A retrospective exhibit at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art showcases creations by the late Cambria artist and gallery owner Tamara Webster. The show honors a tiny, mysterious Russian woman with widespread talents and a rather eccentric personality.
The legacy exhibition, on display through Sunday, March 10, commemorates the artist, her art and the financial bequest she left to the museum.
Although Webster was perhaps best known for her weavings and bright, figurative paintings, the 15 pieces on display also include a still life and an interior in mixed media, two small landscape tapestries, “Boy with Boom Box” in collage, a mixed-media seaside landscape, cats rendered in oils and flowers done in pastels.
All were loaned from collections of dear friends. In Webster’s later years, two of those collectors — Julee Krause and restaurateur Shanny Covey — became the artist’s conservators. With the help of potter Peggy Vrana, the so-called “Tamara sisters” lovingly cared for the artist until her death in 2011.
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Covey said she’s not normally sentimental or emotional, but “this small, grey-haired artist-teacher from Russia … wormed her way into my heart.”
“Tamara loved everything about art — colors, textures, different forms and mediums,” Covey said. A mentor to many fledgling artists, Webster “loved creating but most of all she loved teaching art and seeing the impact of how art could change her students’ lives for the better.”
Webster’s body of work — and she was always busy practicing her art — also included mosaic, ethnic jewelry, furniture, fashion, woodwork, sculpture and more. She loved texture, and had enormous collections of pieces of material, threads, buttons, yarn, rocks, driftwood, tiles, feathers, dolls, beads, bones — and books. So many books.
“She was highly influenced by the natural world, and would just as soon sketch upon beach stones or combine driftwood into some whimsical work,” Krause said. “She saw the world in shapes, and even in her 90s, a dinner roll on the table would suggest something magical to her imagination.”
Despite the predominantly bright colors, Webster’s work often was moody, even dark.
Her personal aura of mystery reflected her romantic, exotic international background and many adventures. She lived through dangerous times, traveled widely and was R-r-r-ussian to the core.
She was born in Odessa in 1917. After her father’s assassination during the Russian Revolution, Webster escaped to Minnesota with her two sisters and her mother, who had sewn their jewels and valuables into their clothing.
Webster attended UC Santa Barbara and UC Los Angeles, and blossomed in Europe, studying at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. She took classes at Otis Art Institute and Jepson School of Art, both in Los Angeles, and taught art for years at Los Angeles schools.
She married Howard Webster, a descendent of the dictionary family. They had a daughter, but later divorced.
Webster moved to Cambria about four decades ago, opening an upstairs art gallery on Burton Drive. Later she moved it to the Cambria Galleria’s second story, and then to her home studio.
“She loved running the studio,” even though doing so was expensive, artist Art Van Rhyn recalled.
Yes, Webster could be prickly. But Covey described her as strong, determined and “with a giant’s heart and soul … she cherished her freedom, was a devout liberal and was fiercely independent, especially since she practically raised herself.”
Webster had been an aerial photographer for the Army Air Corps during World War II, and was a caregiver in a facility for soldiers recovering from skull injuries or suffering from what’s now called post-traumatic stress disorder.
One of her last public appearances in Cambria was as an honoree in the September 2010 Pinedorado salute to World War II veterans.
Krause said it had been hugely important to Webster to ride on the parade float filled with vets, even though her doctors advised the ill woman not to go.
“She cried when she got the invitation,” Krause said before the parade. “She had to be there,” and, in typical Webster fashion, she was.
Tamara Webster died at home in Cambria in January 2011 — her devoted sister-caregivers beside her — just 10 days short of her 94th birthday.
Her art still lives.
A collection of artwork by the late Tamara Webster gathered from private collections is on display at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art through March 10.
A reception in her honor will be held from 6 to 9 p.m., during Art After Dark, on Friday, March 1.
The museum is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays at 1010 Broad Street, San Luis Obispo. Admission is free.