By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
Sarah Stieber paints life in San Diego as she sees it. She sees a colorful brilliance at a bus stop in North Park that others might miss, were it not for her painting, “Life Is Whatever.”
“I call my painting style ‘electric realism,’” Stieber said. “I think I invented that term to explain my vibrant use of color and the emotional energy in my paintings. Growing up in Southern California, there’s a lot of vibrant social energy here. There’s a sort of sun-soaked plasticy feel to a lot of social encounters — it’s so Hollywood. So I really wanted to heighten people’s emotional experiences.”
San Diego has long inspired visual artists. The local vistas and hues, the denizens and topography that define San Diego appear in a vast range of periods’ works, from ancient pictographs to Depression-era sculptures to contemporary plein air paintings.
A new exhibit titled “Local Inspiration” features Stieber and other local artists and is on view at the Ashton Gallery, located at Art on 30th in North Park. The show, which includes paintings, photographs and sculptures that celebrate San Diego, is the brainchild of gallery owner Kate Ashton.
“It’s exciting, what people are inspired by,” Ashton said. “Some are moved by the desert. Many are moved by the ocean — its gorgeous, rhythmic blues. The buildings in Balboa Park are just iconic — iconic San Diego, right there. Some artists are painting the sunsets at the cliffs. There’s a rich vibrant orange abstract in the show — that’s a sunset at Ocean Beach. Some are coming in with paintings of bungalows. It goes across the spectrum, and I wanted it too.”
Ashton’s hope has turned into a visual stroll through the region’s eclectic aesthetic. Coastal abstracts, surreal tree-shaded lanes, cactus and other flora; each artwork reflects a participating artist’s vision of San Diego, of a captured scene, a fleeting moment.
One particular North Park bungalow made its way into a watercolor by Thia Nevius. Titled “Cottage,” the lighthearted painting’s subject, with its inviting red-tiled roof and turquoise window frames, might be found in neighborhoods throughout the Uptown and Mid-City areas.
“All artists are painting biographies of their lives,” Aston said. “They’re painting how something looks to them, how it feels to them. How they live it.”
Stieber, before pursuing the artist’s life in her hometown, studied at Boston University and in Venice, Italy. But wherever she went, she was pegged to San Diego.
“Everyone’s immediate reaction to the work, was ‘Oh, that’s so Southern California,’” Stieber explained. “It would almost piss me off, because it was people who didn’t know I was from here, but I guess my upbringing and my aesthetic showed through. My work had traces of Southern California in it, and I couldn’t remove that. I was getting that response so often that, when I graduated, I knew I needed to come back and examine the things that inspired me.”
Stieber has found a home in North Park for her studio, in one of the private artist spaces offered at Art on 30th, and a home for many of her paintings. In addition to private collections, she has pieces in the Marriott’s Downtown and Oceanside hotels. And her work is continuing to evolve in the land of her birth.
“I think that growing up in San Diego and living here and painting here now, I feel like there’s been a little bit of a shift in my experience of it. As a teenager, I was responding to high school, and that does sometimes have that artificial feel, and that’s what my art was about. Now that I’m back here, in North Park, my view of San Diego has shifted. I love the community. I live in North Park. I feel very close with the shop owners. It has a very different feel. Now it’s very self-expressive.”
And self-expression San Diego style is the foundation of the “Local Inspiration” exhibit.
—Kit-Bacon Gressitt writes commentary and essays on her blog, “Excuse Me, I’m Writing,” and has been published by The Missing Slate, Ms. Magazine blog and Trivia: Voice of Feminism, among others. She formerly wrote for the North County Times. She also hosts Fallbrook’s monthly Writers Read authors series and open mic, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.