Carmel in color

Jan Wagstaff paints the birds and the beach

The town of Carmel, set by the sea on the southern bend of the Monterey Peninsula, was made for artists. The light here is golden and soft; the sand has a particular fineness and gleam. Writer Mary Austin said the place's appeal is in its "beauty and strangeness"; it's where she and a band of friends sought refuge after the 1906 earthquake.

Years ago, artist Jan Wagstaff sought refuge here too, after leaving an art professorship at California State University, Chico. She intended to stay only a year. But the place and its particular light grew on her. Now a 24-year resident, Wagstaff is president of the 77-year-old Carmel Art Association, a creative anchor in this community. Formerly a clothing designer, she divides her time between teaching art and painting. Her studio is filled with nature-inspired work, from drawings of leaves and rocks to colorful paintings of oceans, swamps, and rivers ― she's especially drawn to the area's waterways. "There's a very strong group of individuals who want to preserve the natural beauty of the area," she explains.

Next month, the Carmel Gallery Alliance hosts the 11th annual Carmel Art Festival, which draws big crowds to appreciate plein air painting, youth art, and sculpture in the park. Galleries line Ocean Avenue, the town's main strip, but area museums are also a good bet. "You don't have to buy stuff while you're here," Wagstaff says. "Just go the beach."

There, with residents running their dogs along the dunes, it's easy to understand how such natural opulence fuels inspiration. As Wagstaff puts it, "I can't imagine living anywhere else."

Art finder
View Carmel artists' work at the Carmel Art Association gallery (Dolores St. between Fifth and Sixth Streets; www.carmelart.org or 831/624-6176). The Carmel Art Festival (free; www.carmelartfestival.org or 831/642-2503) is May 13-16, 2004.

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