John Steinbeck’s imagination was occupied by the Salinas Valley and Salinas River of his California childhood. One became “the valley of the world” in East of Eden, a microcosm of nature, nurture, and culture in the turbulent unfolding of human history. The river—flowing north, like the River Nile, and underground, like the River Styx—served Steinbeck as a contrasting symbol of timelessness beyond man, like the tide pools and the stars in Sea of Cortez. Since Steinbeck wrote his books, artists in various media—watercolor painting, nature photography, narrative text—have interpreted the Salinas valley and river with a similar sense of adventure and appreciation. Janet Whitchurch combines all three—original text, nature photography, and watercolor painting—in her exploration of John Steinbeck’s valley and river, published here for the first time.—Ed.
Like his teacher Ansel Adams, Charles Cramer is a master of the piano and photography whose timeless images capture the music of nature in visual form. View Big Sur, Point Lobos, and Cannery Row as the music-lover John Steinbeck saw them in this sample of digital photography of the Central California coast by Charles Cramer.—Ed.
When Steve Hauk of Hauk Fine Arts Gallery in Pacific Grove, California, curated a show of Steinbeck art and artifacts, I contributed Ching-Chong, Chinaman, a gouache painting inspired by a scene in Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row. Andy is visiting the Row from Salinas and taunts a mysterious old fisherman. When the Chinese turns around, Andy sees the wilderness of desolation in his eyes. I once read the Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw’s comment that Steinbeck had ventured into the surreal in this scene. Having listened to my parents’ story of war, poverty, and devastation, I find the depiction far from surreal. I have seen loss through their eyes.
Cat in the Studio Window
This painting is from my China years (1986-89). It was made large on a flat table using traditional paper that breathes like skin. The ink seeps into the paper and blends with its fibers to produce blue-grays, silver grays, warm grays, and the blackest black. I used brushes at least a foot-and-a-half long, loving the movement of my entire body in letting the ink and pigments fly.
Cat in the Bistro Chair
A stray came to our house one hundred days after the Tiananmen Massacre. It seemed to my family that the cat was the embodiment of those who were crushed in Beijing by the government, only for asking for corruption to be swept out.
Lotus in Rain
I spent an entire year watching the growth and decay of the lotus plant. In spring, spears of leaves and the pristine flowers rise out of the muddy water. The plant signifies dignity of a man or woman who emerges out of straitened circumstances, unsullied. In summer the leaf pads catch rainwater. In autumn the stalks bend and break, re-entering the water at crazy angles. In winter the flower pods remain above the ice-bound lakes. They look like black notes on sheet music.
Chinese at Point Lobos
When my family moved to Carmel in 1971, we were immediately at home in the landscape that seemed to mirror a Chinese painting. It was not until after I had returned from China in 1989 that I read Chinese Gold, a book about the Chinese in the Monterey Bay and Salinas Valley. The Whaler’s Cove at Point Lobos was built by the Chinese. Mahjong tiles, chopsticks, domino pieces, and shards of porcelain have been found under the floorboards of the cottage.
Sleeping Monk and Tiger
You see this image of monk and tiger in Zen Buddhist iconography. A man who is practiced in Zen is able to calm a tiger.
Following the publication of Chinese Gold, George Ow produced Chinatown Dreams: Life and Photographs of George Lee. Most Chinese men who lived in America during the Chinese Exclusion era (1882-1965) were forced to remain bachelors, for women were not allowed entry.
Odello Artichoke Field #1
My father Joseph, who walked over a thousand miles out of China to flee Communism, is frequently my model. He is the storyteller whose tales I’ve turned into books for young and old.
Odello Artichoke Field #2
I’ve known this landscape for years, and I’ve lived in this house overlooking the Carmel River and the Palo Corona Ranch, now a regional park. I’ve scrambled in and out of the hills. I’ve come to love the landscape’s flora and fauna; I’ve crossed its creeks and bathed in its swimming holes.
I’ve been entranced by Brueghel’s work since I was small, loving to see all the activities of dancing peasants, field workers at supper, hunters in the snow, children on skates, men and women cutting hay or erecting a scaffold for a hanging. In China I saw country folk similarly engaged in the myriad activities of a full life. In the developed West we may drive for hours on a highway, only to see a man pumping gas, a few cyclists, but mostly other drivers.
Cyclist in the Rain
I’m drawn to paintings of rain. I wonder why rain isn’t a more prevalent subject for other artists? I suppose it’s because of the lack of rain in California, a desert and semi-desert environment that gives me the great yearning for the mutter of raindrops on the earth, the fragrance of water on hot, dusty soil. In the words of the novelist Iris Murdoch, “The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.”
I started to take art “seriously” at age 11 when I tagged along with watercolorist Nancy Johnson, who lived across the street. She was sympathetic to this only child who was new to the neighborhood. She drove us in her green VW bug to Point Lobos, Carmel Meadows, the beach, and Cannery Row, where her elderly students were waiting for her morning painting demonstrations.
Sitting in a field of fragrant narcissi in Carmel Valley on my birthday, my pant legs are soaked by the leaves and flowers dappled with previous night’s rain. I draw on site, then return to my studio to paint. Sometimes years may have passed when I finally return to the drawing to recreate the texture and feeling of that day.
Iconic subjects like Point Lobos, looming across Monterey Bay, are hard to paint. I had a breakthrough when I began to look closely at the patterns everywhere: foliage, vine, pine needles, shrubbery in the distance. From the low-angle perspective of the plant—as opposed to the bird’s-eye-view of a Chinese landscape painter—I was able to see Point Lobos with washed eyes.
Learn more about Belle Yang’s life and work in her own words.
A multi-tasking Monterey, California sculptor whose busy career as a musician, businessman, and installation artist would have appealed to John Steinbeck has brought three-dimensional life to famous characters from Steinbeck’s fiction in a series of bronze portraits—representational art that aptly reflects the stylized realism of Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. A Monterey, California resident who once lived near the Steinbeck family cottage in Pacific Grove, Lew Aytes read Cannery Row as a boy, and the faces in his Steinbeck series suggest a sense of fresh discovery and boyish delight. The museum-quality pieces, designed to be affordable and accessible to audiences attracted by John Steinbeck’s fiction, toured venues in Ireland, New Orleans, and other sites associated with Steinbeck’s storied life before being exhibited for the first time on Cannery Row recently.
The pieces shown here are part of an assembly of representational art united by a single theme—“Steinbeck: The Art of Fiction”—currently on view at the American Tin Cannery, a rehabilitated commercial building where Pacific Grove and Monterey, California merge and Cannery Row begins. Also featured are works by the painter Warren Chang and the photographer Robert Nease, area artists steeped, like Aytes, in John Steinbeck’s description of life in Salinas, Pacific Grove, and Monterey, California during the 1920s and 30s. Historic Cannery Row photos from the 1950s by the late Robert Lewis, also on display, document the gritty waterfront scene where John Steinbeck met colorful Cannery Row figures depicted in his fiction as Doc Ricketts, Dora Flood, Mack, and Lee Chong. Aytes has also sculpted characters from other books by Steinbeck: George and Lennie, the unfortunate bindlestiffs from Of Mice and Men, and two members of the equally luckless Joad family—Ma and Tom—immortalized in The Grapes of Wrath.
“Steinbeck: The Art of Fiction” runs through March 31, 2015, at 123 Ocean Avenue in Pacific Grove. The exhibition is free and open to the public 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. daily except Mondays.
A picture can be worth a thousand words. But who knew that online paintings could be so popular at a website about a writer like John Steinbeck—or involve an actor like Woody Harrelson? Awe and Humility and Joy, a series of 24 online paintings inspired by passages from John Steinbeck and created on canvas by Ron Clavier, has become a frequently viewed feature at SteinbeckNow.com. Recently Ron, a successful artist who lives in Canada, made the generous gift of a painting from the series for sale to benefit San Jose State University’s Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies. The Fallow Fields (shown here) will be exhibited during the May 9 and 11 performances of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Grapes of Wrath opera by the San Jose State University music school, along with information about how to participate in the bidding process for this large and evocative work. Woody Harrelson narrated the words from John Steinbeck behind each painting in Ron’s series, including this one. But hearing is believing. Listen to Woody Harrelson read the passage from The Grapes of Wrath that inspired Ron Clavier to paint The Fallow Fields below.
Recently we visited a Monterey County, California, gallery to view paintings by Monterey Peninsula artists from John Steinbeck’s era. There we saw examples of once-forgotten fine art America is enjoying all over again, thanks to area experts like the gallery’s energetic owner, a former Monterey County Herald reporter who is also a gifted playwright. Upstairs the Monterey Peninsula artist and art restorer Shelley Cost (shown here) was beginning the painstaking process of removing sun-crusted varnish from a 1930s painting by Armin Hansen, a friend of John Steinbeck whose work is back in fashion. The images below show Shelley beginning her task, freshening a neglected specimen of older California fine art America can now enjoy in its original glory. The result? A rich piece of Monterey County’s cultural past that John Steinbeck would have seen just as Shelley restored it—the kind of ageless fine art America is learning to love, like the fiction of John Steinbeck, all over again.
American History Comes Alive in John Steinbeck Video
What did America’s Great Depression and San Francisco’s Beat Generation have in common? The unblinking eye of California’s most celebrated author, John Steinbeck, and the gallery of artists around him who lived and painted American history as it happened. Their striking stories are revealed in Steinbeck’s Storied Artists, filmed near John Steinbeck’s former home in Pacific Grove, California. How did the young John Steinbeck and his struggling artist friends survive the Great Depression? How did the aging author influence the later Beat Generation he claimed to dislike? How have succeeding post-Beat generations of Monterey County artists found impetus and inspiration for their art in Steinbeck’s damning vision of California’s Great Depression? Explore a neglected nook of American history—the world of John Steinbeck’s storied artists—with Steve Hauk, a Monterey County writer who relates amazing anecdotes about John Steinbeck, William Saroyan, and the storied artists who knew and followed them. As Steve shares tales confided to him by friends and family of John Steinbeck and his boisterous circle during a fateful period of American history, Shelley Cost—a Monterey County artist and art conservator—restores a Great Depression-era painting by John Steinbeck’s bigger-than-life friend, the California artist Armin Hansen, uncovering warm, vibrant colors and John Steinbeck-style characters obscured by layers of varnish and decades of exposure to the sun.
Video: John Steinbeck and Monterey County’s Visual Arts
John Steinbeck numbered artists among his friends all of his life. In this video on Steinbeck and the visual arts in California by the Monterey History and Art Association and Museum of Monterey, I tried to cover some of the talented painters who were important to John Steinbeck during his years in Pacific Grove and Monterey in the 1930s. Many of these artists were among the group that gathered around Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, the great marine biologist, and Ricketts’ Pacific Biological Laboratory (and home) on Monterey’s Cannery Row. Several of them became major Steinbeck portraitists. Why did John Steinbeck have so many artist friends in Monterey County? Well, in many ways they spoke the same language, Steinbeck being a great literary landscapist who was attracted to the visual arts. But I think, also, that the times were dangerous for Steinbeck, and artists were people he could not only feel comfortable with, but safe. This video is part of a Museum of Monterey series called The 100-Story Project initiated by Mark D. Baer. The 100-Story Project captured much of Monterey County’s colorful history and so, unavoidably, some of John Steinbeck’s as well.
Despite writing classic books read by millions, John Steinbeck wasn’t on the approved list of great writers when I attended Wake Forest and pursued my PhD at the University of North Carolina. I chose to study the connections between William Blake and William Butler Yeats for my dissertation and taught classic books by other great writers (not Steinbeck) to bored college students before returning to Wake Forest to work as university editor. There I reported to Wake Forest’s legendary provost, a popular English professor who inspired a love of Blake, Yeats, and classic books and plays of the Irish literary renaissance in generations of students like me. We shared an interest in new drawings, particularly creative images of great writers, and he introduced me to the literary portrait etchings of Jack Coughlin, a professor of printmaking at the University of Massachusetts. I love creative images as much as classic books, and Coughlin brought these passions together in new drawings of established writers sold at affordable prices. When the artist issued new drawings of Irish writers in a limited edition, I bought a copy of his haunting portrait of Yeats. For 35 years it has followed me wherever I moved.
I finally read the classic books of John Steinbeck after relocating to the Bay Area and becoming the weekend organist at St. Paul’s, the great writer’s childhood church in Salinas. So I was searching for old books about Steinbeck, not new drawings, when I rediscovered the creative images of Jack Coughlin at a Monterey bookstore after church one Sunday last month. Delighted, I perused and purchased Impressions of Bohemia, a limited-edition boxed folio of new drawings by Coughlin of a dozen writers and artists—including Steinbeck—associated with Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur. Published in 1986 by Pacific Rim Galleries, Coughlin’s creative images of California’s Central Coast Bohemians made a superb self-gift, and Steinbeck now hangs next to Yeats in my home, as in my heart. In addition to creative images, the folio features selected passages from classic books, poems, or journals written by Coughlin’s celebrated subjects, plus lively commentary by Richard Dillon, a popular writer of classic books about California history. Dillon’s vivid prose delivers several pleasant surprises. For example, Carmel’s Point Lobos, where family members scattered Steinbeck’s ashes in 1968, was discovered for literary purposes 90 years earlier by Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island and other classic books read by Steinbeck as a boy. It’s also where friends of Jack London—another author admired by Steinbeck—scattered the ashes of London’s lover 60 years before Steinbeck died.
If you’re like me and enjoy owning classic books and new drawings, particularly creative images of great writers in collectible formats, keep your eye open for Impressions of Bohemia, limited to 125 signed copies when published. Meanwhile, Jack Coughlin’s creative images of great writers and jazz musicians—a particular passion of Steinbeck, who collected records and books with equal relish—are available for purchase online at www.jackcoughlin.com/.
Photo of Jack Coughlin by Ken Buck.