In a decades-long fight against the development of the Carpinteria Bluffs in Santa Barbara County, Oak Group artists call attention to the beauty of the natural space.
The first time Arturo Tello painted en plein air (aka outside) was at the Carpinteria Marsh. It was 1979, and Arturo had just graduated from San Jose State University. The artist’s original specialty was figure painting, but his hobby of long-distance running inspired him to try his hand at landscapes. Both activities were a sort of endurance sport — you had to be present and engaged with the nature around you. He still recalls the feeling of being suspended in time as he captured the shifting of the light on canvas. “Right away I knew that I was on to something,” he says.
Painting natural spaces, Arturo developed a greater appreciation and even felt a stake in their conservation. So when he started to see wildlands across Santa Barbara come under threat of development, he co-founded the Oak Group, a collective of local landscape artists with a mission to use art to support and inspire conservation.
One of the most long-standing conservation efforts that the Oak Group has supported concerns a space in Arturo’s own backyard: the Carpinteria Bluffs. In what has been a decades-long fight to preserve the bluffs, artists have been key actors, inspiring conservation by conveying the beauty of this space.
Starting the Oak Group
The Oak Group has been around since 1986 when Arturo teamed up with his mentor Ray Strong to partner with local conservation organizations, using art to bring attention to natural spaces and donating funds from their art shows to support conservation efforts.
The group currently includes twenty-five artists and has held over a hundred exhibitions that have benefited more than twenty nonprofit conservation groups. To date, the Oak Group has raised over $3 million for these organizations.
When Arturo and Ray first mobilized the Oak Group, they tackled projects such as Stearns Wharf and Sedgwick Ranch in Santa Ynez. The Nature Conservancy invited Arturo and some of the Oak Group artists to Santa Cruz Island shortly after its conservation. As scientists collected data on biodiversity on the island, the artists painted — collecting data of a different sort. “We were recording the aesthetic values of the place,” Arturo says.
The Oak Group began holding fundraising shows for the Carpinteria Bluffs in its first year of existence. “This was my favorite place and the one that I really put my heart and soul into protecting,” Arturo says. He didn’t know he would be working on this project for decades.
When the Oak Group was getting started, Carpinteria residents had already been defending the bluffs from development efforts for years. Back in 1968, the Carpinteria Valley Association was successful in preventing the construction of an oil refinery on the bluffs. Development plans throughout the 1970s were unsuccessful against community opposition. A 1988 proposal for development of the bluffs was shot down by 3,000 community members signing a petition. In 1990, three incumbents who supported development of the bluffs were voted off the Carpinteria City Council. But every time the community was victorious over a development plan, another one would spring up.
Anti-Development and Pro-Preservation
The Oak Group hosts two types of shows: those raising awareness for land at risk of development and those celebrating preserved spaces. Beyond monetary contributions, the Oak Group has played a crucial role in rallying conservationists through sparking awe and appreciation for the natural spaces at risk.
“You sort of get overwhelmed by having all the art in one place and having it reflect the beauty of the county,” Carrie Mullen, director of development and communications at the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, says about the Oak Group shows. “People love their art,” she says. “And I also think that their greatness really rubs off on the organizations that they are working with.”
Ted Rhodes, former president and current advisory board member of the Citizens for the Carpinteria Bluffs recalls a sense of urgency at these shows. “There's also success there that you can't really measure,” he says.
The Oak Group even inspired Ted to begin his pursuit of photography, and a number of his images ended up being iconic for the Carpinteria Bluffs campaign. “It’s really fulfilling to look up and see city council members and other people wearing these images on their T-shirts or clothing,” he says.
When Arturo first began attending planning meetings for the Carpinteria Bluffs, he noticed that prospective developers would present their plans on posters in the back of the room. He decided to start bringing various paintings of the Carpinteria Bluffs and placed them next to the development plans.
“Developers would bring their conceptual drawings so my idea was to counter that, with what the place actually looks like now,” Arturo says. “I wanted to show that they're acting as if they would not be destroying something, but they would be destroying that which exists that we enjoy.”
Protecting the Carpinteria Bluffs
The Carpinteria Bluffs, blooming with coastal sage, wildflowers, eucalyptus trees, and native oaks, overlook miles of beach and the Carpinteria Harbor Seal Rookery. When the Oak Group was getting started, there were a hundred acres of privately owned open space that remained vulnerable to development. Local conservationists formed the Citizens for the Carpinteria Bluffs in 1996 to raise money and support for the permanent conservation of the land. And in 1998, Shea Holmes, the developer who owned just over fifty acres, about a third of the entire bluffs, agreed to sell to the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County for $4 million, well below the appraised value, as long as the coalition came up with the money by the end of that year.
Through a grassroots campaign with 3,000 residents, and a couple major grants, the coalition raised the full amount plus $500,000 extra and purchased the land, which the Land Trust eventually transferred to the city.
Similarly, in 2016, the Land Trust spearheaded a $7.9 million campaign to purchase the land on the bluffs that overlooks Rincon Point, the famous surf break. The Oak Group held a benefit, and with help from the Citizens for the Carpinteria Bluffs, the City of Carpinteria, Santa Barbara County, and about 1,300 community members, the Land Trust purchased an additional twenty-one acres.
There are still about thirty acres of unprotected land on the Carpinteria Bluffs that remain open to development. “We’re bracing ourselves for the next onslaught of development attempts,” Arturo says. “And I think we're up to the task, I think. I think we'll give them a good fight, you know, and if they don't end up selling it to us, they'll, they will end up with a pretty good development, because we're gonna make sure that they don't overdo it.”
One of these attempts is the development of a ninety-nine-room hotel called the Farm & Hospitality Experience. Despite backlash from the community, developers submitted an application for this project in February 2023. The proposed plan would cover twenty-eight acres of the remaining bluffs. At a hearing for the proposal on Jan. 25, hundreds of community members attended the meeting to voice their disapproval of development on the bluffs. The Carpinteria Architectural Review Board voted against recommending the development plan as is, but is giving developers more time to reduce the size of their proposed plan. The next hearing is scheduled for Feb. 15.
Celebrating Nature and Art
After the 1998 acquisition, a trail on the newly preserved part of Carpinteria Bluffs was dedicated to those who recorded its aesthetic value on canvas. The Artists' Passage, as the trail was named, passes through a grove of eucalyptus trees. It is the location of one of Arturo’s paintings that was integral to the campaign.
The conservation coalition held a multicultural, multi-faith blessing ceremony, which has since become an annual event, at the Artists’ Passage. Last year, at sunrise on the spring equinox, with sunlight hitting the tops of the eucalyptus trees, Chumash elder Julie Tumamait-Stensile offered the blessing. As she created a circle with a prayer stick and gatherers shared blessings, Arturo had a moment of resolution. “Beauty wins,” he thought.
For the artists, painting the landscape in its preserved state provides a different sort of experience. “There was a certain poignancy to painting a place that was in danger of being lost,” Arturo says. “And now, there's a different kind of poignancy when I paint a place that has been preserved in perpetuity.” Scenes that generations of future artists and nature goers will be able to appreciate in person.
The bluffs preservation also provides a haven for future generations. Every year, the Citizens for the Carpinteria Bluffs bring local third graders on a field trip to the bluffs. Part of the field trip is painting the landscape with guidance from Oak Group artists.
Arturo still paints the bluffs often, and he says he never gets tired of it. “I can paint it really quickly now because it’s in my muscle memory. I just feel it, you know? It's home to me.”