California coastal towns lure artists and art lovers

California coastal towns lure artists and art lovers

Megan Kamerick

For decades, the Mendocino-Fort Bragg coast of Northern California has lured filmmakers searching for dramatic scenery to represent Cornwall, Maine or Nova Scotia. The area’s beauty has seduced many artists as well.

Mendocino, perched on high ocean bluffs, first attracted artists in the 1950s to what was a sleepy town with a defunct lumber mill. In 1959, Bill and Jennie Zacha started the Mendocino Art Center, which became the nucleus of a burgeoning art colony.

The center now has three galleries, a library, year-round workshops and a residency program that attracts artists from around the world, said Peggy Templer, executive director. Mendocino and Fort Bragg claim to have more working artists per capita than any town in the country.

The entire town of Mendocino, population 1,000, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is full of restored Victorian and Cape Cod-style buildings. At least 22 art galleries share the town with spas and restaurants. Each second Saturday galleries hold evening showings and receptions.

Its location, about three and a half hours from San Francisco, lends it an air of remoteness. The only way to reach it is by two-lane roads, most of which twist tortuously through the scenic coastal mountain range or along the rocky Pacific coast. Mendocino residents will tell you with pride there is no cell phone service in town.

It’s a haven for landscape painters, but artists work in every media here, and galleries carry a wide range of work At the Highlight Gallery on Main Street in Mendocino, three floors are filled with woodwork, furniture, weaving, ceramics, paintings and sculpture. Sharon Peterson, who has worked in the gallery for seven years, said the business relies heavily on foot traffic.

“Then after they find us, we have a dedicated clientele,” she said. Summer is busy, but in winter, tourist traffic can slow to a trickle. “It can be lucrative, and it can be tough times. You have to be dedicated to hanging in there,” she said.

The William Zimmer Gallery has been in Mendocino for 26 years and sells a combination of local and international artists. “We have such a nice clientele from so many years being in business that we get a lot of repeat clients,” said Jessica Norris, who works in the gallery.

Artist and humorist Jeff Leedy already had a successful gallery in Sausalito called Art That Makes You Laugh when he and his wife moved to the area and opened another gallery in October 2002. Leedy specializes in satirical oil pastels. One of his signature pieces is “Counsel Approaching the Bench,” with shark fins swimming toward a judge. Another shows a couple lying awake in bed titled “Afraid the Loan Won’t Go Through. Afraid It Will.”

“Practically everyone here dabbles in art,” said painter Sandy Wilson, a member of the Artists Coop of Mendocino. The Coops 15 artists show their work in a gallery above Main Street with a fabulous ocean view.

Fort Soho

Up the coast on Highway 1, Fort Bragg, Mendocino’s less cutesy, more working-class neighbor, is refashioning itself as a tourist destination after decades as a lumber town. Numerous galleries dot its lively downtown.

Roy Falk, a painter and member of the Edgewater Gallery cooperative, said his town is Soho to Mendocino’s Greenwich Village–a place with working artists that’s a little more affordable. Each first Friday of the month Fort Bragg galleries hold evening showings and receptions.

Edgewater features 17 artists working in all media, Falk said. Customers are a healthy mix of locals and tourists. Falk, like many, found the area in his younger hippie days. He and his wife moved to the area five years ago.

“It’s such a great community,” he said. “It supports the arts, the artists are plentiful and talented. It’s a very nourishing place.”

Painter Lynne Prentice moved to the north coast five years ago from Sacramento. She and her father ran a small frame shop called the Art Shack. She recently moved to a larger spot on Highway 20 between Mendocino and Fort Bragg and added a gallery.

She does framing for several hundred local artists, but is counting on the gallery to bring in tourist traffic. “This is a very tight community and word of mouth is huge here–for good or bad,” Prentice said. She relies on referrals from other businesses such as inns and restaurants.

One challenge all artists face is the economic dynamics that come with boomtowns full of second homes. “The economy is in the toilet, and housing prices are through the roof,” said Prentice.

“Most of us have other careers,” said lames Maxwell, a painter and a member of the Northcoast Artists Gallery coop in Fort Bragg, which features 20 local artists.

As Paul Bunyan days are joined by art and wine festivals on the local calendar, it’s clear the North Coast has changed radically since artists first found it. But it still offers the lure of space and a comfort zone away from hectic city life, Maxwell said.

“And if you can be comfortable in this world, you’re doing ok,” he said.


* Artists Co-op of Mendocino, (707) 937-2217,

* Art Shack (soon to be Prentice Gallery), (707) 962-0732

* Art That Makes You Laugh, (707) 937-1354,

* Edgewater Gallery, (707) 964-4668

* Highlight Gallery, (707) 937-3132,

* Mendocino Art Center, (707) 937-5818,

* Northcoast Artists Gallery,(707) 964-8266,

* William Zimmer Gallery, (707) 937-5121,

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