Lost somewhere in the misty shrouds of distant memory is the identity of the person who first told me about Brad Nack’s annual reindeer shows. It was midsummer in Manhattan, circa 2001, and Christmas was the furthest thing from my mind, but I had accepted a job teaching writing at UCSB and suddenly I found myself sitting across from someone who offered this sage advice. “Hey, you’re moving to Santa Barbara? There’s this guy Brad Nack who paints reindeer for a holiday party. Go to that, and you’ll meet every cool person in town.” Whoever this prescient person was, I salute you in anonymous retrospect, because I did go to the reindeer show, and I’ve been going ever since.
Through thick and thin, fire and flood, beer and tinsel, wine and hard liquor, Nack has pursued his unique vision of the reindeer in art for 21 winters. Each December, he sets up shop for one night only (per location) and sells his charming and colorful tiny paintings of reindeer by the hundreds, ordinarily until there are none left. It’s an art show, it’s a holiday party, and most of all, it’s an utterly Santa Barbara–specific event, as much a part of our homegrown, surf-salted scene as Solstice, or Spencer the Gardener.
It was in fact Spencer’s mom who inspired the original reindeer some 22 years ago. Nack, who had known Spencer and his mom since he was a kid, decided to give her a holiday gift, and grabbing a handy brush (Brad’s dad, Ken, taught art at SBCC for many years, and there were always brushes handy at the Nacks’), he whipped out a cocky little reindeer who somehow captured everyone’s imagination. Several venues and many winter solstice celebrations later, the reindeer show marches on, all on the back of Mrs. Barnitz’s Christmas present.
On a recent Thursday, just prior to the first of the two 2019 reindeer shows, which was held at the Goodland Hotel’s Good Bar last Friday, December 6, I invited Nack to visit my Humanities class at the Laguna Blanca School in Hope Ranch. When I first thought of having him come in to teach my students how to paint reindeer, I was afraid that he would say no, not wanting to give up his artistic secrets. After all, what if the market was suddenly flooded with fake Nacks, little faux-deer destined to undermine the integrity of the entire project? What would the curators say? Fortunately, that’s not how Brad sees it. In fact, he has been teaching kids to paint reindeer for almost as long as he’s been putting on the shows.
It’s a fascinating lesson, and as a longtime teacher, I was pleased to learn some new tricks from the person who my students insisted on referring to as “reindeer man.” First of all, there’s a process to painting a reindeer, and although I can’t divulge the whole thing here and now, I can say that it involves design thinking, the reversal of figure and ground, and the periodic expansion and contraction of time. The whole experience was so much fun that even one of the other teachers got sucked into the lesson.
Amid the yawning deserts of commercially crafted Christmas detritus, these homespun deer offer an oasis of genuine cheer. For those curious to witness a real Santa Barbara tradition in person, there’s good news. The Brad Nack 100% Reindeer Art Show rises again on Saturday, December 14, at Restaurant Roy (7 W. Carillow St.) from 6 to 9 p.m. Be there and get your antlers on.