Artists have built their San Luis Obispo County studios around their chisels, easels, wheels and presses — and this month, about 250 of them will open their doors to visitors.
They’ll not only display — and sell — their art, but many will also offer demonstrations and show works in progress.
Here’s a look at four different artists from around the county — a painter, printmaker, clay artist and sculptor.
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Guillermo Willie of Los Osos will show work in acrylic, pen and ink, graphite, pastel and one oil painting in his garage studio. Willie’s work varies, but one piece central to his life experience is inspired by changes he went through while serving 38 years in prison, he said. “I think part of drawing or painting, whatever we do, it’s a self-portrait. We’re putting our feelings on paper and canvas.” Willie was first incarcerated in the California Youth Authority when he was convicted of battery on a police officer when he was around 17 years old, he said. Later, he said, he served more than 30 years in prison, much of it at the California Men’s Colony, for his role in killing a fellow inmate.
He began to turn his life around in the early 1980s, he said, pulling away from a prison gang that he belonged to and focusing on a future without violence.
His transformation shows itself in his artwork through multiple pieces of a bald figure in a tight posture similar to a fetal position.
“I was going through a heck of a struggle,” Willie said. “It was like a birthing, and that’s what that anonymous figure was, a birthing. I was asking myself, ‘What am I doing as a human being? I don’t want to be like this.’ There were decisions and choices I had to make. Sometimes, something beautiful is born from that experience.”
Clay artist Heidi Petersen of Santa Margarita loves the feel of dirt in her hands. She crawled through it regularly in her former agriculture job, and she shapes it to her liking now in her work space at Rainbow Hut Studios.
Her functional vessels — bowls, plates and cups — are sold in wineries and boutiques across the Central Coast, and her animal sculptures were seen recently in “Turning Points,” a show at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles. Petersen created the sculptures representing species that are either extinct or poised at the brink of extinction.
She described her interpretation of the theme in two ways: Animals on the brink of extinction are at a turning point in the life of their species, while humans are at a turning point regarding those animals and the actions we take to keep them alive or let them go.
Petersen often works in dark-colored clays, including a textured brown clay, using only spot glazing and an iron wash to keep the earthy characteristic of the clay visible.
Her affection for clay is a creative extension of her previous work in agriculture. She worked in integrated pest management for a company that reared beneficial insects, which required her to be “on her hands and knees in the dirt a lot of the time,” she said.
“It was hard to leave that job, but I had been doing it for about 13 years, and I felt done; I wanted to have my life here in Santa Margarita,” Petersen said. She loves growing plants, and for about eight years, her art had plant forms on them.
She now shares the teal-blue quonset that houses Rainbow Hut with several other artists, including painter Peg Grady, who also is showing her work during the Open Studios tour.
Print artist Mae Wilson, showing her work in San Luis Obispo, brings a storyteller’s sensibility to her work — she “plays with ideas,” she said, with a philosophical outlook that creates art with a message.
One piece consists of a single image of a blockprint factory on which she will gild a second layer of images in gold leaf, possibly happy faces. She leaves the meaning to the interpretation of viewers.
She will show 15 to 20 block-print pieces, anywhere from business card size to 15 by 22 inches in the tour.
As she develops her ideas, Wilson knows the visual story she wants to tell, and she is driven to get it right. She sketches her ideas, then reworks them again and again until she captures exactly the elements she is seeking for her art.
“Sometimes I’ll redraw it 10 times and decide I want to go in a particular direction,” she said. “But when you’re in your studio on a good day, it feels like everything is right with the world, like you’re with the rhythm of the world. And if you’re not having a good day, you can polish plates.”
The plates are representations of what will be print art. They’re carved scenes or messages that are covered in paint before they’re transferred to paper or other materials. The printed art is the reverse image of the carved plate.
Etching is Wilson’s favorite form of printing, where she uses chemicals that cut into metal.
“I created this etching where there’s this butterfly with power coming from its wings, then added collage elements, images from old magazines,” Wilson said. “Etching is a little tricky. I like the rhythm of it, that it has so many different steps — the experimentation of it and that it sometimes surprises you.”
Mike McNutt, showing his work in Nipomo, will feature at least 10 pieces of his whimsical metal and ceramic sculptures. It’s the seventh Open Studios Tour in which he’s participated.
McNutt began his professional career as a mechanic, but that changed when he started seeing the metal parts that surrounded him as potential art rather than something with which to do his mechanical work.
“I picked up work as a mechanic because I was married young, and it was a good job,” McNutt said. “But then I saw this tank in the trash one day, and I made a bell wind chime out of it in the late ’90s. It kind of evolved from there. I kept collecting those tanks and kept taking art classes.”
His materials come from a hoard of old, rusty parts he keeps in milk crates.
“One of the things in there is a piece of wood like a yoke and in the middle a steel piece off the wood and lying in the milk crate, worn through,” Mc-Nutt said. “From the angle I was, it looked like an owl’s head, like a beak and eyebrows. That’s kind of how my process works. Something will remind me of something else.”
That piece is in progress, but he may make a musical chime or stationary sculpture. His pieces are therapeutic for himself and, he hopes, a delight to the public, whom he likes meeting face to face during the tour.
“When I go out to sell my work, I see a lot of people smile, I hear a lot of laughter,” he said. “It’s a real fun, enriching thing for me to be doing. I like meeting people and talking to them eye-to-eye. I just really like people.”
IF YOU GO
ARTS OBISPO OPEN STUDIOS ART TOUR
Where: Self-guided tour of art studios throughout San Luis Obispo County featuring about 250 artists
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Oct.10-11 and Oct. 17-18
Information: Printed catalogs are available at various businesses. They’re also online at www.sloartscouncil.org. For more info, go to http://www.sloartscouncil.org/openstudios/openstudios-art-tour