"Lucky Ducks" by Veronica Walmsley | Credit: Thomas Reynolds Gallery

In many ways, artists live always on the edge, standing at the precipice of something new — a painting, a sculpture, an interpretation — that didn’t exist previously. Now, a group of 13 women artists who call themselves, collectively, Western Edge, are bringing their work together for the first time in an exhibition at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery.

But this is more than a group show. Introducing: Western Edge is rooted in the art salons painter Dorothy Churchill-Johnson, the group’s founder, hosted in her living room more than two decades ago, and in the deep connections the artists have forged with one another over the years.

“Vanity” by Pamela Enticknap | Credit: Thomas Reynolds Gallery

“For years, Santa Barbara has been a magnet for serious independent artists who mainly create outside the trends and movements of Los Angeles and San Francisco,” said Churchill-Johnson. “We have been colleagues for years, supporting each other’s work, and occasionally exhibiting together.”

The salons created an environment in which the artists could talk about their work and explore the inherent challenges they faced as professional artists. “We started to meet every two months to share the progress of our careers, vent our frustrations, and discuss what was happening in contemporary art,” said painter Cynthia Martin, one of the group’s earliest members. “When the COVID pandemic came along, we stopped meeting for more than two years. Last fall, everyone felt the need to meet and share again, this time with new vigor and our focus evolved. We realized that our diverse styles and themes express the unique complexities of contemporary life on the California coast. The Western Edge exhibition at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery reflects that complexity.”

Artists work independently and usually in isolation, noted sculptor Joan Rosenberg-Dent, also an early member, and having a place where they could come together in mutual support and common experience, however disparate their individual work, has been essential. “We [otherwise] could never share anything as women artists,” Rosenberg-Dent said. “We don’t have that in common with the people we meet socially. [Churchill-Johnson] felt a real need and started inviting people.”

Painter Veronica Walmsley, a relative newcomer to Western Edge, welcomes the opportunity to be in the presence of — and learn from — accomplished artists who have succeeded in making art their careers. “I love being part of the energy of this group,” she said. “Each person has individual strengths they contribute. And while all the artists are competitive, we are not competing against each other. There’s an acceptance that we’re all in the business. Everyone supports one another.”

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Walmsley described that as a rarity. “There’s not enough of women helping women, particularly in the arts because everything is so competitive,” she said. “But I feel honored and privileged to be part of this group. They are really genius artists, and I am in awe of them.”

Rosenberg-Dent noted the democratic, egalitarian nature of the organization that makes it work. There is no president or slate of officers (though Walmsley serves as the official note-taker), and majority rules: Actions are proposed, discussed, and voted on.

The membership currently stands at 13 and will likely remain so. “We don’t want it to get any bigger,” Rosenberg-Dent said. It’s large enough to bring together varied perspectives, she explained, but small enough that members can meet in one another’s homes, and they can communicate as a group relatively easily.

The current exhibition is a good example of that. “We didn’t intend to do a gallery show,” she noted. “It fell in our lap and we thought this would be a really good first experience working together as a group. But we had to get it all up in a short period of time.”

The show at Thomas Reynolds Gallery is a dress rehearsal of sorts for the group’s newly articulated purpose, which is to exhibit together in museums. “It occurred to me that a curated group of professionals could achieve more together than as individuals, and that museums might be interested in a broad spectrum of work being produced on California’s idyllic Central Coast,” said Churchill-Johnson. “I wanted an eclectic group with a variety of styles and philosophies, but work that was united in beauty, innovation, and serious intent.

“My hope, and our goal,” she continued, “is to create a compelling exhibition proposal that will interest museum curators, especially museums that specialize in California and/or American art, in showing the broad spectrum of contemporary work being produced here on the Western Edge.”

In addition to Churchill-Johnson, Martin, Rosenberg-Dent, and Walmsley, Western Edge artists include Pamela Hill Enticknap, Nancy Gifford, Holli Harmon, Ruth Ellen Hoag, Cynthia James, RT Livingston, Kerrie Smith, Marlene Struss, and Susan Tibbles.

Curated by Andi Campognone, director of the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster, Introducing: Western Edge continues at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery (1331 State St.) through March 25. See thomasreynolds.com.

“Efflorescence” by Dorothy Churchill-Johnson  | Credit: Thomas Reynolds Gallery

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