A Peake experience

'Artichoke, Red 1958' is an oil by Elaine Badgley Arnoux.
'Artichoke, Red 1958' is an oil by Elaine Badgley Arnoux. COURTESY PHOTO

For the first half of the 1950s, Elaine Badgley Arnoux’s fellow San Luis Obispo artists accepted her and her pleasant watercolors of local buildings.

But then a new friend from Buellton — Channing Peake, a painter and rancher — taught her a different way to see form. Instead of thinking solely about the front of her subjects, she began thinking about the insides and backs — more specifically, the insides of artichokes and boats.

Members of the San Luis Obispo Art Association weren’t quite ready to accept this approach that incorporated abstract expressionism and cubism. They stopped speaking to her.

Ironically, when Badgley Arnoux stopped using clean lines and shapes to paint buildings, she said she found “nutrition” and approval from architects at Cal Poly. They were OK with her new explorations.

Badgley Arnoux, who now lives and paints in San Francisco, shared stories about her art, life and relationship with Peake during a lecture and gallery talk last weekend at the San Luis Obispo Art Center. The pair’s work will be exhibited through Sept. 2 under the title “A Time and a Place: The Artistic Encounter Between Channing Peake and Elaine Badgley Arnoux, 1956-1962.”

The Hind Foundation helped fund the exhibit, which entailed borrowing paintings from collectors, friends and family of the artists, creating a catalog (available for $20) and producing a self-guided audio tour.

Badgley Arnoux said she realized at age 12 that she was a skilled portrait artist and stuck with it. “You lick it or you join it.”

Now in her mid-80s, Badgley Arnoux moved with her husband and two children to San Luis Obispo in 1948. For the next eight years or so she painted “75 old buildings and 300 children” and then asked herself, “What more can you do?”

She was going through a dark time and wanted a new experience to perk herself up, so she invited Peake to show his studies of farm machinery in the lobby of the Recreation Building in San Luis Obispo. She asked friends with trucks to round up some farm implements and juxtaposed them next to Peake’s paintings.

Although Badgley Arnoux said she once hated anything that alluded to Picasso, there was something about Peake’s combination of abstract expressionism and cubism that drew her in. She made herself tell Peake that she was an artist, too. “I twist my skirt and then I get the nerve to blurt something out,” she said about a habit that she never shook. That nerve led to a friendship and a bolder artistic voice.

Fifty years later, the sandscapes that her old San Luis friends favored are still pretty, but the work of these two painters is part of art history. The abstract works aren’t just important in comparison to what their hometown peers were doing in the “time and place” that the exhibit name refers to. The works are important in a conversation that might also include Picasso and Pollock.

Contact freelance writer Monica Fiscalini at