Judy Sutcliffe: 1941-2021

When intrepid artist Judy Sutcliffe fell in love with Santa Barbara as a 36-year-old winter fugitive from Audubon, Iowa, she had one friend and no home here. Five years later, she was standing under the arch of the county’s iconic courthouse next to Queen Elizabeth II and Mayor Sheila Lodge, unveiling her large tile plaque that commemorates the historic meeting in Santa Barbara between the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, and the Queen of the United Kingdom on March 1, 1983.

Credit: Courtesy

Shortly after Judy’s compelling winter visit in January 1978, she sold everything she had in Iowa for cash and returned to Santa Barbara in her old red VW Beetle, into which she fit everything she owned.

While in Iowa, where she grew up, multitalented Judy had written beef and hog columns for regional newsletters, designed dolls for the animated film Raggedy Ann and Andy, created and manufactured more than 70 editions of Iowa Heritage collector plates, and sculpted dolls of every Iowa First Lady, which are on permanent display in Iowa’s State Capitol.

“I moved to California and changed my life” Judy recalled.

She used the $15,000 cash she’d reaped in Iowa as a down payment for a modest $77,000 house on Cliff Drive. Having no more money and no income, she slept on the floor, rented out a room to the ocean diver who’d sold her the house, forwent furniture and restaurants, assembled an art studio and kiln in her garage, and set out to make a new career and new friends. Among her first was stonemason Ozzie Da Ros. Ozzie recommended to a customer that she hire Judy to design and create a unique kitchen tile mural for a new custom home.

Judy had found a new career. She quickly became renowned for her custom tile work. In additions to tiles for hundreds of homes, she created and restored dozens of tile murals and commemorations in public places and institutions that continue to illuminate our community today.

“I … painted quite a few tile plaques for adobes, asserting that somewhere under the freshly painted stucco and pretty tiles, a very old and historic structure was buried,” she later remembered.

Of the historic adobes decorated by her tiles’ discursive historic elucidation are the Rochin and Orella adobes downtown. Historian Neal Graffy’s favorite is on the Ortega adobe at Arroyo Hondo on the Gaviota Coast.

“Judy illustrated the text with drawings of the cast of people in the canyon’s story, including the four-horse stagecoach that stopped there. Each of her plaques is different; it isn’t just the words that tell the story, but Judy’s drawings, design, and border decorations as well. Her artistry is timeless and shines on for all of us.”

Judy’s tile plaques grace more than historic adobes. A particular beauty is the lengthy explanation of the street name Anapamu, Chumash for “rising place,” on West Anapamu Street, which incorporates many colorful Chumash pictographs.

Sheila Lodge met Judy when she was restoring the Don Quixote tile scenes in a courtyard at the Music Academy. Lodge reports her favorite of Judy’s plaques is the festive view of the “popcorn man” at the foot of State Street. While other plaques grace the airport, the Koury Market, the Arlington Theatre, Santa Cruz Island’s winery, the Hitching Post restaurant in Casmalia, and many other sites, with thousands of tourists and locals passing every year, Judy’s 1982 depiction of “popcorn man” Everett Nicholin, who gave “character and personality to Stearns Wharf,” and his truck likely has the largest audience.

In 1985 Judy’s art turned to a world audience when she taught herself to design lettering. Apple’s new LaserWriter, the first network printer, revolutionized type graphics and printing. Judy created dozens of unique typefaces under her new moniker the “Electric Typographer” for use in the new laser printers. Her many highly original typefaces include “Tommy’s Type” of letters hanging on clothesline, a replication of Leonardo da Vinci’s handwriting, Hawaiian petroglyphs, architectural lettering, masks, and florals. By 1994 Macworld magazine recommended Judy’s fonts among the best typefaces for sale. One was used on the covers of Harry Potter coloring books.

Her interest in typefaces led Judy to purchase several small hand printing presses, first a Chandler & Price and then a Vandercook & Sons, which she installed in her garage studio. With Roger Levenson of the Tamalpais Press in Berkeley as a mentor, Judy designed books for Noel Young and his Capra Press here in Santa Barbara as well as many issues of Noticias, the historical society’s occasional publication.

Young asked Judy to design a 1988 centennial biography of Lotte Lehmann. Lehmann was a legendary German operatic soprano (and discoverer of the Trapp Family Singers) who fled from Hitler to Santa Barbara in the late 1930s. Lehmann was instrumental in establishing the Music Academy in 1947 and serving as its first opera instructor. Judy again found new friends.

“I stumbled into a friendship with Frances Holden, born in 1899, the woman who had been Lotte’s companion from the 1940s until Lotte’s death in Santa Barbara in 1976. I spent many hours at their home [Orplid, in Hope Ranch], with room after room full of Frances’s books, with Lotte’s painting and sculptures scattered about,” she explained. Her favorite Lehmann opera roles were in Der Rosenkavalier. “I love this opera. It’s sad and sweet and hilarious and wise, and it’s about love and loving and letting go … beyond its basic beauty, it is tasseled with tendrils of memory.”

In 1988 Holden asked Judy to be her representative to the Lehmann celebration in Vienna, including a performance of Der Rosenkavalier in the Wiener Staatsoper, the state opera house, on Lehmann’s 100th birthday. Judy later wrote “[W]e were much awed at the whole spectacle, the opera was opulently performed.” Judy also helped organize the Lehmann centennial celebration at UCSB.

“Judy was a consistent advocate for Lehmann’s legacy, whether in editing the biography of the soprano; writing newsletters for the Lotte Lehmann League, which she founded; traveling to Europe to uncover historic Lehmann documents; and providing her lifetime accumulation of such material to relevant institutions,” League chair Gary Hickling said recently.

By 1996 Judy’s Mesa home had increased in value. She was turning 55 and ready for another adventure. She explained her thinking at the time: “I can stay in Santa Barbara and work the rest of my life or return to the Midwest and do what I want for the rest of my life.” So she sold her home her and moved home to Audubon, where she invested the proceeds in purchasing 10 rental houses.

There she met another new friend, Sandy Scott, who ran the Donna Reed Festival in nearby Denison. In 1997 they moved to a historic 1830s miner’s cottage in Galena, Illinois. They opened their Longbranch Gallery in nearby Mineral Point, Wisconsin, in 2000 and created a new, nonprofit folk school for the arts and crafts in 2004, Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts, where Judy taught many classes and wrote several books.

In January Sandy and Judy celebrated her 80th birthday at their Wisconsin gallery, where she died on March 3.

When Judy knew she would soon be free from her long struggle with breast cancer, she asked to hear Lotte Lehmann singing the final aria of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. As Tristan dies, and just before dying herself, Isolde sings with serene rapture,

Mild und leise … softly and gently…
Shall I listen?
Shall I drink, immerse?
Sweetly in fragrances melt away?
In the billowing torrent,
In the resonating sound,
In the wafting universe
Of the World-Breath,
Drown, be engulfed, unconscious
Supreme Delight!


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