The Artist Colony
If I hadn’t inherited a landscape painting by my great-aunt, Ada Belle Champlin, and if I hadn’t moved to Carmel Valley, California, because of that wondrous landscape, I would still be in Manhattan and I would have written a different story.
After my husband, Jim, and I moved into our new home, I hung Ada Belle’s landscape over the stone fireplace. I wondered where in Carmel she had stood to paint the country road bordered by a row of eucalyptus trees in a golden pasture lit by a blue sky brushed lightly with clouds like white powder puffs. In the background, a range of mountains rise in purple splendor.
I am not a painter but I think The Artist Colony started on a blank canvas, not a blank piece of paper. I had a palette of vivid ideas. As I brush-stroked layer upon layer of pigments onto that imaginary canvas, it evolved into an historical novel set in 1924 when Carmel-by-the-Sea was a thriving women’s art colony.
I became very curious about an art colony populated by women who, like my great-aunt, had become painters at a time when it was declassé for a woman to do anything artistic beyond needlepoint. Women were expected to marry and make babies, not art. I wondered how Ada Belle succeeded as a painter under these restraints.
Soon I was deep into a mystery plot, interweaving the history of Carmel’s artist colony with the actions of my characters. As my research expanded, I added real people—the poet Robinson Jeffers and his wife, Una; the painters Armin Hansen, William Ritschel, and August “Gus” Gay—and had them meet my fictional characters in the locations where they had lived. Then I stepped back and let them tell their story.
I became a location scout and went in search of the many historical locations in Monterey where I could set my characters, like the Hotel del Monte, Point Lobos, Monterey Wharf, La Playa Hotel, and Carmel Beach.
One autumn evening, my scouting led to Block CC, Lot 13, on Camino Real, where, based on a very old town map, I thought my great-aunt had lived. I must admit that I had low expectations. There are few original houses left in Carmel. (Those that have survived have been enlarged until the original homes are hardly recognizable, if not torn down.)
After Jim and I had cocktails at Carmel’s La Playa Hotel bar, we walked down Camino Real in search of Lot 13. The surf was breaking against the rocky coastline a few blocks away and I inhaled the same brisk, salty air that I imagined Aunt Ada Belle had breathed in when Carmel was an undeveloped coastal village.
Night was falling as we approached a parked car with the headlights left on. Jim knocked on the front door to inform the owner. A man in his early sixties came out, switched his car’s lights off, and thanked us.
We told him we were looking for a cottage where my great-aunt Ada Belle, a painter, might have lived in the 1920s. He pointed at an unlit cottage directly across the street and said he’d lived on Camino Real his entire life. One artist had lived there when he was growing up, and then another artist had moved in around 1973. He gave us her name and phone number. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
The next day I called Belinda Vidor-Holliday, the current owner of Block CC, Lot 13. I introduced myself, said her neighbor had given me her phone number, and told her that my great-aunt might have been the original owner of the studio-cottage where she now lived.
“We must meet,” she said immediately. “Where are you?”
“I’m in Carmel.”
“Then come over now.”
My heart beating fast, I drove down Ocean Avenue to Camino Real and parked in front of Lot 13. Even in daylight the cottage was barely visible behind a wooden picket fence and under the cover of leafy oak canopies. I had just unfastened the seatbelt when there was a tap on my window. I rolled it down and said hello to the elderly but still lovely Mrs. Holliday. After quick introductions, she invited me to come inside.
Stepping over the threshold was like entering another world, another time. I looked up at the lofty multipaned windows and skylights on the north-facing wall. A shaft of sunlight illuminated a paint-stained easel propping up an abstract painting layered in vibrant colors. Used paintbrushes stuck out of glass jars on a tray of metallic oil tubes. All my senses took in this painter’s paradise and I felt the spirit of my great-aunt applauding my arrival. I could’ve shouted for joy, but I didn’t want to scare my hostess.
Mrs. Vidor-Holliday was well-informed about the history of the cottage, as she too had been curious about its lineage, but she doubted that my great-aunt had built it. I hid my disappointment and asked her if I could see the files documenting the cottage’s history she’d mentioned.
She brought me into a small side room furnished with a trundle bed and desk. While she looked for the files, I hoped I was standing in the room where Ada Belle had slept.
Mrs. Holliday couldn’t find the documents she was looking for, but she asked me to join her for a cup of tea in the studio. We found we had much in common and were soon calling each other by our first names.
When I told Belinda that my great-aunt had been a founding member of the Carmel Art Association, she said there was a photographic portrait exhibition of past artist members currently on display at the gallery. I had only seen a blurry, pixelated photo of my great-aunt, and the prospect of seeing what she actually looked like gave me goose bumps.
“Let’s go,” Belinda said with a twinkle in her bright blue eyes, as if she’d read my thoughts.
In the gallery, we slowly walked along the rows of photographs honoring deceased CAA members since its inception in 1927. Belinda, a longtime member, pointed out several artists she’d known. We were disappointed not to find Ada Belle’s photograph.
On my second visit, Belinda told me she’d found the Architectural and Historic Survey from 1922. My heart stopped when I saw Owner Block CC, Lot 13: Ada Belle Champlin.
“Look, Belinda!” I said pointing to Ada Belle’s signature on the deed.
She was as thrilled as I was.
Standing at her printer and copying the documents that proved my great-aunt’s ownership of Lot 13, I felt certain Ada Belle was peering over my shoulder. Every time I return to visit Belinda, who is now my good friend, I feel the same rush of excitement I had that first time.
After I told Belinda my great-aunt had named the cottage “The Sketch Box,” she had a wooden sign carved with the name and nailed to her front gate. She said it was “the right thing to do.”