Larry R. Rankin


Coming full circle: Renovations return studio to its roots
Santa Barbara News Press
May 6, 2006
Tom Jacobs, News-Press Staff Writer

A sturdily built, lovingly restored remnant of Santa Barbara's cultural history will reopen to the public this evening.

The 1928 building served as the sculpture studio of the remarkable but largely forgotten Santa Barbara School of the Arts. Among the many aspiring artists who learned their craft there was George Stanley, the man who created the Oscar statuette.

Tonight, the 1,000-square-foot structure will be rechristened Mark Edwards Studio. Renovated into a combination residence, art studio and gallery, it will host an exhibit of sculpture by longtime Santa Barbara resident Larry R. Rankin.

While the building has been moved from its original Garden Street location to 414 De la Vina St., it has -- in a very real sense -- returned to its roots.

"Having Larry's art here is what this building wants to do," said Mr. Edwards, a local builder who owns the structure and makes it his home. "This is a chance to reintroduce it to the art world."

It's also a chance to recall a notable piece of local history. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Santa Barbara School of the Arts brought an impressive array of world-class painters, sculptors, photographers, writers and composers to this small, isolated community.

At its height, the institution had 21 instructors and 261 students, studying everything from portrait painting to ballet. Its small campus included the current Alhecama Theatre, which hosted dramatic and musical performances.

According to historians Gloria Rexford Martin and Michael Redmon, who traced the school's history for the Santa Barbara Historical Society in 1994, the sculpture department was particularly impressive. It was headed by Amory Simons, who studied in Paris with one of the most important sculptors of all time, August Rodin.

Mr. Simons' innovations caught the attention of Art Digest magazine, which wrote in its February 1927 issue: "An experiment unique in the art history of the United States has been successfully accomplished this year at the School of the Arts in Santa Barbara, California, where the casting of sculpture in bronze by the sculptor himself is taught as an essential part of the training."

The following year, the school's new sculpture studio was dedicated, adjacent to the foundry where the bronze casting took place. Along with the rest of the school, it flourished for several more years, until the Depression and resultant loss of grant money forced the institution to close its doors in 1938.

What happened to the sculpture studio in the following years isn't entirely clear. "Sometime in the '40s, it was converted into a residential status," Mr. Edwards said. "A bathroom and kitchen were added, and it was used as a residence for a while. Then it became a stained-glass studio."

The building was vacant in the late 1990s when a consortium headed by Rich Untermann purchased the property to build a hotel, which became the Inn of the Spanish Garden. Mr. Edwards, whose firm was hired for the project, supervised the move of the building to its current address on De la Vina in 2000.

"We basically picked it up, slid a couple of steel beams under it, put some wheels under that and trailered it through Santa Barbara at 2 o'clock in the morning," he recalled. "That was a fun, exciting process."

After watching it change hands several times over the next few years, Mr. Edwards bought the building himself, first thinking he'd convert it into a condominium and then deciding to turn it into a studio.

In the end, he split the difference, adding lofts on either side of the main space so that he and his companion, Charlotte Gould, can use it as a residence. "It's like living in an art gallery," she said. "There's a great energy that permeates this place."

"You can feel it," Mr. Edwards agreed. "Even when the building was very dilapidated, when we first moved it here, people would walk in that door and a smile would come on their faces."

Today, it does not look dilapidated at all. But there is an aura of history to it, thanks to the original features Mr. Edwards incorporated into the restoration, including the skylight, windows and some light fixtures.

"The building told us a few stories about its history as we dismantled it and put it back together," said Mr. Edwards. "It's amazing how much you learn by taking it apart carefully.

"We would come up with questions or problems, but if we just waited, the building would tell us the answer. We just had to be patient."

Mr. Rankin, the sculptor, met Mr. Edwards two years ago at a seminar. They kept in touch, and ultimately he was invited to show his work -- wood and stone sculptures, as well as bronzes -- at the studio's official unveiling.

It will be open from 6 to 10 tonight, noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and 1 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through May 24. For more information, call 455-9818.

"Mark is a warm-hearted person," said Mr. Rankin, who, like Mr. Edwards, has lived in Santa Barbara since the 1970s. "He wants to share this space -- to let people see what he has done with it. I am honored to be the first artist to be showing in this place in close to 70 years."

Mr. Edwards, meanwhile, is already planning his next show.

"My uncle is a collector in San Diego," he said. "When I mentioned (this project) to him, he said, 'I think some of the art pieces I have come from the sculptors of your studio.'

"He did some research and became incredibly enthusiastic. He said, 'I want to bring the art up here and do a show of work by artists who learned their craft in this building.' "

Mr. Edwards loves that full-circle idea.

"A historian from Palau talked to me about her island culture," he said. "She said the guild was the most important building on the island, because it's where people learned their handicrafts. So the caretaker of the guild was one of the more important people in town.

"That's kind of how I feel about this building. It has a history; it was created to fulfill a mission. It's now my turn to help it along."

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"Rankin's impulse to express himself through his art yields works as varied as they are emotionally evocative. Visiting his studio is like peeking into secret relationships, foreign lands, and imaginary spaces, and there are surprises around every corner." -Heather Jeno
Santa Barbara Independent
"A Giant Talent Among Us"
Thursday, November 29, 2007