center

John Steinbeck Murals in Downtown Salinas

Public agencies have played a role, funding the One Voice Murals Project to develop community pride and provide summer work experience for youth throughout Monterey County. Of more than a dozen large-scale murals from Castroville to Greenfield funded by the One Voice Project Arts & Leadership Project, four of the finished pieces—all in Salinas—portray Steinbeck-related themes.

With the help of eight young painters in 1998, supervising muralists Patrizia Johnson and Mel Mathewson created the mural that has become familiar to visitors to the National Steinbeck Center. Dominated by a portrait of the bearded writer, the work is comprised of a collage of images from books and movies including The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, East of Eden, and The Red Pony. It greets passersby on a wall facing the entrance to the Center at 127 Main Street.

John Steinbeck mural Salinas Chamber of Commerce shown

The ghost of John Steinbeck reflects on the artifacts of area commerce.

Two murals sponsored by One Voice were completed in 2001. Designed by Linda Galusha, the wall of the Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce building at 119 East Alisal Street shows Steinbeck surrounded by dollar bills and important elements of commerce in the Salinas Valley, from an abacus to an ATM machine, as well as the transportation systems employed to move area agricultural products to world markets. Texas artist Christine Martin led the team that recreated mythical scenes from Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights on the wall of the Grapes & Grains liquor store at 385 Salinas Street.

In 2002 a Macedonian-born artist named Blagojce Stojanovki supervised the completion of what is billed as the largest mural in California. Covering four huge wall panels of the Salinas Californian Newspaper Building at 123 West Alisal Street, the work depicts the writer with his books surrounded by images of scenes from his life.

John Steinbeck mural at Salinas Californian Newspaper Building shown

Detail of the Blagojce Stojanovki mural in Salinas

The oldest Steinbeck-related art in Steinbeck’s home town is a bronze sculpture of the author (top of page) created in the early 1970s by Tom Fitzwater—a Greenfield native studying art at Cal State, Long Beach—and donated by the Soroptimist Club of Salinas. The larger-than-life statue stands at the entrance to the John Steinbeck Library at 350 Lincoln Avenue. The identity of the iconoclast who hack-sawed the cigarette from Steinbeck’s hand remains a mystery, along with his, her, or their motivation. Was it a do-gooder intent on protecting youth visiting the library from the evils of tobacco?  A vandal bent on mindless destruction? Not all citizens appreciated the work when it was created.  A photograph of Fitzwater in the collection of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University is captioned “the godawful bronze statue of Steinbeck that birds still gladly poop on today.”

John Steinbeck & Company in Public Art at Cannery Row

Through the Cannery Row Foundation, the Cannery Row Company—owner of real estate along the former ocean-front canning district featured in Steinbeck’s novel of the name—has supported much of the public art that graces this popular Monterey tourist destination, including bronze figures of several of Cannery Row’s most famous characters.

A bronze bust of the writer welcomes visitors to the Steinbeck Plaza at the foot of Prescott Avenue overlooking Monterey Bay. A plaque mounted on the base quotes the novel’s familiar opening paragraph: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone . . . .” The sculptor, Carol W. Brown, reported that, still embittered by her desertion and divorce, Steinbeck’s first wife—Carol Steinbeck Brown—delayed the work in progress with numerous requests that the artist portray her husband’s features unflatteringly. Some say she even claimed credit as co-creator of the work.

John Steinbeck bust by Carol Brown at Cannery Row shown

Bust of John Steinbeck by Carol Brown at Cannery Row

Three years after the publication of Cannery Row in 1945, Steinbeck’s close friend and collaborator—the pioneering marine biologist, ecologist, and philosopher Ed Ricketts—died following an automobile accident at a railroad crossing near Cannery Row. Local sculptor Jesse Corsaut created a bronze commemorative bust of Ricketts that is installed in a mini-park at Wave Street and Drake Avenue a few yards from the crossing site. Ricketts holds a star fish in his left hand and has had better luck than the bronze likeness of Steinbeck in Salinas. The star fish is frequently adorned with fresh flowers.

Ed Ricketts bust at Cannery Row in Monterey shown

The Cannery Row memorial bust celebrating Ed Ricketts

Ricketts and Steinbeck were accompanied on excursions to Mexico to collect marine specimens by the artist Bruce Ariss, a member of their charmed Cannery Row circle. The pencil sketches of his companions made by Ariss recently appeared on festive banners placed along the Row. The only public work by Ariss that survives—a panel illustrating the Lone Star Café and discarded boilers featured in Steinbeck’s novel—was salvaged from a larger temporary mural painted by later artists hired to block the view of the Clement Hotel when it was under construction. The Ariss mural stands at the foot of Bruce Ariss Way, opposite Ricketts’ lab, at 800 Cannery Row.

Mural and bust of Kalisa Moore in Monterey shown

Salvaged mural panel and bust of Kalisa Moore at Bruce Ariss Way

In 1957 the Latvian-born entrepreneur Kalisa Moore opened a restaurant in the former La Ida Café, another venue immortalized in Cannery Row. Catering to musicians, writers, and visitors in quest of the Row’s magic mixture of hardscrabble and bohemian lifestyles, she hosted an annual Steinbeck birthday celebration beginning in 1970. After she died in 2008 she was honored as the Queen of Cannery Row with a commemorative bronze bust by Jesse Corsaut. Appropriately, it is located next to the Bruce Aris mural.

Cannery Row Mural of Mack and the Boys shown

Mural of Mack and the Boys by artist John Cerney

Today three photo-realistic murals by Salinas artist John Cerney overlook the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreational Trail, built over the former route of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Each mural features a group of workers relaxing after a day laboring in the canneries, along with an extended caption taken from the text of Steinbeck’s novel. The painting of Mack and the Boys at the rear of 711 and 799 Cannery Row is based on a photograph of the original “boys” including Gabe Bicknell, the inspiration for Steinbeck’s character Mack in Cannery Row.

And the Art Goes On

Tributes to Steinbeck in art continue to attract area interest and support. For example, plans for a sculpture depicting the writer seated on a rock with imagined figures from local history were recently approved by the Monterey Architectural Review Committee. When completed, the work by Carmel sculptor Steven Whyte—“Monument to John Steinbeck and Cannery Row”—will be installed at Steinbeck Plaza, where it is certain to draw new attention to the life and work of Monterey County’s most famous son.

Photos by David A. Laws

Steinbeck Country & Beyond

Photographs by David Laws

Distant Fremont Peak photo by David Laws

Distant Fremont Peak from the salt marshes near Moss Landing

Bas relief by Joe Mora photograph by David Laws

Bas relief by Jo Mora of a missionary who accompanied the Spanish colonizers at the entrance to Monterey Courthouse

Barren hills near the Hamilton Ranch photograph by David Laws

Barren hills near the Hamilton Ranch, King City

La Gloria Schoolhouse photograph by David Laws

La Gloria schoolhouse in San Lorenzo Park, King City

Steinbeck House photograph by David Laws

The Steinbeck House, Central Avenue, Salinas

Plaza Hall, San Juan Bautista, photograph by David Laws

Plaza Hall, San Juan Bautista, stand-in for the King City Hotel in the 1981 TV miniseries “East of Eden”

From East of Eden to Silicon Valley and Steinbeck Country


The cover of a British edition of East of EdenMy journey from East of Eden to Silicon Valley and Steinbeck Country began in the early 1960s. One summer I worked in a west London warehouse that stored spare parts for a Royal Air Force aircraft maintenance unit, helping the aged custodian move engine parts and other heavy objects during a business slowdown. Not many RAF planes seemed to be  in distress, so I had plenty of time to read on the job. One day my boss picked up a worn paperback novel and tossed it to me: “Here, catch this. It’s got some dirty bits in it. You might like it.”

It Started in England with East of Eden

A semi-clothed maiden on the well-thumbed cover promised the pleasures of a “bodice ripper”—not my usual choice of reading material. But having swept the aisles for the day and with nothing else to do, I dug into my first Steinbeck novel. Yes, there were a few racy bits to be found in To a God Unknown, but the bold writing style and the imagination behind the storytelling captivated me far more. By the end of the summer I’d read every book by John Steinbeck I could find, including East of Eden. I still have the yellowing paperback copy with James Dean and Julie Harris on the cover that set me back three shillings and sixpence from my warehouse wages.

Images of “light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness” and hot, dry afternoons near Jolon in Steinbeck’s Valley of Nuestra Señora proved particularly appealing during that typically cold, damp English summer. I vowed that one day I would travel to California and see Steinbeck Country for myself. It was a promise I would keep in my five-decade odyssey from England to Silicon Valley and Steinbeck Country. I even got an unanticipated boost along the way from the Oprah book club—but that lay far in the future.

The cover of Steinbeck Country: A Souvenir & Guide

Stop #1: Silicon Valley

After graduating from college with a degree in physics, I found employment in England in the booming new business of semiconductor electronics. Within a few years I was working for a European affiliate of Fairchild Semiconductor, the Mountain View company that spawned Intel and other Silicon Valley “Fairchildren” startups. Sensing that the real action in the buoyant computer chip industry was in California, after several years working in England I negotiated a transfer and arrived in San Francisco in 1968. It was the first stop in my Silicon Valley-Steinbeck Country-Oprah book club journey.

Although I only planned to stay in California for a couple of years, I continued to live and work in Silicon Valley until I retired 15 years ago. During that time the Santa Clara “Valley of Heart’s Delight” morphed into Silicon Valley, and the microchip business evolved from maverick entrepreneurial startups run by cowboys with clipboards to strategic assets managed by nation states.The number of transistors on a silicon chip swelled from a dozen or so to more than one billion, and Silicon Valley became an international brand.

I visited Steinbeck Country—the agricultural Salinas Valley, the fishing town of Monterey, and peaceful Pacific Grove—several times during the early years of my Silicon Valley career. I walked the hallowed length of Monterey’s Cannery Row, peered into Steinbeck houses in Monterey, Pacific Grove, and Salinas, and hiked some of the lower trails into the Big Sur country, the setting for Steinbeck’s story “Flight.” I also took classes from the well-known photographer Steve Crouch, inspired by his classic 1973 coffee-table volume, Steinbeck Country.

Back in the days before the National Steinbeck Center, Salinas was a sleepy stop on the road south from Silicon Valley. Cannery Row was showing early signs of recovery as a tourist destination from the collapse of the sardine industry predicted by Steinbeck and his best friend, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts. But I remained a captive of the Silicon Valley siren call until retiring in 1998. By then much had changed in Steinbeck Country, home turf for the author of East of Eden, since my early trips down Highway 101 from Silicon Valley.

The cover of East of Eden: New and Recent Essays

Stop #2: Steinbeck Country

When I retired I began to submit day-trip features to the travel sections of the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News, including an article on Salinas, where the National Steinbeck Center had recently opened. That event was international news, but travel-section advertisers failed to find the destination compatible with selling big-ticket vacation cruises, and neither paper took my piece on Steinbeck’s hometown. I was beginning to understand how Steinbeck felt before his first book was accepted.

Eventually I sent my effort to Susan Shillinglaw, a professor of English at San Jose State University and at that time the director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies. She published my article—“Something to Do in Salinas”—in the fall 2001 issue of Steinbeck Studies, and she invited me to show slides of places in Steinbeck Country related to Steinbeck’s fiction at the Steinbeck Centenary Conference, held on Long Island at Hofstra University in 2002. Steinbeck wrote much of East of Eden in his Manhattan apartment; eventually he also bought a house in Sag Harbor, the Monterey-like fishing village on Long Island that provided the setting for The Winter of Our Discontent.

Following my presentation at Hofstra several attendees asked for copies of the images I’d shown. I used an early-generation digital camera with a state-of-the art two-megapixel sensor to take my pictures, and copies could only be printed at postcard size. Naturally I was eager to find a way to satisfy Steinbeck lovers who wanted permanent images of Steinbeck locations, and eventually I settled on a format that allowed several small photos to be printed per page in the book I produced.

Published in 2003 as a low-cost souvenir and travel guide, Steinbeck Country: Exploring the Settings for the Stories sold steadily at the National Steinbeck Center, online, and through other outlets. After Susan included a page about the book on the website she edited for the Oprah book club selection of East of Eden later that year, sales spiked.

Silicon Valley app for Steinbeck Country & Beyond

Stop #3: The Oprah Book Club

Exposure on the Oprah book club website generated invitations from community book clubs and libraries for presentations about Steinbeck Country. It ultimately led to new Steinbeck Country travel-writing and photography opportunities as well, along with requests to provide images for academic publications such as East of Eden: New and Recent Essays, a recent collection of scholarly articles edited by Henry Veggian and the late Michael J. Meyer.

But the market for printed travel titles has changed dramatically since I published my guide book 10 years ago. Today digital versions are preferred over print because of their portability, flexibility, and ease of updating. To serve the growing market for mobile-device apps, I partnered with the National Steinbeck Center to transfer the book’s content to digital format.

Introduced at the Steinbeck Festival in May of 2013, the Steinbeck Country & Beyond app contains over 200 pages and almost 1,000 images, compared with only 32 pages and 100 or so photos in the printed book. An easy-to-use mobile reference and travel guide to Steinbeck’s works and the people and places that inspired them, the app is available from Apple’s iTunes App Store and on Google’s play for Android platforms. There is also a website version for readers who do not have access to a smartphone or a tablet.

Only a writer as creative as Steinbeck could have predicted 50 years ago where my path would lead. From reading East of Eden in England to a career in Silicon Valley and retirement in Steinbeck Country—with an unanticipated boost from the Oprah book club along the way—my story continues to surprise even me.