The Story of Coons Gallery is a Story of its Artists . . .
In 1928, about a decade after he arrived in America from Scotland, Robert Clunie made his first trip to the Eastern Sierra, to the town of Lone Pine, where he painted the Olivas Pack Station and Mount Whitney. The following year, a few months before the stock market crash of 1929, Clunie hired a packer to transport him, his camping and painting gear to Fifth Lake, near Upper Glacier Lodge in Big Pine Canyon. Over the next fifty years, Clunie returned to the same spot every summer to paint, transforming the knoll overlooking Fifth Lake into his permanent summer camp.
At the end of World War II, Clunie began construction on the studio and residence that is now Coons Gallery, purchasing the small portion of land from the Matlick family, one of several Bishop area ranching families involved in a decades long water rights dispute, beginning in the early 1900s. The historical dispute made its way to California’s highest court where the ranchers prevailed and the Bishop Cone Hillside Decree set precedent for water usage. When Clunie took possession of the gallery, rancher Edwin Matlick presented him with a lengthy agreement signed in 1929, transferring those historical rights to Clunie’s small parcel. Today, visitors to the gallery can see some of Inyo County’s water history in the form of a turnstile used to control water releases to the old ranch irrigation ditch (in front of the gallery).
All of the wood used in the gallery’s construction, from Clunie’s handmade doors to the flat adobe-style roof, was salvaged from Manzanar War Relocation Center when the internment camp south of Independence closed at the end of World War II. Bishop Pumice Concrete Products (formerly located on what is now a vacant lot north of Smart & Final at the junction of US 395 and 6; the original building was demolished in 2010 ) owned by Richard Coons’ grandfather, milled and fired the volcanic block used in the walls. Coons met Robert Clunie when he helped his grandfather deliver the volcanic block, a friendship that continued to the end of Clunie’s life. Robert Clunie is one of several artists including Jessie Arms Botke, Cornelis Botke and Douglas Shively, featured on a mural in downtown Santa Paula.
Richard Coons didn’t start painting until he was 47 years old. In 1986, following Clunie’s death, Coons purchased the gallery from Kent Clunie (Robert Clunie’s son) as his own studio and residence. For the next 25 years, Coons focused on developing the realist style for which he is known, winning numerous awards and writing the book dedicated to his mentor, Robert Clunie: Plein Air Painter of the Sierra.
While Richard Coons, the man, touched the hearts of many people who had the chance to meet him either on location in the Sierra or at his easel in his gallery, his work inspired generations of artists. Today people from all over California and the world continue to visit the gallery and to enjoy several of his large canvases featured in the permanent collection.