He allows us, who were not there, to feel as if we had been, to respond to the emotion of the scene. He lets us feel the stillness in the air, the light breeze against our skin, the warmth or chill of full or failing light, the hope of a fishing boat on the beach, the comfort of clothes drying on the line.
"I used to look at one painting behind Otis' studio, at the little plume of smoke coming out of the chimney, and I could always smell bacon," said the artist's great niece Jessie Hartley. "Someone later told me that they used to smoke bacon in one of the buildings in back. And I just know there were chickens around there, even though I didn't see any in the painting."
With his work, Otis allows us to feel ourselves living, as he did, for that moment in the early California landscape. To experience a George Demont Otis painting is to fill with a sense of the familiar; to ask if we have been there, ourselves, or if it is the painter who brought us there, himself. By giving us access to the landscape, he has accessed something within us, and our reactions will tell us exactly what.
Many will say it was the clarity of light and air that first brought Otis to Carmel in 1909; an aesthetic that motivated him to hire a horse at Hunters Point in San Francisco and travel along the coastline for a month on horseback before arriving on the Peninsula. Others credit Carmel author Mary Austin, whom he met while painting in the deserts of the great Southwest, for his return, three years later.
Although he stayed with Austin at her Rose Cottage in Carmel, the nature of their relationship was never confirmed. Yet they were, reportedly, prolific in their poetry to one another. Mostly Otis' time on the Peninsula was spent luring other artists from San Francisco and across the country to help him, with artist William Merritt Chase, build an art community and paint their understanding of the place.
"William Merritt Chase got out here in 1914, looking to teach the latest of the East Coast art scene to anyone who was interested," said Hartley. "Mostly he was looking to work with experienced artists of some stature. Whole bundles of artists came out that year to learn, to paint and to prepare for the San Francisco World's Fair the following year. Chase and my uncle got on quite well; although George never stayed anywhere too long. For him, it was all a matter of the mood and the moment. He was like dirt; he was everywhere, and his paintings reflected that."
For Jim Rieser, it was a matter of patience. And persistence. As a result, after more than a dozen years, Rieser, who presents two eponymous fine art galleries in Carmel, has brought Otis back to town. In an unprecedented achievement, the art purveyor has acquired a collection of seldom-seen original paintings by Otis. The landscapes, painted from his Early California period of 1905-1945, are now on display in his Rieser Fine Art Showcase gallery. For Otis, it was a time of impassioned painting, when the clear light and clean California air inspired him to paint the seascapes and unspoiled landscapes along the coastline and throughout the desert, the mountains and the valley settings of Southern and Central California, Arizona and Nevada.
Otis (1879-1962) wanted viewers to experience what he encountered in the landscape, and he had the facility to convey that on canvas, much the way his contemporary, Early California painter Edgar Payne (1882-1947) expressed his own interpretations. His work, over time, seemed to demonstrate an evolution of style, yet it was more a matter of varying brush stroke and composition to accurately portray his message.
Like John Muir before him, Otis also was a naturalist and a conservationist, sensibilities which informed his work. He did not merely record the landscape but painted, instead, what he wanted viewers to notice and understand about it, so that they, too, might appreciate and participate in its well-being.
"See the myriads of growth," wrote Otis in 1948. "See how little you know by name and how the flowers all face the sunlight and the blue heaven and like we, they are here today and gone tomorrow. The abundance of singular beauty will never leave that receptive mind, but will return, time and time again in parables of comparative joy, reverence, inspiration, humility and purpose. Let us ... endeavor to leave behind us deeds, works and actions that those who follow can take as comparative examples, for they will, by this lesson, improve on our best."
The landscape painter hiked the same foothills, studied the same marshlands, wandered the same wildflower meadows, revered the same rugged coastline of Central California that we might today, if ever we could find where he was and what he saw before it disappeared into the distance like Brigadoon at dusk. Yet unlike Lerner & Loewe's fabled village, which returned 100 years later, many of Otis' landscapes, now disguised by development, are hard to find, except on canvas.
Born in Memphis, Tenn., in 1879, Otis lost his father to a railroad accident and his mother to yellow fever by the time he was 6 years old. He was packed off to live with an uncle in Missouri, who owned a bar, a brothel and a barn. So Otis stayed in the barn and sustained himself by helping people with their horses and learning to shoot and trap animals, find water and work.
After several years of searching, Otis' grandmother, a wealthy Chicago woman, finally found her grandson and sent for him to be raised in her cultured environment. His artistic talent became clear during his preteen years and, at age 15, his teacher, so enamored of his work, engaged the support of a U.S. senator, who funded a full scholarship to the Chicago Art Institute. He went on to study at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts before immersing himself in the East Coast art scene via the Cooper Union, the National Academy of Design, Art Students League, Brooklyn Academy of Arts and Woodstock School of Painting.
In 1931, Otis moved to San Francisco and became ensconced in the Montgomery Street art enclave. A year later, he moved into the studio of sculptor Arthur Putnam, near Golden Gate Park. He also met Clara Van Tine, a businesswoman who owned a beauty salon and a hat store. They married the year they met and began building a studio and gallery in Kentfield, Marin County. From cutlery to carved beams, they created everything in their house and their life together.
"Clara Van Tine was my mother's aunt," said Hartley. "We know she wasn't his first wife, but she was his favorite. She had a dry humor. A lot of people didn't get her, but somehow I did. She could be very brusque but also very clever. My uncle was a social guy who got so involved in activities; she would keep him on track. It was a great balance for them both; he had artistic freedom and she had good business sense. They were a great combination. He wrote her so many poems and dedicated so many paintings to her."
It might be said by studying his paintings that Otis spent more time feeling than thinking, except when he taught others how to look and how to express what they saw on canvas. But Otis also was a thinking man, an artist who had enough time to understand what he saw and enough patience to think about what it meant to him.
"Go alone into a vast forest, alone on the desert wastelands — far enough," he wrote, "where no human voice is heard or noises may be evident. Sit down an hour or so. Think. See the millions of thoughts that will come; do not question their source, commune with that unseen power. Ideas will arise, inspirations will multiply one after one — a new world opens its portals to thought."