Beginning in 2013, I began to spend extended periods of time in Southern California as my parents, who had retired to Pasadena, began to experience the sort of health scares all too common to octogenarians. Both, at separate times, had been in and out of the hospital. Luckily, they both improved, their symptoms managed, usually with a period of convalescence at home.
It was during these stays at my mother’s house that I discovered the San Gabriel mountain range that demarcates and towers over the valley that extends eastward from the city of Los Angeles. After days by my mother’s hospital bedside, I would head up into these mountains with my sketchbook and watercolors to find a quiet spot to paint, away from it all.
The rugged, spare landscape was a contrast to the New England countryside of my childhood. Eucalypts, sage, cactus, cedar, live oak, palms and olive trees gave it a particular character, as did the quality of California sunshine. Learning how to draw and paint with this new palette and textures of the landscape was a welcome challenge and distraction.
I decided to call the series of paintings that resulted from these outings my ‘Echo Park’ paintings, after a favorite nature preserve on the flanks of Echo Mountain above the city of Pasadena. The extensive acreage of this preserve had once been home both to a grand hotel atop the mountain, reachable by a funicular rail, as well as a vast mansion and estate owned by a family called Cobb, that had, at one time, been acquired by the Marx Brothers as an investment property. Nothing of the hotel or the mansion, which fell into ruin and had to be demolished, remained, but some foundation stones and a long winding driveway planted with trees that have now grown into magnificent specimens. It is now a nature preserve.
Local lore has it that the place is haunted. Gangs have used the park reserve to carouse and “tag” (spray paint) unfortunate trees and boulders with their markings. I was advised not to remain after dusk, in any case, and not just because there were bears and mountain lions that lived there. I had never seen these predators, but had come across many birds, deer and other small animals attracted by a watering hole up on the mountain under a vast spreading live oak tree.
California had been experiencing a sustained and unprecedented drought, very occasionally at certain times of the year relieved by merciful rains. I was astonished at how quickly the parched mountains exploded into green, the landscape transformed, as if by magic, into lush foliage.
The Echo Park paintings are meditations on mortality, both of our individual lives but also on the natural world on which we depend, but also a celebration of the beauty of a natural world increasingly fragile and threatened.
At the same time, there are things in California that appear to remain the same: the perfect days of blue skies and abundant sunshine that end in long shadows and spectacular sunsets when, as the last rays of the sun disappear into the Pacific ocean, another day in America has come to a close.