Susan Tibbles
Paul Wellman

Back in 2009, when times were really tough for artists, Susan Tibbles was just happy she could still pay her Santa Barbara Tennis Club (SBTC) membership fees; she swims there and plays tennis sometimes, too. Health problems had brought the well-known assemblage artist eyeball to eyeball with mortality a few years back, and exercise became suddenly crucial. But the club also helped Tibbles mull her own diminished prospects, the art market that took a plunge after the 2008 banking debacle. At least she was in good company. “Artists are always the first ones to feel a financial crunch,” said Tibbles, who claims a canary-in-a-coal-mine effect had begun for Santa Barbara painters, sculptors, et al., as early as 2005. “All my artist friends were having problems, and I lost seven galleries in one year. Places that used to sell my work were wiped off the face of the earth.” Maybe the marketplace was not liquid, but the pool and the courts offered calming perspective and then an unexpected solution.

One morning, Tibbles ran into SBTC manager Amber Bottelsen, who was having a décor crisis. “She wanted to put up some art, and she knew I was an artist,” said Tibbles. “She had photographs of people playing tennis that she blew up to hang on the walls, but that just didn’t work for her. So she asked if I wanted to help her pick something else out.” Tibbles takes great pride in her artist’s eye, but she wondered if another alternative was possible: “I suggested that we get some local artists to hang their work up there as a show.” Bottelsen hastily agreed. “That was a Monday, and I made a few calls,” said Tibbles. “And I called [the painter] Dorothy Churchill-Johnson, who I knew had some new work, some fabulous paintings. And she said, yes, she could bring some of the paintings right over.” They were perfect, enough for a show, and all Bottelsen had to worry about was opening-night refreshments. That Friday evening, artists, art lovers, cheese and wine groupies, fans of Churchill-Johnson, and Tibbles’s many friends joined SBTC members at the pleasant though unlikely environs for a Santa Barbara photorealist to show new work.

Susan Tibbles
Paul Wellman

Birth of a Scene

“It was so good I asked Amber if we could do it again,” said Tibbles, as we sat chatting in the high-ceilinged airy clubhouse last spring. Dubbed 2nd Fridays Art — meant as a humorous alternative to downtown’s 1st Thursday gallery openings — Tibbles’s SBTC shows have been largely successful since their impromptu origin. “Twelve shows a year, and we’ve been doing it for seven years now,” she said. Possible directions opened up beyond anything the spontaneous beginning might have predicted. And Tibbles was determined to make it fresh. “I didn’t want it to turn into the same old thing. I didn’t want a systematic regurgitation of the same 15 artists.”

The last seven years haven’t been safe; Tibbles has mixed in new blood, though many of the usual suspects supplied DNA, too. A 2013 group show called About Face featured Neal Crosbie, a surrealist cartooning fixture since the late 1970s, and Patricia Houghton Clarke, an area photography artist. But Tibbles also included the late Barry Spacks — best known as a poet — to find something different and more diverse. Other innovative group shows include the Small Craft Advisory show that blended the resin-y sculptor Blakeney Sanford, the proto S.B. fashion photographer Mehosh Dziadzio, and Tom de Walt, a landscapist who once did backgrounds for sci-fi films. Other great S.B. artists who showed in the big sports club room include Phoebe Brunner, Hugh Margerum, Holly Mackay, Michael Irwin, Patricia Chidlaw, and Dug Uyesaka. The range of gender, genre, and art-world je ne sais quoi is wide, but soon even that wasn’t enough for Tibbles as gallerist.

“After two years, we had our first juried show called Rooster,” said Tibbles. “I thought I needed to have more outreach into the community, so we [do] these annual shows where artists enter and are judged by a jury.” She often draws more than 100 entries and shows as many artists — known and brand-new — as her guest judges deemed worthy. She made it fun by insisting on specific themes — birds, angels, and the fetish-y show opening next week called Stiletto/Shoe — yet the crazy themes also have wide interpretation. The idea wasn’t new: the Westmont annual Angel, the Contemporary Arts Forum’s Valentines, and Santa Barbara City College’s Small Images shows already drew reclusive artists into public space, but the frequency of such was waning. Tibbles made it a mission: “It gave Santa Barbarans who never even thought of having an exhibition some space on a gallery wall.”

Tibbles is a native Santa Barbaran; she was born here. She lived “always on the Eastside,” and has lore about secret passages below the old Chinatown where she used to adventure with her friends. Her single mother, Lois, raised her and taught English at Santa Barbara High School, though the daughter was never keen on academics. Tibbles loved doing art from an early age and was so self-motivated that the beloved former S.B. Junior High teacher Janice Lorber gave her a key to the art room so she could come in on weekends and work on projects.

After high school, Tibbles went to Colorado and Hawai‘i but came back in the 1990s as a real artist. She explored a number of media before finding herself in Hawai‘i, where she began making three-dimensional collages — called assemblage — inspired by the reclusive artist Joseph Cornell, though Tibbles’s work is more narrative than that of the self-taught master from Flushing. Returning to town, Tibbles discovered a small gallery called Artworks in the early 1990s, in what would later be called the Funk Zone. She aggressively pursued the owners and was given a show, which served as a springboard for her career and led to being shown in places such as the Patricia Correia Gallery in Bergamot Station in Los Angeles. Fame came when a Los Angeles Times editor saw Tibbles’s work and he hired her to illustrate opinion pieces in the Sunday paper. She became swiftly adept at taking a concept like Gore/Bush debates and turning it into beautiful and clever 3D works, with titles such as “Blah Blah Blah.” Over the years she did 250 of the assemblages, which were famously shown in Pasadena, toured, and then promised to a museum.

Tibbles, who has platinum hair over concerned-looking eyes and a careful manner, still works in her studio and has grown an out-of-town gallery presence again, but the gallerist side of her has become her most public self. It’s not as if the city never had unorthodox art spaces — the Good Cup on the Mesa has revolving cycles of buyable paintings on its wall; the old Sojourner restaurant featured artists including a heavily attended show that had S.B. artists competing to make the annual Solstice poster. “What I like about what [Susan] has done is that she’s reached far and wide with the artists, and that’s really been good for the members,” said Bottelsen, whose father was an SBTC cofounder (she says he literally discovered the place back when it was covered in weeds). She wholeheartedly supports the shows into the future.

Susan Tibbles
Paul Wellman

What It Is

The shows are not only novelties, though. Some have brought memorable and illuminating light into the town’s scene. Three years ago, Tibbles had a group of Los Angeles encaustic (also known as wax painting) artists to town; she supported Dziadzio’s photojournalistic chronicle of the hippie cult called Sunburst Farms (he was a member); and, perhaps not surprisingly, did an impressive collage roundup in 2010 (she included her own work but refuses to do a solo show there). Tibbles has shied away from more academic strains of contemporary art. “There’s not enough room in the gallery for real conceptual art,” she said. And she has encouraged the careers of city artists such as Jeanne Weber Dentzel, a mature scenic artist and muralist who got her first lifetime solo show in 2014 at the Tennis Club. And how does Tibbles pick the artists? Besides her great eye, she has a kind of mantra: “I don’t even have to like their work. But if they have a good work ethic, if they are in the studio working all the time — well, that’s very important to me. We don’t have weekend artists up on the walls.”

You could also argue that the times aren’t so bad anymore, that galleries, the marketplace, is making a comeback. You can even argue that things weren’t really bad for very long. The abstract painter Hugh Margerum, who has also lived here forever and has shown in many prestigious galleries as well as at SBTC, doesn’t think a scarcity of galleries is the issue. “There are probably just as many places to show as there ever were,” he said. “What’s best about the Tennis Club is that it reaches new audiences. But there’s another reason, too. If the art scene here is ever going to thrive, we need places where artists can gather, get together, and see each other’s work.”

Tibbles agrees, though at times she’s beside herself with the complicated logistics of putting on these shows. (“She hasn’t missed once in seven years,” said Bottelsen.) “Sometimes I just don’t know why I do it,” she told me. “I really don’t.”

Weeks later, I asked if she was still unclear about her own motives. “Yeah, I thought about it,” she said. “I got together with two artists, women; we had such a good time. We talked for an hour and a half. Whether I ultimately work with them or not, it was still great. It keeps you sharp. Being exposed to other artists keeps you sharp.”


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