Her artful journey

December 15, 2022 § Leave a comment

Photograph of Ruth Ellen Hoag at Thomas Reynolds Gallery by Ingrid Bostrom

Santa Barbara Independent

Ruth Ellen Hoag’s professional life didn’t begin with a paintbrush. A graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, she turned to watercolors and acrylics only after winding down a 30-year orchestral career that brought her — and her French horn — to venues across the country, including in New York, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. In fact, it was while playing first horn in the orchestra in a 1975 production of West Side Story at the Lobero Theatre that Hoag met her husband, Richard.

“He was Riff, the leader of the Jets,” she recalled.

When her husband’s work took him to Japan in 1989, Hoag joined him. Little did she know that sojourn would represent the first steps toward a new career, this one as a fine artist. “I really wanted to go, but there was no point in taking my horn,” she said. “What would I do with it there? So, I left it behind, conscious of the fact that I’d probably never play professionally again.”

In Japan, Hoag, who had always enjoyed drawing, directed her artistic attention toward calligraphy. Upon returning to the U.S. a little more than a year later, she turned to painting. She allowed herself two years of working exclusively on her art to see if she could make a go of it.

And make a go of it she has. That brief experiment has resulted in a vast body of award-winning work, decades as a painting instructor, and three years as the owner of REH Contemporary Gallery in the Funk Zone (she closed the gallery in 2022 to devote herself to painting).

This month, her circuitous journey brings her to the Thomas Reynolds Gallery, where a solo show representing her work over the past 20 years is on exhibit through January 5. My Journey So Far, which opened last month, features 20 pieces done in Hoag’s signature watercolor or acrylic. With vibrant colors and slightly abstract figures — or characters, as Hoag refers to the individuals who populate her work — each painting tells its own unique story.

“When you get an idea for a painting it’s never the one that comes out in the end,” she said. “It’s the kernel of a story about the people, about what’s going on with them. You start drawing them, and then you’re figuring out how they go together. They didn’t start out together but came together in the painting.”

Hoag knew early on that she wanted to do figurative work and, as she said, took every figure drawing and anatomy course she could find to hone her skills and develop her technique. “I’ve never lost my desire to paint people,” she noted. “But they’ve always had an abstract quality to them. I think of all my work as being abstract, but people don’t see it that way because they can see the figures; they can see the story.”

Hoag has shown her work with the International Society of Acrylic Painters and the Annual National Juried Exhibition of Works on Paper, among others. In addition, she holds signature status with the American Watercolor Society, National Watercolor Society, San Diego Watercolor Society, Rocky Mountain National Watermedia, California Watercolor Association and Watercolor West.

When she began painting, Hoag’s medium was primarily watercolor and India ink. “Then I got the mural commission, and it had to be in acrylic,” she said. The commission, titled “East of Yesterday” and located at 10 East Yanonali St., consists of two large, vivid pieces that depict the history of Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone. Painted in 2016, the murals received the Santa Barbara Beautiful 2019 Hugh Petersen Award for Art in Public Places.

Despite her accomplishments, Hoag is humble about her work. When “Retrospective,” a piece currently featured in the show at Thomas Reynolds Gallery, took top honors at the San Diego Watercolor Society’s annual international show in 2012, Hoag was more than a little surprised. In writing about it, the judge noted the quality of the work and Hoag’s unique point of view. “It was a clue to trust myself and not judge myself too harshly,” she said.

That is a piece of wisdom she shares with the students in the painting classes she has taught for nearly 20 years. “Trust that what you’re doing has value,” she said, “and stick with it long enough to have it become your voice.”

And when her students have moments of self-doubt, she urges them to keep working. “I tell them, ‘You’re just not done yet,’ ” she said. “If the painting’s not quite together, you’re just not done yet. Don’t throw it away. Keep going until you have wrenched out every ounce of juice you can. And either it works, or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, you do it again.”

Watercolor as a mistress

October 11, 2022 § Leave a comment

The Riv

George Washington Smith was Santa Barbara’s most influential architect back in the 1920s, the founding father of the California movement in Spanish Colonial Revival design. The irony was that Smith, when he moved to Montecito in 1917, saw himself as an artist. But after building the centrally located house and studio he’d designed for himself and his wife, friends and neighbors kept clamoring to have him create residences for them.

“I soon found that people were not really as eager to buy my paintings, which I was laboring over, as they were to have a whitewashed house like mine,” he once said. “So I put away my brushes and have not yet had a moment to take them up again.”

Now, a century later, Smith’s spiritual offspring are turning the tables back again, as a new group show features a dozen successful Santa Barbara architects who also paint or create other visual art. “ARTchitecture” is on display at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery in downtown Santa Barbara.

“I’ve been an architecture junkie since I was a young lawyer living in Chicago, and a few decades running my gallery in San Francisco only encouraged that,” says Reynolds, who moved to Santa Barbara during the pandemic and opened the new art space on State Street last year. “Living here, I’ve arrived in architectural nirvana.” 

The idea for the exhibition came about through Reynolds’s casual conversations with Marc Appleton, the celebrated Santa Barbara architect who helped organize the show, and they reached out to peers to round out the curation. “There’s a natural affinity between architectural design and visual art that many of us feel,” says Appleton. “We decided it would be fun to see how many architects in town actually indulge their passion for watercolors.”

Quite a few, it turns out.

Anthony Grumbine, Jeff Shelton and Stephen Harby are among the well-known locals participating in “ARTchitecture,” along with Domiane Forte, Henry Lenny, John Margolis, Sean McArdle, Tom Meaney, Alexis Stypa and Qing Xue, who collectively contributed more than 75 works for the exhibit.

While the well-trained architects are all famous for designing homes, offices and/or public buildings around town, frequently employing beautiful architectural drawings to convey their vision, painting is a different matter entirely. Appleton jokes, “If I had to paint with the intention of making a living at selling my watercolors, I would be in the poor house.” However, Reynolds says the products of the architects’ art aspirations are anything but amateur hour. “Everything in the exhibition is frameable – they are fine art paintings that stand on their own,” Reynolds says.

Locals will recognize many of the scenes depicted in the watercolors, as a majority of the pieces focus on some of the most beloved buildings in town, including the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. The landmark shows up in paintings by three different architect-artists, each revealing an individual perspective – not unlike how they might design a building from scratch, although without having to please anyone but themselves. 

Appleton says the focus required for watercolors is part of its appeal, perhaps even more so than the finished product. “You have to really look at the building or architectural scene and allow yourself to learn about what you’re seeing,” he said. “It becomes a way of remembering the experience that’s richer than a photograph.”

Harby, who has largely traded active design for a set of watercolor brushes and leading art-travel trips, goes even further. “The joy of experiencing spatial complexity, materials and light fueled my architecture career for a number of years,” he said. “Now, sitting in front of an astonishing and challenging building and trying to capture, and represent it, brings the same kind of thrill as creating it.” 

Appleton agrees. “Watercolor is an extremely seductive art form,” he says. “We have our profession of architecture, which is a commitment like a marriage. But then we have watercolor as a mistress.”

VIEW THE RIV’s 10-page spread

Presenting: ARTchitecture

August 19, 2022 § 3 Comments

Michael Reardon | Customs House

“ARTchitecture” — a group exhibition of Santa Barbara architect-artists — is on view from September 16 to November 12 at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery at 1331 State Street in Santa Barbara. It runs alongside an exhibition of paintings by Michael Reardon, a renowned Northern California watercolorist with an architectural background.

Nearly a dozen of Santa Barbara’s finest practicing architects who also paint, primarily in watercolor, are featured in the exhibition. Among them are Marc Appleton, who helped organize the exhibition, Anthony Grumbine, Stephen Harby and Jeff Shelton. Also included are Domiane Forte, Henry Lenny, John Margolis, Sean McArdle, Tom Meaney, Alexis Stypa and Qing Xue.

“Art and architecture have always been closely related,” says Thomas Reynolds, who last year moved his gallery to Santa Barbara after 25 years in San Francisco. “Santa Barbara is notable not only for its magnificent architecture, but also for its concentration of respected architects moved to create art. We’re happy to bring some of them together.”

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‘It feels like coming home’

March 26, 2022 § Leave a comment

Sandy Ostrau in her studio.


I chose Santa Barbara for college to play for the great UCSB club women’s soccer team — back before a varsity team existed. I had watched the team play in a tournament at Stanford in Palo Alto, my hometown, while I was in high school and I knew it would be a good fit. I arrived on campus for freshman orientation having never visited before. After the five-hour drive from Palo Alto, I stepped out of the car to the fragrant scent of eucalyptus leaves, salty sea air with a slight hint of tar, and a view of the ocean. Students on bikes whizzed by, and I knew at that moment I had landed in the right place.  

The natural beauty of the Central Coast captured me. The weather was perfect. The students were fun-loving and enjoyed a good party, while still working hard. And it was a perfect place to study. I often rode my bike to the beach to read a few chapters in my art history textbooks. The time I spent in Santa Barbara has remained a source of creative inspiration for the many years I have been making art. Had it not been for my experiences there, and the natural beauty, I’m sure I would not be a painter.

Now I’m thrilled to be returning to my most favorite town and old stomping grounds with an exhibition of my paintings on State Street. I have been lucky enough to take my passion to create and make art to a professional level. I’ve been a full time painter for more than 20 years. During that time I’ve had the good fortune to exhibit in galleries and shows all over the country. And now an exhibition in Santa Barbara — it feels like coming home.

Art in the Garden

October 19, 2021 § Leave a comment

A redwood grove in the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

IT WAS A PERFECT PAIRING: an afternoon touring the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and viewing an exhibition of paintings created by the garden’s first artist-in-residence. Organized by the art committee of Santa Barbara Newcomers — a group of recent arrivals — the afternoon began with an enlightening tour of the garden led by Education Director Scot Pipkin, who emphasized the garden’s focus on native California plants. Santa Barbara painter Libby Holland, the debut artist-in-residence, joined the tour and gave a talk about the paintings her residency inspired, which are now exhibited in the garden’s Conservation Center gallery.

7 secrets of collecting art

March 25, 2021 § Leave a comment

Mac Harshberger | The Tennis Set (circa 1928)

Montecito Journal

There’s something new at 1331 State Street: the Thomas Reynolds Gallery, near the Arlington Theater. The gallery was founded in 1994 in San Francisco in the Pacific Heights neighborhood and was known for contemporary California art and artists. I met with Thomas Reynolds the other day and he shared some of his knowledge about how to become a collector on all sizes of budgets — or, as he calls it, “passing through the post-poster phase into the promised land of original art.” 

Read more: “A new gallery opens in Santa Barbara

Thomas Moran lived here

January 20, 2021 § Leave a comment

Thomas Moran painting.


A number of homes and estates in the Santa Barbara area have names. Some are fairly well known, such as Bellosguardo or Casa de la Guerra. Other names are less familiar. But the house at 1821 Anacapa Street in Santa Barbara has a name that no one — including the present owner — seemed to be aware of: Rosemary Cottage.

In 1919, the home’s most distinguished resident moved in — the landscape artist Thomas Moran and his daughter, Ruth. Moran’s main home was in East Hampton, New York, and is a National Historic Landmark. Starting about 1916-17, the 80-year-old Moran and his daughter began spending their winters in Santa Barbara. The first couple of years, they stayed at the Potter Hotel and other places. But about 1919, they bought the home at 1821 Anacapa Street and began spending every winter in Rosemary Cottage.

Moran was famous enough that the local newspaper published an article in 1917 titled, “Noted Painter of Big Views Arrives; Thomas Moran is Famous for His Canvases of Western Outdoor Wonders.” The article ended with a quote from Moran: “Santa Barbara is the most beautiful city, with its environs, I have seen in all California.” 

Read more: “Rediscovering Rosemary Cottage

Popping up in Santa Barbara

December 2, 2020 § 1 Comment

AFTER 25 YEARS in San Francisco, the Thomas Reynolds Gallery is presenting its first exhibition in Santa Barbara’s arts district at 1331 State Street, near the historic Arlington Theater.

“We’re delighted to be in Santa Barbara,” said owner-director Thomas R. Reynolds, who is also an editor-publisher and a recovering lawyer. “We’re especially happy to become a part of the excitement the new pedestrian promenade is bringing to a reinvigorated State Street. Despite the ups and downs of the virus, this is an idea whose time has come.”

The gallery’s inaugural exhibition brings Sandy Ostrau back to Santa Barbara from her studio at The Sea Ranch, on the Northern California coast. Sandy is a proud graduate of UCSB, where she played on the women’s soccer team. The exhibition also includes paintings by Ken Auster, the Laguna Beach surf artist who became one of California’s preeminent landscape and cityscape painters, and other gallery artists.

The Thomas Reynolds Gallery was founded in 1994 in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood and became a fixture on Fillmore Street, presenting historic and contemporary California art and artists.

An artistic courthouse

July 9, 2020 § Leave a comment

The Mural Room of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.

Montecito Journal

Nature intervened in 1925 with a giant earthquake, which struck down the Santa Barbara County Courthouse and the Hall of Records. A $700,000 bond was passed, but expenses went up to almost $1.4 million. Now what? A stroke of luck. The Rio Grande Oil Co. struck oil at Ellwood, west of Santa Barbara. Revenue from the oil tax paid for the rest of the courthouse. And amazingly it was finished just two months before the stock market crash in 1929.

The Mural Room has never been a courtroom, but was the meeting place for the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors until the 1960s. Now the Mural Room is used for weddings, ceremonies, parties and the like.

Artist Dan Groesbeck wasn’t given many instructions except to paint the history of Santa Barbara on all four walls. He had two helpers and was paid $9,000. It took them four months.

He began with the Canalinos Indians watching Juan Cabrillo landing near Santa Barbara in 1542. Then in 1602 along came Vizcaino, a Spanish explorer and mapmaker. He arrived on December 4, which was Saint Barbara’s feast day, hence our name and claim of the territory for Spain.

The next part of the mural is when Mexico was independent of Spain, beginning in 1822 and lasting only until 1846, when Captain John Fremont descended through San Marcos Pass and claimed Santa Barbara for the United States.

The third wall portrays what makes Santa Barbara’s economic engine run. First came minerals: oil, silver and diatomaceous earth. Next came cattle: thousands, giving hides and tallow until the big drought in the 1800s. Lastly agriculture: strawberries, broccoli and grapes, grapes, grapes.

On the same wall there is a painting of California’s symbol, the grizzly bear. Peeking out from around a tree is a young boy with a pixie hat depicting Peter Pan. What did he have to do with Santa Barbara? At the time a film company was out on one of the islands filming the story of Peter Pan, silent and in black and white.

The back wall shows the Chumash Indians working on the Santa Barbara Mission — the fourth since 1786, when our mission was 10th in a line of 21 in California. The signature in the bottom left-hand corner is a forgery. After Groesbeck was paid and on his way to Europe, they discovered the mural was unsigned. Upon being asked to return and sign his work, he said: “No. Just have someone do it.” And so they did.

MORE: “A tour of the courthouse

The Santa Barbara County Courthouse, with its distinctive clock tower.

‘The grandest ever built’


Santa Barbara is one of the 27 original counties and the City of Santa Barbara has always been the county seat. By the 1870s, the Anglo political and economic ascendancy had become evident in architecture as well. The 1875 courthouse designed by Peter Barber, in a restrained classical style, was welcomed in part because it represented such a decisive break with the Hispanic past.

At the turn of the century, however, changing fashions led to a new appreciation of the provincial Spanish adobes now becoming scarcer. After World War I, interest in reclaiming the city’s Spanish architectural heritage intensified. The old courthouse, though a distinctive piece of architecture when built in 1875, had been outgrown by the 1920s. But no real progress was made in planning for its replacement until matters were brought to a head in 1925 when it was severely damaged by a powerful earthquake.

The board of supervisors commissioned William Mooser Co. Architects, the oldest architectural firm in the state, having been founded in 1854, to develop plans for a courthouse in harmony with the Spanish origins of the county. William Mooser Jr., son of the founder, was an accomplished architect. His son, William Mooser III, a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris who had lived for 17 years in France and Spain, returned from Europe to assist his father.

They succeeded beyond all expectations. Architectural historian David Gebhard assessed the Santa Barbara courthouse as “certainly the public monument from the 1920s Spanish Colonial Revival in California.” Charles Moore, in The City Observed, deemed it “the grandest Spanish Colonial Revival structure ever built.” Harold Kirker praised it as “a beautifully integrated structure . . . sensitively related to a vast sunken garden of stone terraces and half century old pines, palms and redwoods. The courthouse is equally impressive from every vantage point and is rich in wit, fantasy and surprises. It is a treasure house of architectural and decorative devices — archways, towers and loggias; tiled walls, vaults and floors; wrought-iron grills, balconies and landings — in which nothing is repeated or exactly alike.”

Excerpted from Courthouses of California (Heyday Books, 2001), edited by Ray McDevitt. REVIEW by Thomas Reynolds

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