In order to catch up with public art enthusiast Diane Stevenett, one must drop by Santa Barbara’s Summer Solstice workshop on Garden and Ortega Streets and make one’s way through the cement courtyard, past props and costuming, including glittering gowns, parasols and a ginormous crown, missing I’m sure from the royal coffers of the Red Queen herself.
Finally, one will arrive, as I did, at Stevenett’s station to find her pleasantly recruiting volunteers to help screw down chicken wire onto one of the three larger-than-life figures she is building for the Zany Zebra Ensemble float. Stevenett is in her element here amidst her creations, even as she is pressed against a deadline for receiving volunteers from one of her sponsors, Mentor Corp.
Here in the Solstice yard, there’s an extra special glow in Stevenett’s aura. “I never thought when I got my degree in sculpture that I would be doing parade art, but I love it!” she says, as she takes time to hold up more chicken wire, this time for the fellow next to her, Anado McLauchlin who’s a visiting artist from San Miguel Allende, Mexico. Anado’s float piece is entitled “Heart of the Jungle,” and this just might be where I’ve found myself this afternoon, in the creative heart of the 2011 Solstice Celebration.
Standing beneath the towering “jungle” creatures, I learn that once their heads are on, the height will be up to — but not in excess of — thirteen-and-a-half feet, just below the lowest telephone poles on the parade route on Sola and Micheltorena Streets. Stevenett’s zebras, like many of the floats now in production, are shaped from ordinary black telephone cable, then covered — as we know — with chicken wire. It is not hard for me to imagine how each will take on its own personality and be ready very soon “to take down the street,” as they say at Solstice — after the final paper-mache and paint are applied, that is.
Just two weeks ago, Diane took time out from solstice preparation to supervise the chalk painting at the Santa Barbara Beautiful iModonnari square at the Mission, her forth year running. The beautiful red poppy featured this year is the work of Penelope Gottlieb from a collection of large format paintings of extinct flora entitled “Gone.” Diane’s role at iModonnari was to work with young high school art students who volunteer their participation. Since becoming a County Arts Commissioner for the Cuyama Valley, Stevenett has also developed a keen eye for spotting small children interested in art and eager for any chance to make it. More than once during the chalking phase of the festival, Stevenett was seen putting a piece of chalk into the hands of youngsters who she heard say, “I wanna do that!”
Large dimensions don’t inhibit Stevenett. To the contrary, meeting a size challenge seems to have become her niche, one in which, like her parading art, she can really come alive. This might have been what Ginny Brush and Rita Ferri of the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission were banking on when, in 2009, they asked Diane to apply for the vacant seat for New Cuyama, Stevenett’s residence since purchasing a small home there a few years ago.
Falling in love with Cuyama’s dramatic landscape was part of Stevenett’s original impulse toward the area. “The Cuyama Valley is one of the most inspiring places I have ever seen. Not one day is the same as another, but each gives a new palette of color, a new dimensionality of form,” she said.
Good thing her inspiration is grande because so is the mission she has taken upon herself to bring art programs to the underprivileged children and families of the area.
Stevenett began to get to know her community when she started meeting the neighborhood kids while renovating her house in 2007. Offering them pizza dinner when they helped her weed the backyard led to hour-long drawing sessions held spontaneously once the children understood she was an artist. “I just went through my stuff for paper, markers, pencils, everything I had, and the children just went after it like crazy,” said Stevenett.
Next she was asked by the local elementary school principal to teach a music class for 50 children at one time. She said ‘yes’ and before you knew it, the class included art too. These workshops as well as later ones sponsored by Play-well Teknologies with LEGOS and Santa Barbara’s Dancing Drum, showed that all the participants – from the very small to the very rowdy, and including their parents and babysitters, too – could all find quiet absorption in the creative process and a real sense of satisfaction with their final results. “I believe it is every child’s birthright to discover their creative gifts and talents,” said Stevenett.
Today Stevenett’s vision has expanded greatly as her connection to the community deepens. In 2010 she initiated the formation of the Cuyama Arts and Culture Foundation (CAC) expressly to bring teachers, artists, and resources together to benefit the local elementary and high school and the people of Cuyama through the arts. The first goal is to raise $10,000 to fund an annual summer arts program for the families of New Cuyama, which will bring art and music of all kinds to a community that six years ago saw over 1,000 school band instruments locked away, and not since restored to use. Budget cuts brought the loss of all creative arts classes with instructors transferred to academics or laid off.
Cuyama reminds Stevenett of Alberta, Canada, where she was born. “I felt like I was coming home when I came here,” she said, “especially when I saw a red-wing blackbird light down in my backyard. We have those in Canada, but I had never before seen one here in California.” Like her blackbird, Stevenett herself has also come in for an unexpected landing, giving her heart to art for children.