Art by the sea

Ocean scenery meets local talent along the North Coast of California
Lora J. Finnegan

Foamy surf detonating against rocky sea stacks. White, crescent-shaped beaches edging emerald coves. On a winter drive along the coast north of San Francisco, the vistas offer timeless appeal.

Add a few stops in vibrant art towns to wander galleries and chat with colorful artists, and you have the makings of an entertaining weekend getaway, a kind of Art 101 field trip. Bodega Bay, Gualala, Mendocino, and Fort Bragg all have thriving art communities and galleries to showcase local talent. Even cafes and lodges are filled with paintings, carvings, and blown-glass pieces.

These small towns are great places to learn about media and trends, perhaps meet new and emerging ceramists or sculptors, and shop at cooperatives (where prices are usually moderated by the fact that many of the owner-artists are just starting their careers).

The North Coast art scene may not be as prominent yet as, say, a Carmel-by-the-Sea, but word of its high quality is spreading. Despite the remote location, the number of people visiting open studios on September's annual North Coast Artists' Guild Studio Discovery Tour www.studio-tours.com has doubled in the last two years.

And now there are more special events at galleries year-round, including Fort Bragg's First Friday (707/964-8266) and Mendocino's Second Saturday (707/937-5818).

"This is not an easy area to reach or to make a living in," says Mendocino Art Center executive director Peggy Templer. One result, Templer contends, is that the area fosters artistic individualism. "You won't find any Thomas Kinkades here," she says. "You will find freshness and creativity." When you visit, you will also encounter an art scene that's laid-back, friendly, and anything but pretentious.

Artists are drawn to the North Coast's radiant quality of light and the rough-hewn shoreline. For visitors, the winding route of State 1 is simply one of the best drives in California. But who knows? In the muted light of winter, the coast might even bring out the artist in you.

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