Explore places of artistic inspiration during South Valley Art Tour

Shirley Keller doing dot art in her studio.
Shirley Keller doing dot art in her studio.

Despite all the art shows, concerts and community theater in Tulare County, people still tend to think this is not an “art” area. Not true. And the annual South Valley Art Tour this weekend, hosted by the Arts Consortium, is one way to show off talented artists and see how they create their art.

I got to go on the pre-tour and was blown away. I quickly saw there’s more to “art” than paintings and sculptures, although there is plenty of that on the tour. But what about weaving, bird houses out of old teapots, and totem poles (both out of granite and gourds)?

And if none of these pique your interest, the beautiful drive to the out-of-town venues—most surrounded by green hills with snow-capped peaks in the distance, driving by creeks with running water, seeing wild turkeys, horses and wild flowers—is more than worth the trip.

And the venues themselves—some of them in gorgeously landscaped homes with husband-built studios and even complexes to house all the art supplies just adds to the experience.

Then when you talk to the artists, you learn their backgrounds, how they got into their art—often by chance—and all the behind-the-scenes work it takes to create their art.

More than 18 artists, from Visalia to Three Rivers, will be demonstrating their talents. Here’s just a sample of what you’ll see.

Subscription sale: Get 6 months of unlimited access for just $1. Subscribe today!

Dot art

If you start at the farthest art stop up in Three Rivers, you’ll be at Shirley Keller’s Spirit Hill Meditation Garden and Studio. Shirley has become known for her “dot art.” She creates dot designs on old hubcaps and any other reclaimed pieces she finds. During the pandemic’s isolation, she and Jim Zeissler combined art projects. He created recycled woodwork, and she painted dots on them.

She also introduced those on the pre-tour to Clay mono prints…….

Keller has also written two books, one about her multi-ethnic family and “The Donkey Song” based on a true story.

Nikki Crain at one of her looms.
Nikki Crain at one of her looms.

Weaving demos

On South Fork Drive (it’s a long 5-mile drive, but the scenery this time of year is worth every curve in the road. That’s where we saw the wild turkeys) you’ll find Nikki Crain’s weaving studio where she has six floor looms, each with a different one-of-a-kind project in process, and shelves overflowing with colorful yarns, many she dyes herself.

Listen to her stories about how she dyes the yarn and watch demonstrations of the complicated foot work required to make the looms work. Plus there’s lots of math to figure out the designs.

Mark Robinson in his outdoor studio.
Mark Robinson in his outdoor studio.

Stone carvings

As you come down the hill, turn off Highway 198 to Mark Robinson’s country shop east of Exeter. His dad taught him to carve years ago. In fact, one of his father’s wood carvings hangs in Robinson’s outdoor “studio’ which is surrounded by horse pastures.

Robinson learned to paint from his grandmother, but 12 years ago he got into stone carving, everything from delicate dragonflies to totem poles, some weighing 1,000 pounds.

When he moved to Visalia he started working at Visalia Granite and Marble Works, making headstones and monuments, including the Tulare County Peace Officer’s Memorial across from the Sheriff’s Office.

That got him interested in stone carving. He uses left-over concrete from jobs at work and picks up old broken-up concrete blocks when he sees them laying around.

He uses hammers and chisels and different grinders, all made from diamonds to be sturdy enough.

Robinson has won Best of Show both at the Visalia Taste the Arts event and in Georgia stone carving festivals.

Cecile Garrison with her long-handled dipper gourds.
Cecile Garrison with her long-handled dipper gourds.

100s of gourds

North of Visalia is a place that can only be called a gourd compound. Cecile Garrison not only grows her own gourds, she has a huge three-sided garage with hundreds of raw gourds ready to create art. That’s where she sands down and cuts out designs.

Next you go into her studio where she finishes the pieces by painting, wood burning and using other techniques to create the most unique designs.

Her work has been on the cover of a number of American Gourd Society magazines, and she has won many awards, one for a piece where she was able to tie two knots in a long-handled dipper gourd.

You have to tide the knots when the gourds are still pliable, and sometimes they break in the process.

“I don’t know of anyone else who has been able to tie two knots in a gourd,” Cecile said.

Toni Best with gourds in her garage studio
Toni Best with gourds in her garage studio

Gourds & pine needles

Some of Cecile’s gourds are bought by Toni Best, who usually coils pine needles on her gourds, for which she has won many awards.

Toni has taught her craft throughout the United States and coordinates the Baskets & Gourds conference in Visalia every other year, featuring award-winning instructors from all over the world. This year’s conference is April 23 & 24. To attend, go to https://basketsandgourds.com.

During the art tour, Toni likes to host other artists at her home, this year including fellow gourd artist Sam Garrison, watercolor and fiber artist Cathy Meis, and painter and author Christy Stapleton.

"We have people who come back each year,” said Toni. “It’s a productive time for us. It’s fun to meet people and spread the love of art and show different art forms.”

People are often amazed at what kind of designs can be created with gourds.

“People look at our work and ask, ‘Did you event this?’” laughed Toni. “No, people have been doing this for thousands of years.”

Plein air artists with their paintings at the Brandon-Mitchell Gallery.
Plein air artists with their paintings at the Brandon-Mitchell Gallery.

Plein air painters

Another stop on the art tour that will feature a variety of artists is the Brandon-Mitchell Gallery. The gallery’s current show features the artists who will be working in the gallery during the art walk, which includes the Tuesday Morning Plein Air Painters from Hanford.

The plein air (outdoor) painters meet every Tuesday morning and decide where they want to paint that day. Locations range from historical buildings to countryside to backyards. Although they’re all painting the same scene, they each use their own style, media and viewpoint, so the results can be strikingly different.

Also working at the gallery will be abstract artist Eva Nicholson, expressionistic painter Betty Berk, and photographer Cathy Sargent.

Cathy will be setting up her computer to show visitors how she uses Photoshop to bring out the colors in her photos.

Much more

This overview doesn’t begin to cover the beautiful home of Linda Hengst, who paints on her large patio overlooking the hills and garden waterfall on the farmland owned by her family for four generations, or Francisco Alonso’s printmaking and sculptures, and the eclectic art by over 50 artisans at Kaweah Arts.

The Creative Center, a community art center for adults with developmental disabilities since 1977, will feature incredibly talented artists who often sell to businesses and home galleries. Their artwork ranges from paintings and drawings to ceramics and fused glass, fiber art and collage.

And there are a number of other venues I wasn’t able to visit.

You’ll need the whole weekend to see all the art, or you might only have time to choose your favorite sites.

When you buy your tickets on Eventbrite, you’ll be able to pick up a full color “Passport” booklet at the Arts Consortium with descriptions, photos and detailed maps for each tour stop. Then choose a route, and head out. Look for the “South Valley Art Tour” signs at each stop.

Tickets are $20 and include two keepsake buttons that serve as your entry for two people to all venues along the route. Children 12 and under can tour free with adults (up to five children per group).

How to attend

South Valley Art Tour, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday & Sunday, March 26 & 27. 18 venues from Visalia to Three Rivers. Buy tickets at www. tinyurl.com/SVAT2022. Information: 559 772-0001 Tickets must be bought online. Then pick up your Passport and buttons at the Arts Consortium, 808 N. Court St., Visalia (the little house on the Oval) through Sunday morning.

This article originally appeared on Visalia Times-Delta: Explore places of artistic inspiration during South Valley Art Tour