The sky is the kind of blue that makes you want to paint. The foliage textures the landscape in about a hundred shades of green and the mountains layer in the distance like an early California watercolor. Carmel Valley is becoming an ill-kept secret among those in search of sun.
Drawn to the coastal beauty and creative climate of Carmel, artist Suzanne and Ray O'Neal moved from the Bay Area to the hamlet-by-the-sea in the late '90s. There, they found low industry and high energy, clear light and artistic inspiration, and a fog that would lift just long enough to enjoy the view before shrouding the town by tea time.
So the O'Neals began to search for a vintage barn in the Valley, where she could paint, he could fix things and maybe make a little wine, and both could escape the fog. But everyone, it seemed, was looking for that barn.
"We never intended to open an art gallery in the Valley," said Suzanne, "but we weren't finding that barn. When we discovered this rundown place in the village, I saw something in it. We imagined we'd fix it up and have friends out for a barbecue in the evenings, and I'd paint and hang my work there during the day. But I quickly realized I couldn't fill the space with my art, so I invited in 10 or 12 other artists to exhibit with me.
Today, LyonsHead Gallery, named for the lion-head fountains flanking the patio, hosts a stable of 23 artists by day, and the O'Neals continue to entertain there by night. They also finally found their barn on a valley property where they now live, ensconced in a village whose past and present intersect in the landscape.
Once upon a time, when the dirt valley road was rough and rutted, people risked the ride a dozen miles out into the valley just to outrun the reach of coastal fog and feel the warmth of the sun.
O'Neal, no relation to Suzanne and Ray, was a tiny child in 1956 when her family moved into the Carmel Valley Village, an artist colony formed by the great green palisades and the river that ran through it. She grew up in the oldest house in the Valley, built circa 1926 by Frank Porter, who also built Robles del Rio Lodge, which was destroyed by fire last year in the midst of a remodel.
Back in the late '50s, Carmel Valley was colonized by a cast of characters; rich and poor living side by side, folks riding by on horseback or 750 horsepower, living off cash or the kindness of others.
"Wills Fargo Restaurant was the center of town. It was closed January through March so the staff could go to Mexico, but it was the meeting place," said Mollie, who, with husband and renowned photographer Tom O'Neal, opened TGO Photography in 1985. "Life in the Valley was a blast. I don't think I wore shoes. I'd spend a lot of time at Rosie's Cracker Barrel. We'd come in to buy breakfast and wipe the dust off the cereal box. We'd sit on the bench with Rosie; he was blind, so we told him what we were buying and how much money we were handing him.
"Sometimes we'd pull lemons from my mother's tree and then buy sugar and cups from Rosie on my mother's account, so we could set up a lemonade stand. It was the perfect upbringing. Years later, when I returned to the Valley my kids got to grow up here. They went to school with kids whose parents had been in my class."
Fast forward 30 years when the river no longer runs regularly, but kids still run barefoot in the summer, Wills Fargo remains a popular restaurant, artists continue their craft in studios and galleries, and people still head out to the Valley in search of sun and a good glass of wine.
"When we first went out to the valley," said Suzanne, "there was a trattoria, a Mexican restaurant, a French restaurant, and Jan de Luz architectural salvage. Pot Farm ceramics held the neighborhood together. Today, there are restaurants, art galleries, dress shops, and wine tasting abounding.
"There are a heckuva lot of reasons to drive down Carmel Valley Road, and the sun is only one of them."