Out to Lunch with Bud Bottoms

by Tyler Blue

Bud Bottoms loves to tell stories. Who wouldn’t when you’re full of gems like rolling down sand dunes with Liz Taylor, being summoned to the Biltmore by Gorbachev, or the time a Paiute medicine woman healed your back with a goose feather? Living in Santa Barbara since attending UCSB in the late 1940s, the sea-loving sculptor has left a legacy in bronze. Best known for the dolphin fountain at the entrance to the wharf, Bottoms has brought joy to the four corners of the earth with his heart-centered craftsmanship. A late bloomer to the sculpting world, which he entered in his early fifties, Bottoms is ecstatic to open yet another chapter of his life as an author of children’s books. What better place to talk about it than a cozy booth at Eladio’s with Bud’s dolphins smiling from across the street?

Picking up Bud at his beautiful home near the Santa Barbara Bowl, I felt an instant connection as he welcomed me with his friendly blue eyes. Followed closely by his excitable longhaired Chihuahua, Tag, the guy looks a decade younger than his 79 years. Bud’s fountain of youth is his love for his wife Carol Ann, a strong connection with his four sons, a constant flow of creativity, and commitment to a healthy Santa Barbara lifestyle. He regularly swims from Butterfly Beach south to the Biltmore Hotel and back. His favorite restaurant is the Sojourner. And, oh yeah, he laughs a lot.

This lunch with Bud was inspired by the release of his first published book, Kid Ethics. Bud has been writing children’s books since the 1960s, but with this latest project he knew it was time to take things a step further. Deeply influenced by Native American wisdom (his grandmother was half Cherokee and the Chumash played a major role in the creation of the dolphin fountain), he decided, “I have an obligation as an elder to pass on my life experiences to youngsters.”

Those who have seen Kid Ethics are unanimous in their excitement about its potential as a learning tool. Pairing each letter of the alphabet with an ethical lesson, Bottoms hit it home with colorable illustrations and summarizing poems. The sweet stories are universal in their appeal, teaching things like honesty, patience, and respect. Ever thorough in his preparation, the author distributed surveys to schools and retirement homes to gain alternate perspectives on the importance of certain values. He lamented, “Schools don’t teach a lot of stuff we’re going to need the rest of our lives. Too often ethics are learned the hard way or not at all.”

Eladio’s is considered a tourist spot because of its location; thus, a lot of locals, myself included, have passed it by all these years. The subtle Italian influence hits all the right notes, however, from the music to the fresh ingredients. When we chose calamari ($6.95) by default (the mussels weren’t in yet), we hardly expected such a standout. Generously served in a parmesan crisp bowl, the small, lightly breaded morsels were perfect. Complemented with a tangy red pepper aioli, we savored every bite. A savvy fisherman, Bud chimed in: “Tender. You know where they get these little fellows, don’t ya? Right off Santa Rosa at night. Squids come right to the surface when they see light.”

When asked about the inspiration for this book, our conversation turned toward dreams. Bud had an epiphany 27 years ago that led him directly down this artistic path. Completely despondent in the aftermath of a divorce and lost job, one night he dreamed of a woman riding a dolphin. Realizing it represented “reaching for his highest aspirations,” he was influenced to express it in sculpture. After a year — teaching himself as he went along — he was finally done. Driving home from Berkeley, he stopped in San Luis Obispo on a desolate street. A lone passerby walked past his VW Bug, spotted the sculpture, and bought it on the spot for $3,000. Bottoms reflected, “I really felt convinced that your dreams give you the answers to things. When I dream now, I don’t take it for granted.” Many of the concepts for Kid Ethics were culled from his subconscious, the result of focused intentions.

Lost in conversation, our Pavlovian response is suddenly triggered with the arrival of the aesthetically glorious entrees. My sole picatta ($14.95) was as good as it gets. The freshness of the substantial piece of fish was masterfully pronounced thanks to a harmonious blend of white wine, lemon, olive oil, capers, tomatoes, and basil. The grilled asparagus, which I substituted for fettuccini alfredo, sealed the deal on a top-notch dish. Bud’s lemon capellini with clams ($12.95) had him just as satisfied. Served in a towering bowl with white wine, garlic, cherry tomatoes, and a dash of chili flakes, he exalted in the garlicky, buttery goodness.

In between blissful bites, our attention turned back to the dolphins as a steady stream of people took pictures in front of the landmark. I wondered how he felt reflecting upon his most famous work. Of course the answer was explained through a story. While protesting the oil spill of 1969, Bud was photographed by Newsweek holding an anti-oil sign in the exact spot where the fountain now stands. He regards it as a symbol of the wharf’s liberation from oil and a reminder that “this is Chumash land. Protect the ocean!” Last but not least, it’s a monument to the dolphins themselves.

“I’ve fought as hard as I can to preserve this place,” he said. “Now I’m writing and doing bronzes to express the beauty this place has given me.” While there is no shortage of sentimental pride, Bud Bottoms is much more interested in the present and future. “It’s always about the next one, like your next story. You don’t look back.”

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