Fall color in Owens Valley, California

Coons Gallery

Coons Gallery

Last weekend on my daily dog walk, I ran into a plein-air painting group from Southern California, painting the bright yellow and orange crowns of the cottonwoods against the purple silhouette of the White Mountains. The color in the high country of the Sierra ended a few weeks ago, perhaps somewhat prematurely by snowfall. Thanks to warm temperatures and no early frost, the color in the Owens Valley continues, as the magnificent cottownwoods take turns changing.

If you have the chance, stop by our gallery to see some of the original oil paintings of the fall scenes in the Eastern Sierra by our artists, Robert Vogel, Joe Mancuso and Gary Hetrick.

The Dramatic View: Color and Light of the Eastern Sierra and Owens Valley

In 1870 the French painter Edgar Degas said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Though he considered himself a realist, Degas was associated with French impressionism, a style of, and philosophical approach to painting. Primarily using oil paint as the medium, impressionist painters objectively, accurately and quickly capture the changing effects of light and color on visual reality through the use of color and loose brush strokes, seemingly quickly placed, creating an impression of a moment in time. These basic artistic tenets, shaped in Paris over a century ago, influenced generations of artists worldwide, setting in motion the American impressionist movement, and later, California impressionism and “plein-air” painting (translated from French as “painting outdoors”). It is in this spirit, that Coons Gallery brings the paintings of California painters Joe Mancuso and Robert Vogel, and their view of the Eastern Sierra to the Owens Valley.

ROBERT VOGEL – Artist and designer of Vogel guitars

Mammoth Sunrise

Robert Vogel, Mammoth Sunrise, 24x30, oil on canvas


Robert Vogel’s first visit to the Eastern Sierra on a family ski trip to Mammoth during a snowstorm, made a lasting visual impression on the Pasadena-born second grader, one that would draw him back to Mammoth to live and work.

Vogel studied architecture and fine art in college, then left for Europe with a backpack and sketchbook to visit most of the significant art galleries and buildings including the Prado and Louvre. He traveled through Morocco–Fez, Casablanca, Tangier and Marrakesh. He spent a few months in Spain living with a family in Madrid, where he learned to speak Spanish fluently. 

Returning to California he moved to Mammoth Lakes. Locals began asking him to do plans for them, remodeling and additions, then house design. Renting a small office, he worked in architectural design for 7 years, from 1977 to 1985. On Sundays, he was DJ for the classical show on KMMT. He left Mammoth to study classical guitar and composing. 

While doing a seminar and guitar performance in Quito, Ecuador, he met his future wife, and in 1991 moved there. In 1994 a friend in Quito gave Vogel an x-acto knife, a tiny saw and a book on how to make acoustic guitars. “Quito has favorable conditions for making guitars, a dry stable climate, and fine tropical hardwoods,” says Vogel. He began making solid body electrics, then branched out to bass guitars and finally, to classical and acoustic guitars. His handcrafted guitars are sold through his company, Vogel Guitars in Quito.

Now back in California, he spends a significant amount of time between Bishop, Mammoth and June Lake. His paintings of familiar scenes capture the dramatic palette and changing light of the Eastern Sierra. Vogel, attributes his happiness and success as an artist to the inspiration he finds in nature and to the synergy generated from being able to share and exchange ideas with other artists about their work: “I have been privileged to be able to paint with Scott Garland, Jason Situ, Jennifer McChristian, Mian Situ, Jeremy Lipking, Frank Serrano, Matt Smith, and Jim Wilcox, among others, whom I also count as my friends and mentors.” He says of his own work, “ I hope that you find in my paintings some reflection of the profound beauty in nature.”

JOE MANCUSO – Basin to Range
Oil painter Joe Mancuso’s earliest memories of the Eastern Sierra are the camping trips he went on with his father to the high country, trips that gave him an appreciation for the Sierra, for nature and its extremes, the changing weather and seasons. He spent a few summers working at Rock Creek Lodge, where he returns every year to paint. One of those summers, he visited an art fair in Mammoth where he discovered drawings by artist Helen Seal. The beautiful simplicity of her Sierra sketches made a lasting impression on the young artist.  At that moment he knew he wanted to paint.

Joe Mancuso, Convict Creek Eastern Sierra

Joe Mancuso, Convict Creek Eastern Sierra, 30x40, oil/canvas


Basin and range, valley to summit, the changing light as it filters through the clouds and leaves of the cottonwoods along the canals surrounding Bishop are among Mancuso’s favorites subjects. “Light on the landscape and the way it plays with and reveals its forms and color is extremely seductive to me. Painting on location and in the studio is a way I can interact, participate and respond to the magnificence I see.” Mancuso’s paintings and oil pastels reward the viewer with two views: the first is the overall effect, a literal realism, as seen by standing five to eight feet back from the painting. Moving closer, not more than three feet away, we are rewarded with a new view, the interweaving of color with the fluid, impressionistic, almost abstract, movement of brush strokes.

Mancuso holds signature membership with the Pastel Society of America, and the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters. In 2007, The Pastel Society of the West Coast elected Joe to “Distinguished Pastelist.” His work has been published in the Pastel Journal’s “The Years Best.” — Wynne Benti ©2011 Coons Gallery

Preserving art work

FACL work in progress

A painting by Granville Redmond in the process of being cleaned by Fine Arts Conservation Laboratory.

Every month, I am contacted by people who want to sell their artwork. So many times, sellers think that a painting should get top dollar because of the artist, but never think to consider how the overall condition of the piece affects the value of the painting and ultimately the price a buyer is willing to pay. I know this seems a strange comparison, but I like to think of selling paintings much like selling fine collector cars. A car with dents, scratches and faded paint won’t bring as much at market as the same car, with no dents, no scratches and paint in original pristine condition. Just like fine cars, to command top dollar, paintings have to be maintained throughout their lifetimes.

When a gallery considers selling a painting for a client everything is taken into consideration: the condition of the painting and even the frame. If a frame is dented or scratched or so out-of-date, someone has to pay to replace it, either the gallery or the seller. Something as simple as pressing a painted canvas against a knee will cause craquelure to emerge in that spot, in a round shape, five years later. If a painting is covered with a layer of cigarette tar, over a layer of yellowed varnish, someone has to pay to transport it and clean it. A dirty painting will sit on a gallery wall and the only way to move it will be to cut the price. That is why it is so important to treat your paintings well while you enjoy them on the wall. Taking care of your artwork not only extends the life of the piece but increases or maintains its value.

Like cars and homes, paintings are subject to the fluctuations of the market. Right now, the overall art market is fairly depressed with sales fluctuating, and some areas hit harder than others. Over the past five years, I have watched numerous galleries close their doors forever and because of this the outlets for selling art are shrinking. We all have turned to the web to create a greater presence and increase visibility for the work we carry but is the internet the best way to see a traditional work of art, to get a real feel for its colors and textures?

The point of my writing this article is to provide some education to potential sellers. I use one place to do my art restoration and that is Fine Art Conservation Laboratory in Santa Barbara. I have worked with Scott Haskins for many years. His experience is extensive. His additional website Tips for Fine Art Collectors and Facebook page, Save your Stuff, provide a plethora of valuable information that every collector can use to maintain the integrity of their most prized art pieces. In addition, he produced a series of wonderful videos on various preservation subjects that are fascinating to watch one of which I’ve included one here on blacklighting.

Interestingly, what I learned from Scott is how an artist’s own methods, the use of materials and mediums can effect the longevity of a painting. Over the years, as he has worked on various pieces by different artists, he knows which mediums have contributed to the aging process of a particular artist’s work just by discovering what it takes to restore that artist’s work. It is amazing how many artists are unfamiliar with the chemical properties of mediums and what happens when those mediums are combined. There’s not much a collector can do about how an artist has mixed their mediums, but years later as the paint and varnish age, a skilled conservationist can stabilize the work, maintaining value and adding life.

Remember. A painting is a lot like a face. Too much sun and cigarette smoke will age it prematurely and a total facelift can be expensive.
– Wynne Benti



©2012 Wynne Benti/Coons Gallery
Video ©2012 Scott Haskins/FACL. Used with permission.

Wynne Benti, gallery owner and publisher, has worked in art & design since 1974. She studied Fine Art at University of California Davis (BA) with Wayne Thiebaud, Roy DeForest, Roland Peterson and Harvey Himelfarb as well as graphic design at Art Center College of Design (BFA).

Brandon-in-the-Woods

Brandon is from the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. He has family in the Owens Valley and it was on one of his trips here, that he came into the gallery and we met.

Brandon in the Woods

Spirit by Brandon In-the-Woods

Born in Provo, Utah, 1973, Brandon has carved in native cottonwood for over twenty years. The cottonwood is collected from various locations throughout the southwest and the Owens Valley.

His work is primarily figurative with a focus on the historic ceremonial and spiritual aspects of mixed Native American cultural heritage that includes Sioux, Navajo and Paiute-Shoshone.

Ceremonial Paiute-Shoshone by Brandon In-the-Woods

Ceremonial Paiute-Shoshone by Brandon In-the-Woods

Joe Mancuso

Joe Mancuso in the field

Joe Mancuso in the field

One of Joe Mancuso’s passions is painting the Sierra Nevada and the Owens Valley. He’s one of the few artists who paint the changing light, as it filters through the clouds and leaves of the cottonwoods, along the canals surrounding Bishop. Joe talks about the influences of nature, the changing seasons and weather on his art and inspiration: “Light on the landscape and the way it plays with and reveals its forms and color is extremely seductive to me. Painting on location and in the studio is a way I can interact, participate and respond to the magnificence I see.”

Joe Mancuso holds signature memberships with the Pastel Society of America and the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters. In 2007 The Pastel Society of the West Coast elected Joe to “Distinguished Pastelist.” His work has been published in the Pastel Journal’s “The Years Best” in 2004 and 2005.

©2012 Wynne Benti/Coons Gallery

Richards Coons

Author of the book, Robert Clunie: Plein Air Painter of the Sierra, Richard Coons didn’t pick up a paint brush until he was 47 years old.  Self-taught in the plein-air tradition, he was influenced by painters Robert Clunie, Larry Kronquist and marine painter, Bennett Bradbury. His only formal art training were the few months spent at the Laguna Beach Art School studying marine painting.

Born in Los Angeles, Richard Coons was the son of a hydrographer who also worked as a surveyor on the construction of the Tioga Road up Yosemite’s east side. His earliest trips to the Eastern Sierra were to visit cousins living in the Owens Valley ranching town of Bishop, California. He was 14 when he asked his parents if he could go live with his cousins in Bishop. They followed him a year later when his father followed work north.

Richard Coons

Richard Coons painting the "big sky and sagebrush" of Chalfant Valley.

Richard’s father joined his grandfather in the operation of the family business, Bishop Pumice Concrete Products, located in a wood warehouse at the corner of Sierra Highway and Highway 6. They primarily manufactured bricks from pumice harvested in the Volcanic Tablelands north of Bishop. All of the brick buildings in the area from that era were made with pumice brick from the Coons’ plant. In 1945, Richard’s grandfather asked him to assist with a delivery of pumice block to newcomer Robert Clunie, a fine artist from Santa Paula, for construction of Clunie’s art studio on the North Fork of Bishop Creek and Sierra Highway. Then a student at Bishop Union High School, Richard raced on the ski team, played football, but was best known for his accomplishments in track which won him a scholarship to college. Aware of the young man’s notable track accomplishments as reported in the local newspaper, and as an athlete of some note himself, Clunie struck up a conversation about sports with Richard.

It was a meeting that changed the course of Richard Coons’ life. What most impressed Richard were Clunie’s paintings of the High Sierra. There was no local artist who painted like that in the Owens Valley. Richard was 17 when he bought Clunie’s painting, Monterey Boatworks which remains his collection today.

Throughout his life Richard remained friends with the painter Robert Clunie. When his first marriage ended, and his three daughters grown with families of their own, Richard learned how to paint in oils. He accompanied Robert Clunie on painting trips to his favorite locations in the Eastern Sierra including the high country accessible only by foot or pack train. When Clunie died in 1984, Coons purchased the art studio from his only son and opened Coons Gallery. It was perfection for Richard. He finally had his own studio space and gallery in the location of his dreams, the deepest valley surrounded by 14-thousand foot peaks. He married a second time to a former network television art director.

In 1998, Coons wrote and published the definitive volume on his mentor’s life: Robert Clunie Plein-Air Painter of the Sierra. A prolific painter, he joined the California Art Club. He participated in many exhibitions, won many awards, an participated in a joint exhibition with Robert Clunie at the Ventura County Historical Museum.

© 2012 Wynne Benti/Coons Gallery

Robert Vogel

Mammoth Mountain Silhouette

Mammoth Mountain Silhouette by Robert Vogel
©2011 Robert Vogel

For all the world traveling Robert Vogel has done in his lifetime, throughout Europe, South America and Northern Africa, the Eastern Sierra is the place he finds the most inspiration, spending a significant amount of time between Bishop, Mammoth and June Lake. Born in Pasadena, Robert studied architecture and fine art at USC.

In the 1960s, Robert made his first trip to Mammoth with his family, to ski, traveling up 395 in the midst of a snowstorm. After high school, he attended USC School of Architecture and Fine Art. He spent two summers in Europe, with a backpack and sketchbook, visiting most of the significant art galleries and buildings, including the Prado and Louvre which made deep impressions. In Morocco, he traveled through the towns of Fez, Casablanca, Tangier, and Marrakesh, then spent a couple of months in Spain where he lived with a family in Madrid.

Upon returning to L.A., he worked briefly at Paramount recording studios in Hollywood, then moved to Mammoth Lakes, where people began asking him to do plans for them, remodeling and additions, then finally house design. He rented a small office and worked in architectural design for 7 years, from 1977 to 1985. On Sundays, he was DJ for the classical show on KMMT. He left Mammoth to study classical guitar, composing and arranging at the Dick Grove School of Music in Studio City, California. Robert continued his travels, eventually meeting his wife in South America. Robert started two companies in Equador: Arbol Records and Vogel Guitars

His paintings, many of familiar scenes, capture the dramatic palette and changing light of the Eastern Sierra.

“I have been privileged to be able to paint with Scott Garland, Jason Situ, Jennifer McChristian, Mian Situ, Jeremy Lipking, Frank Serrano, Matt Smith, and Jim Wilcox, among others, whom I also count as my friends and mentors.”

“Spring begins as a slow thaw, and sometimes winter doesn’t seem to want to let go. . .”
©2011 Coons Gallery

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