Views of the valley: Nancy Davidson’s landscapes illustrate her love for Santa Ynez

Nancy Davidson California Hills

Santa Maria Sun

June 22, 2018 – To talk about art with painter Nancy Davidson is to talk about the Santa Ynez Valley and her lifelong love affair with its people and culture.

"It's just so beautiful here," she said. "It's a very special and magical place. There's so much to it and its history."

Davidson is part of a new exhibit called Valley Vistas, which highlights local landscapes at the Judith Hale Gallery in Solvang. Davidon's work hangs alongside fellow artists Dave DeMatteo, Dirk Foslien, Joe Mancuso, and others.

Growing up in Santa Barbara, Davidson spent a lot of time with her grandparents, who nurtured her early interest in art. Her great-uncle, who used to work with Ed Boreen, a well-known local Western artist, was an influence as well. From the age of 5, she started drawing the world around her, Davidson told the Sun.

"I grew up surrounded by all these wonderful etchings of cowboys and vaqueros and around the vaquero lifestyle," she said. "I would sit and draw them for hours. My grandfather would take the time to correct me if one horse's leg was too long or something like that, and I'd go back and do them again. [My grandparents] really encouraged me with my art."

Davidson didn't take many art classes, encouraged instead to explore subjects in math and science. But eventually, the budding artist decided to take a chance on her talent. "I decided I wanted to go down to Pasadena Art School of Design, because I heard that was the best school," she said. "I thought, 'If I don't do this now, it will always haunt me.'"

She learned as much from her fellow aspiring artists as she did from the teachers during her studies. The education was often rigorous, involving hours of work every day, as each artist immersed themselves in their discipline.

"It was like going to a job every day," Davidson said. "They were really preparing us for the commercial art world."

It was then that she realized commercial art wasn't for her. Davidson said she didn't want to work on someone else's inspiration. And she didn't want to live in Los Angeles, another driving factor in her career.

"I loved Santa Barbara and this whole area," she said. "I finished up at [UC Santa Barbara] and started doing pencil drawings of cowboys and horses. In the meantime, I had two kids. My work just kind of evolved."

A lifelong love of horses also heavily influenced her work. Davidson's paintings of horses are practically ethereal, capturing wind-whipped steeds thundering through the valley, disturbing the pastoral landscapes of quietude. Davidson has a keen talent for capturing a look in a horse's eye, one that conveys something between ferocity and playfulness.

"I've always loved horses," she said. "There used to be pony rides on Cabrillo Boulevard. I knew all the ponies by name. ... I just had this real affinity for horses and the whole lifestyle that goes with it."

Santa Barbara County was much more rural than it is now, part of a long-term trend which often gives the artist pause. Davidson said the change is a mixed bag for people who've spent their entire lives in the region.

"It's nice having that cosmopolitan influence," she said. "On the other hand, I miss the open spaces. I love to come back to those spaces because it refreshes your soul. ... I think I have this connection to the land and that whole lifestyle of nature's pace rather than the pace of city life."

That's what she tries to express in her art, Davidson said. There's a strong sense of calm ever-present in her work, although it's not one she necessarily sets out to capture intentionally.

"Part of that is because the process of artmaking is almost mediative," she said. "It really encourages that serenity."

After years of success and awards, Davidson still keeps a treasured reminder of what sparked her love for art all those years ago: her first box of oil paints, purchased for her by her grandparents.

"The paints are all dried up," she said. "But the smell still takes me back to those days."