On the road with Sierra Art Trails

One of the joys of this time of year is the Sierra Art Trails Open Studio Tour. The annual event is a great excuse to drive up into the beautiful foothills of eastern Madera and Mariposa counties and be invited into the home studios and display spaces of nearly 100 artists in a variety of genres. If you luck out, you get some nice, crisp, fall-like weather. And I’ve always enjoyed the friendly atmosphere you find at the different venues, with artists taking the time to explain how and why they work the way they do.

Bend on the Road

Mixed media: Susan Mitchell-Van Slyke’s “Bend on the Road.”

This year Sierra Art Trails, which opens Friday, Sept. 29, and continues through Sunday, Oct. 1, celebrates a major milestone: its 15th anniversary. To mark the occasion, I’m introducing a newcomer artist, Susan Mitchell-Van Slyke, who recently moved to Mariposa from the Bay Area — but whose Sierra roots run deep.

First off, a few details about logistics:

How it works: Buy a catalog for $20, which allows two adults unlimited admission to all venues during the three days of the event. If you haven’t already ordered a catalog online, you can pick one up at one of a variety of locations in the Fresno-Clovis area, Visalia, Madera, Merced, Mariposa and Oakhurst. (I’ve included a list at the end of this post.)


How to organize your time: The catalogs are nicely organized into three “trails”: Coarsegold and Yosemite Lakes Park; Oakhurst and North Fork; and Mariposa and Ahwahnee. Venues are open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. all three days (although some studios are not open on Friday, so check the fine print.) There are often several artists at one venue, which makes things feel a little less spread out. The most sedate and luxurious experience, of course, would be to arrange to stay overnight somewhere in the foothills and take a couple of days wandering a couple of the trails. If you’re making a day trip of it, you’ll have to pick and choose. Your best bet, particularly if you’re a newcomer, is to pick one trail and follow it, otherwise you’ll spend most of your time driving instead of visiting with artists.

A great introduction: Drop by the Stellar Gallery (40982 Hwy 41, Suite 1, Oakhurst) for a look at the official preview exhibition, which includes representative works by all Sierra Art Trails Open Studio Tour artists. If a style in particular catches your eye, you can plot out your route right there.

Buying art: That’s the idea! Artists would just love to sell their work to you.

Back to the Sierra

Now, on to our featured artist:

Mixed-media artist Susan Mitchell-Van Slyke will be showing at her home studio in Mariposa. (She’ll be joined there by artist Jim Taylor, who will be showing his watercolors, drawings and pastels.) I caught up with her to ask a few questions about her work and her thoughts about her first Sierra Art Trails.

Q: You’re originally a Sierra gal, right?

A: I grew up on the East Side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. My family owned a hot springs resort. I attended High School in Lee Vining on the shores of Mono Lake. My English teacher shared her free study hour to give me art assignments. She was also the drama teacher and would assign set design to me.

Q: When and why did you move back to Mariposa?

I lived the past 25 years in the East Bay area. Had a great art studio in Benicia, in the Arsenal district. What a wonderful artist community – shout out to Benicia Arsenal artists! I moved to Mariposa in May with my husband to calm down, see the stars, and be able to afford retirement someday! (I will probably never retire because I love what I do!)

Calif Poppy small

Flower power: Susan Mitchell-Van Slyke’s “California Poppy.”

Q: When you meet someone for the first time and they ask you to describe your art, what do you say?

I usually ask them about themselves to establish a common language and get a feel for what aspects of art they are interested in. Other artists attend open studios to get ideas or inspiration and often want to “talk shop.” If I am talking to an engineer, they are usually interested in the materials used. If I am talking to a poet or musician, I talk about meter and rhythm they might see in a piece. I try to determine if they want to hear the 1 minute version or the 5 minute version. I love talking to people. Art is so subjective. The response to it really is dependent upon the viewer’s point of view, which includes their beliefs, education, emotion, and so many other variables.

I have so many wonderful stories about connections I have made with amazing people through this dialogue process. I love it when someone from Ohio asks me about that orange flower they have never seen, which I reveal as the California Poppy.

Q: You’ve been a full-time artist for 10 years. How did you decide to make that leap?

A: Making the decision to become a full time working artist was more like taking the next step, rather than a leap. I had spent many years prior learning Architectural finishing techniques like furniture refinishing, specialty plaster applications, and decorative concrete finishes, in addition to making art. I had studied fine art in college, worked on theater set designs, got a certificate in museum and gallery studies, did a bit in non-profit arts administration, worked in trademarks and marketing at UC Berkeley, worked as in promotional designing with a prominent meeting planning company in the Bay Area, etc., etc., etc…

Q: You say in the catalog that if it is a “mystery” how two different materials you use work together, then the work is worth doing. Can you elaborate?

A: I will frequently ask the question when I am in the process of making something-“What will happen if I mix material A with Material B in a new way?” I am often surprised by the outcome. An example is, what will happen if I put Sumi ink onto wet, cracked plaster? Well, the ink did some interesting dispersion. I let this dry sanded it, then painted something on it. This piece turned out really well and sold. The problem was, I didn’t write down the sequence of what I had just done so could not repeat what happened on the rest of the pieces in the series.

This is the most fun for me in the making process. The “What if” question. I figured out a while ago that art is never what you first imagine it to be. The ideas come, I attempt to follow their promptings, but at many places in the making process have to surrender to the accidents, or reality, of what is going on with the piece and respond accordingly.

I have been criticized for not having a signature technique. I get bored doing the same techniques over and over again, I like the learning that takes place by stepping into the unknown. Through this, I have learned that different materials dictate what takes place in terms of form and subject. So… sorry critics, I have to follow the mood of the time.

Q: Tell us about your home studio in Mariposa. What will visitors find?

A: The studio is a 2400 square-foot. unfinished metal outbuilding. The setting has the best view on the property. At the current time, the studio is not finished – I am in the beginning stages of planning to create a wonderful work space large enough to host workshops and classes. This is a new beginning – we will see what comes of it. What drew me to the space was the quiet atmosphere. As for ambiance, visitors may get to see, hear, and smell the goats grazing on our property, they are really wonderful, so much fun to watch.

Q: Why do you think people should experience Sierra Art Trails?

It is a fun experience if you like to look at beauty and meet new people or experience new places. I think it must be like taking a mini-vacation where you are exposed to new ideas and ways of living. Also, people who do not practice art, often are not aware of the sheer hard work and dedication that goes into art making. Artists work extremely hard and sometimes stress out about preparing for open studios – they are inviting people into their sanctuaries, they are exposing their creations. Also, most artists work alone, open studios gives us a chance to use our words.

Event info

Sierra Art Trails, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 29, through Sunday, Oct. 1. (Not all venues are open Friday). Catalogs are $20, which acts as an entrance ticket for two adults to all venues.

Artist pitches

If you’re a Sierra Art Trails artist and want to entice viewers to your studio or gallery space, you can leave me a comment on this post or send me an email ( with a brief pitch as to why Art Trailers should drop by. (I’ll include the town you’re in but not the specific location, because we wouldn’t want to encourage people to skip buying a catalog.) Feel free to include an image or two. I’ll update this post as I receive them.

NORTH FORK: Enjoy examples of California impressionism. Husband and wife “plein air” oil painters Michelle Sonoqui Gillette and Craig Schub are known for painting local scenes that reflect the history and spirit of the Sierra foothills, Yosemite and the Central Valley. Other artists exhibiting in North Fork will include Anja Albosta and Lisa Gatz. (Number 60 in the Art Trails catalog)

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YOSEMITE LAKES PARK: Lisa Anderson and Martin Shapiro write to let me know about their work: She does kiln fused glass work, and he does pottery. (Number 14 in the Art Trails catalog)

You can watch a video about Shapiro’s work here.

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OAKHURST: Come visit the home studio of internationally renowned landscape photographer William Neill. Sierra Art Trails provides a rare opportunity to view his original photographs in his living room gallery space. A resident of the Yosemite National Park area since 1977, Neill is concerned with conveying the deep, spiritual beauty he sees and feels in Nature. Neill’s award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally In 1995, Neill received the Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. (Number 67 in the Art Trails catalog)

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OAKHURST: Trowzers Akimbo is an Emmy Award winning artist. Originally from Venice, CA, he now works and resides in the Sierra foothill’s community of Oakhurst, CA. He’s been a full-time fine artist for the past 5 years, following his career as an illustrator, graphic designer, director and chief creative officer in the television, print, animation and computer game industries. He’ll be offering both abstract and representational pieces, much inspired by life in Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada mountains. Affordable fine art reproductions of his work are also available, in the form of gicleé prints and note cards, including many images he originally created for the “Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson.” (Number 30 in the Art Trails catalog)

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OAKHURST: Betty Berk writes: “I will be showing my latest show of oil paintings, titled ‘For The Love Of Color.’ Here is one of my artworks I’ll be showing.” (Number 54 in the Art Trails catalog)

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YOSEMITE LAKES PARK: Cathy McCrery-Cordle writes: “My work is mostly in the area of fine art, macro photography.  I believe that each day offers us glimpses into the sacred. By exploring the world around me through photography, I am driven to discover and preserve the visual essence of such sacred moments. I tend to notice the tiniest aspects in nature, often overlooked: frost, dew drops, the way moisture beads across a leaf or flower petal, etc. Above left: “Never Give Up,” and above right, “In This World.” (Number 13 in the Art Trails catalog)

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MARIPOSA:  Moira Donohoe writes: “I was born and raised in Yosemite Valley and my family began a bakery, dairy and store called Degnan’s in 1884, The Sierra, especially Yosemite, is my yardstick that everything else in the world is measured against. Yosemite wins every time. Teaching workshops and classes have helped sharpened my skills, while keeping me grounded and connected to all the wonderful people I’ve met over the last 30 or so years. Landscape in oil and acrylic are my focus, sometimes meandering into mixed media and pastel. Landscape also is my portal into the realm of the spiritual, and if it resonates with other people, it is all the more powerful.” (Number 79 in the Art Trails catalog)

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MARIPOSA: Penny Otwell is teaming up with two other artists at her home studio. She writes: ” I think folks should come and see our work this coming weekend, Friday-Sunday. We are prolific engaging artists who have fun making art and sharing our works with others. I’m a long-time Yosemite oil painter who also paints in the Central Valley, the California Coast, the Eastern Sierra and the Sierra foothills. I show work at The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley. The fun part of seeing my studio is the daily 1 p.m. demo in oils.” (Number 86 in the Art Trails catalog)

Plus, she adds: “Tim DeWitt is a professional leather maker who has designed and constructed jackets for the NY rock star scene in the 1960’s. He now makes fashionable fringe bags and whimsical items out of beautiful leathers. Tim also has paintings and “pop-up” books to share. You cannot believe the detail of Tim’s work!” (Number 87 in the Art Trails catalog)

And:  “Isaac Ruhmor is an art student at Yosemite High School in Oakhurst — he and Tim and I are working together as a mentor team. Issac is an excellent artist and will show his paintings and drawings.” (Number 88 in the Art Trails catalog)

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MARIPOSA: Rebecca Sullivan writes: “I appreciate you getting the word out. Attached is my painting of ‘The Merced River with Poppies.’ ” (Number 85 in the Art Trails catalog)

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Colors and Contours - Alaska

OAKHURST: Sandy Kowallis Hervatine writes: “I will be at Timberline Gallery again, showing for all three days. Here’s a painting just finished: ‘Colors and Contours – Alaska,’ inspired by a recent trip to the northernmost state. As usual, I will be showing impressionistic and abstract works. (Number 50 in the Art Trails catalog)

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OAKHURST: Here’s a pitch from Williams Gallery West:

Visit painter Susan Manter Bolen, ceramic artist Steven Veach, and photographer /mixed media artist Jon Bock at Williams Gallery West at Gallery Row in Oakhurst, just two doors down from the preview exhibit at Stellar Gallery. Susan creates vibrantly colorful paintings and paper mache constructions. Her collection of Dia de los Muertos papier mache skulls is amazing! Steven creates beautiful and functional high fire ceramics with appealing arts and crafts style glazes. Jon’s work explores nature, history, pop culture and the arts, a delightful mix of subjects, thought provoking and inspirational! (Numbers 46-48 in the Art Trails catalog)

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OAKHURST: Ally Benbrook writes: “I’m a a watercolor artist, displaying at our craft distillery, where I have an art gallery also. Most of my work relates to animals in some way and I do many commissions of dogs, cats, and horses. I’m a nationally known watercolor artist with signature status in seven national watercolor societies. I am new to our mountains and look forward to meeting all the Art Trails visitors.

Benbrook is displaying with Valerie Runningwolf, a Fresno artist specializing in textural mixed media and is “bringing an array of her gorgeous pieces to display.” (Numbers 38 and 39 in the Art Trails catalog)

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COARSEGOLD: For you world travelers out there, photographer Karen Tillison will be showing her work from all seven continents and places-in-between. (Number 20 in the Arts Trails catalog)

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OAKHURST: A note from the artists: “Gloria Garland and Lisa Van de Water will be showing at dog friendly Yosemite Wine Tails! Gloria is a graduate of Pasadena Art Center of Design, presenting an exciting selection of linocut prints using new and innovative materials.  Lisa creates sensitive, delicate, and elaborate hand carved porcelain ware.  I cannot imagine a better combo plate… dogs, wine, intelligent and creative women, song, and art! Wow!” (Numbers 41 and 42 in the Art Trails catalog)

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AHWAHNEE: Sandra Lee Scott writes: “The historic Gertrude School in Ahwahnee is the meeting place and hub of Yosemite Western Artists, an artists association open to all, with the majority hailing from Madera, Mariposa and Fresno Counties. Three YWA artists will be showing at the school, with 20+ works by other Yosemite Western Artists on exhibit as well. The three featured artists are Suzanne Banks (watercolor, acrylics, oils), Laura Fisher (fiber arts), and Sandra Lee Scott (pastels, mixed media, photography). Open all three days.” (Numbers 69-71 in the Art Trails catalog)

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Franka-Karen Show Site Flyer 2017

YOSEMITE LAKES PARK: Landscape photographer Franka M. Gabler will be showing her work in her home studio located near Yosemite Lakes Park, along with the jewelry artist, Karen English.

Franka has been photographing the magnificence of the California landscape, the everlasting changing of the seasons, and the complex interactions of the water, rocks, sky, plants, and wildlife. Her photographs evoke emotions, enabling viewers to sense tranquility and calmness of dawn and experience a moment in time. Often present in her compositions are mist and fog, allowing for motivating compositions and interpretations, leaving distracting elements out and leaving only the essence.

Karen English’s unique, handcrafted jewelry designs feature natural, undyed gemstones, as well as recycled glass, shells, crystal and other distinctive beads, including authentic sea glass, tumbled and smoothed by ocean currents and time. (Numbers 18 and 19 in the Art Trails catalog)

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COARSEGOLD: Kerby Smith writes: “My wife, Lura-Schwarz Smith, and I will be exhibiting on Saturday and Sunday in Coarsegold because we live down a dirt road next to a cattle ranch with locked gates. If you missed my “Yosemite in Winter” exhibit this summer at the M Street Arts Complex in Fresno, you will have another opportunity to see some of my metal prints from this past winter. Lura has ventured into oil painting and she will be showing some of her small paintings that up to now have only been seen on social media. And of course we will both be showing our art quilts. And the best reason to stop and see our art is because it is FUN!” (Numbers 24 and 25 in the Art Trails catalog)

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OAKHURST: Jeff Grandy writes: I’ve been photographing the natural world for over 40 years. For the last nine years I’ve been concentrating on my ‘Unfiltered’ series of close studies of the surface of water. The results are random and joyous, the shapes often intriguingly complex. The color comes from under the water where sunlit stones, grasses, mud, moss and sticks become shining mosaics of color. These are small scenes, easily overlooked. They are reminders that water, in whatever form, is surely quite miraculous in it’s ability to physically sustain and artistically revive us. (Number 29 in the Art Trails catalog)

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COARSEGOLD: Amy Morgan writes: “Stimulate your aesthetic (and your lungs!) in the lovely foothills at Sierra Art Trails this weekend! Amy Morgan, showing with Monica Wales, Julia Bristow, and Steve Carney.” (Numbers 32-35 in the Art Trails catalog)

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MARIPOSA: Jim Taylor writes: “I’m showing with Susan Mitchell-Van Slyke (the featured artist above). It is an honor to be affiliated with Susan for the tour. I did enjoy your write up with her. Thought I would show you my work and website. (Number 83 in Art Trails catalog)

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MARIPOSA: Hannelore Fischer writes: It’s definitely worth coming by my art dome where I create unique, nature-based, abstract paintings in vivid colors and texture. After nine years in Oregon I am back in California tuning into the magnificent beauty in this part of the world, being inspired anew. (Number 96 in the Art Trails catalog)

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AHWAHNEE: Kris Kessey writes: “Norma Rogers and I are showing together at my studio in Ahwahnee. We have some new sculpture work in bronze, glass, wood, stone and clay. Norma and I have both been serendipitously contemplating the seasons this year and the work reflects both our meditations with a strong spirit and quiet elegance. We hope to share these works with the Sierra Art Trailers.” (Numbers 72 and 73 in the Art Trails catalog)

Catalog sales locations

Best bet is to call ahead to see if they’re still in stock.


• Mullins Editions
525 4th Street, (559) 470-7870


• Allard’s (art supply) 5350 N. Blackstone (next to Trader Joe’s) (559) 225-1500

• A Sense of Place Gallery – 2003 North Van Ness Blvd., (559) 392-6775

• Spectrum Gallery, 608 E. Olive Ave. (Tower District), (559) 266-0691


• Madera Co. Arts Council / Circle Gallery
1653 N Schnoor Ave., Suite 113
(559) 661-7005


• Casto Oaks Fine Wine and Art, 5022 Highway 140 (Downtown), (209) 742-2000

• Mariposa County Arts Council, 5009 Hwy 140, Mariposa CA, (209) 966-3155 (800) 903-9936

• Mariposa Co. Visitors Center, 5158 Hwy 140, (209) 966-7081


• Merced Multicultural Arts Center
645 W. Main Street
Merced, CA 95340
(209) 388-1090


• Artifacts, 40671 Hwy 41,Suite E, (559) 658-6300

• Branches Books and Gifts, 40094 Hwy 49, #B-1, (559) 641-2019

• Oakhurst Frameworks, 49185 Road 426, #6 (559) 683-7941

• Oakhurst Gift Shop, 40282 Hwy 41, #14, (Junction Plaza) (559) 642-4438

• Stellar Gallery, 40982 Hwy 41, Suite 1 (559) 658-8844,

• Timberline Gallery, 40982 Hwy 41, (559) 683-3345

• Williams Gallery West, 40982 Hwy 41, (559) 683-5551

• Visit Yosemite Madera County
40343 Hwy 41, Oakhurst CA 93644
(559) 683-4636


• Arts Visalia
214 East Oak Avenue
Visalia, CA 93291
(559) 739-0905

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (2)

  • Wow! So much talent in them there hills!

  • Jackie Doumanian

    Donald – I am so happy to be receiving your reviews. I’ll be browsing Sierra Art Trails on Sunday and you’ve helped me narrow down the field. Thank you for continuing to update, educate and elate us with your reviews.


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