After passing through Lucerne Valley's dust, we drive up the northern flank of the San Bernardino Mountains in California on a road unremarkable but for corkscrew curves. However, boredom vanishes as we pop out at an overlook and pause to watch the early evening light illuminate Gold Mountain. Cumulus clouds are painted by strokes of red, purple and electric orange. Dark tones accent their underbellies as the Big Bear Valley comes into view. We're here to explore a lively arts scene in the mountain crest communities, and I realize the setting has provided inspiration to those artists.
Chasing the curve of a dry lake bed, state Highway 18 persists west, fenced in by a pair of mountain ridges. Our first stop is Gold Mountain Manor. Standing on an acre of ponderosa pine forest, the three-story, 6,000-square-foot bed and breakfast was built in 1928 by architect Guy Sherman Maltby for a Los Angeles movie investor. Behind a brilliant red door, innkeeper Cathy Weil walks the polished maple floor to greet us. She carries her signature gooey chocolate oatmeal cookies, their scent catching up as we reach for the tray.
In our room, a stenciled ceiling and blue tapestry bedding complement the antique French walnut bed. A Franklin stove rests in the corner and a claw-foot tub decorates our private bath. Before heading to the village for dinner, we rest in the Manor's great room, ruining our appetites with Weil's tasty hors d'oeuvres and admiring local sculptor Jenn Richards' cloaked figure in bronze.
Cool and creative, isolated and thus inexpensive, the village of Big Bear lies on the southern shore of its namesake lake. Parking is plentiful and we walk the short distance to the Gallery of the American Landscape. Tim Wolcott, proprietor and fine art photographer, interrupts a conversation to wave hello. Scenic images of east coast locales in full fall foliage hang next to stark prints of Death Valley's simplistic architecture. A large-scale canvas of a dogwood tree fixed in moonlight captures the attention of other visitors.
Wolcott recently undertook a late-winter trip to Antarctica. Eight sizeable framed prints of ice, mountains, black sandy beaches and penguins take over the wall behind him. "I tried to dispel the misconception that Antarctica is merely a block of ice; the variety of imagery is extraordinary," Wolcott says. I believe him as I stare at an image of a glacier -- an ethereal form shaped by the wind.
Hunger returns and we walk half a block to the Mambo Café, an unexpectedly-edgy Latin-fusion restaurant slipped in between an upscale children's store and a decorative home outlet. I order hazelnut-crusted mahi mahi with papaya salsa, while my partner, Scott, orders Peruvian sticky salmon. Brightly painted green-and-yellow cement floors make for a lively atmosphere and the food does not disappoint. Afterward, we make our way across the street to The Mandoline Bistro and end our evening listening to local musicians Catz in the Hatz remake jazz standards, mixing in their own style of soul.
The next morning we rise early for a quick hike up Gold Mountain with Quila, Weil's 10-month old Alaskan Klee Kai. After a substantial breakfast of banana crumble, homemade yogurt, pudding-style chocolate cappuccino muffin and chili cheese strata, we say our goodbyes.
In need of coffee, we are directed to the East Side Book Café and meet Sean Starr. Transplanted from the state of Washington by way of San Francisco, Starr heads an artists' collective. The goal: Fashion a space where emerging talent is able to work closely with established painters, filmmakers, producers and writers. Nearby sit designer Matt Thomas, painter Greg Zook, painter Jessica Jensen and designer Cindy Chundak. A calendar near the register lists a movie night featuring "Who Killed the Electric Car," a Tuesday night writers group, "Open Mic" on Saturdays and 100th Monkey Celebrations every third Sunday of the month.
Latte in hand, we return to the village. Traffic is light and Big Bear feels communal. A blue sky frames wispy feathers of white and the day is mild, in the mid-70s. First up is Serenity Place Gallery. Bright and open, it's an engaging space with a diverse mix of work.
"Because our collection is so eclectic, most visitors are able to come in and find something that moves them," says Cindy Jones, owner.
Jones and her partner Louis Weiner moved to Big Bear almost four years ago after spending six years traveling the U.S. on the fine art circuit. By eliminating what annoyed them about other galleries, they created one friendly to artists and customers alike. The upscale interior feels like home, the art is accessible and price tags are attached.
Across the street is the Arts Council of Big Bear Gallery. Founded in 2002, it exhibits the work of locals ranging from painting to wildlife photography, jewelry and raku pottery. Featured artists staff the gallery during open hours and every August The Arts Council sponsors "Art on the Lake," a free fine art event showcasing more than 60 artists.
Around the corner, on Pine Knot Avenue, tucked behind a jewelers' and a Tibetan clothing store, we find Tim and Tamara Breunig's United Wood Craftsmen showroom. Their retail area displays artwork and handcrafted home items in the arts-and-crafts style popular a century ago, and now enjoying a renaissance. Tim builds furniture pieces as did the movement's leader, Gustav Stickley. Long lines and steady curves enriched by warm tones of quarter-sawn white oak are fixed in place with simple mortise-and-tenon joints.
"I construct as authentic as possible; the backs of the pieces are as beautiful as the front," says Tim Breunig. Tim estimates he creates 15 pieces of furniture, 300 custom frames and 100 craftsman-style clocks per year.
Their showroom also features the uncomplicated original designs and glazes by local potter Annie Aldrich and stained glass work by local Tom Horton alongside Motawi tiles and Italian Murano glass. The Breunigs are converting an abandoned sausage factory into a 1,800-square-foot gallery, woodworking studio and coffee house. I respect this notion of art as a vehicle for renewal.
Though Big Bear Lake has channeled its success on its four seasons of outdoor recreation, we see more signs of an emerging cultural enclave. On our way out of town we pick up information regarding an international film festival, already in its seventh year, and drive past a 398-seat, state-of-the-art performing arts center. Traveling west on Highway 18, we turn left onto a portion of the route dubbed "The Arctic Circle." It's an impressive roadway with a lofty view of a lush canyon that serves as a watershed for the orange groves far below in Redlands. A little beyond the small community of Running Springs, an unhindered view of the Los Angeles basin unfurls 5,000 feet below us.
At Kuffel Canyon, we turn right and zigzag down beneath a canopy of pines, passing bungalows and lodges built as retreats in the Roaring '20s. We arrive at the Lake Arrowhead Resort and Spa, check in and freshen up before enjoying chilled chardonnay on a sun deck overlooking the water. The waterfront sounds below hint at live music and foot traffic exiting high-end shops.
The next morning we stop by the visitor center and pick up an "Art and Antique" guide for the area. From the map, it is clear local artists have claimed their rank in the mountains. An events calendar lists art-inspired festivals and walks scheduled for summer and fall.
We begin with the Arrowhead Gallery. I recognize the acrylic paintings of Susan Rios and stop to examine local Jim Gregory's giclée prints on canvas. Before leaving the water, we sit lakeside and enjoy a late-morning brunch at Del Lagos Cafe.
From here we take a short drive to the David Ross Gallery in Cedar Glen. Clever contemporary art fills the space in life-size form. The majority of Ross' work emanates from life in the business world. He mocked a corporate catch-phrase by drawing a man in a business suit posed as Rodin's statue "The Thinker," but wearing a box over his head. Ross' title is "Thinking Inside The Box." He used to send work to big-city galleries, but that didn't give him one of the greatest rewards of having his own gallery: watching people react to his own paintings. "Whether it was intended or otherwise, the reactions are honest," he said.
Around the corner is The Lake House, where I contemplate purchasing one of the handcrafted wooden boat replicas that populate the store as Lake Arrowhead readies itself for the annual antique and wooden boat show.
We reverse our route back toward Highway 18, stopping at Willow Woods Art Colony, a tiny collection of galleries, a book store and restaurant located on the mountain rim. An Angel from the 2000-2001 "Los Angeles Community of Angels" sculptures project is perched on the doorstep of the Lake Arrowhead Gallery and Museum of Art, seemingly ready to take flight. In the floor below, at the cooperative Artist's Gallery & Atelier. Impressionist painter Helga Batman-Koplin is finishing a class and gives us a tour. In these two stories we find international-caliber contemporary art displayed alongside inspiring scenic photography and immense sculptures in bronze and wood.
Nearby is photographer Michael Bates' bungalow. The rustic plank walls display images of the natural world. His photos capture wildlife in the intensity of their environment.
Mid-afternoon sun pressures us to move on. We agree to make two more stops, and leave the rim, descend Route 189 and re-enter the forest. At Lake Drive we make a quick stop at a one-time gas station, now housing The Lake Gregory Coffee Company. Adorning the walls are John Arthur's renderings; he used charcoal from the devastating fire that swept across the crest in 2003 to depict the heroic firefighters.
Descending back down the northern side of the mountains, we turn left onto Highway 138, which eventually leads us back to Interstate 15. The scenery changes from woodlands of pine trees to scrub oak and brush as we drop past Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area. My thoughts wander back to the artists and small towns found here in Southern California's mountains. Their talents are pardoning urbanites of their allegiance to metropolitan galleries in favor of purchases made during a weekend respite. The new trend offers a richer, more restful life to artist and patron alike.