Friday, April 18, 2008

Artist of the Sea

All of us follow our unique paths. Or, as Antonio Machado said:

Wanderer, your footsteps are the road,
and nothing more.
Wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.

When a Big Sur kid grows up, after a magical childhood including education in the arts and natural history, he may very likely become an artist of some kind. For Jonathan Newell, one finds that, like his favorite creature the octopus, his life incorporates the mysteries of science and art.

Jonathan began his journey at the Newell Ranch in Big Sur in 1969. On this sprawling ranch and redwood forest, Jonathan's grandparents Ralph and Teva Newell built a Spanish style home in handmade adobe brick. The fountain in their courtyard is set with ancient Esselen Indian mortars and mosaics of astrological figures.

Ralph Newell's peers were some of the titans of Big Sur's homesteading past: rancher Billy Post, and builders Walt and Frank Trotter. But he also was friends with the artist and inventor Harry Dick Ross, a more bohemian type of fellow who lived on Partington Ridge, and eventually married Henry Miller's ex-wife Eve.

As a boy, Jonathan was inspired by all of these men, but especially by Harry Dick Ross, who in addition to building large aerial spirographs from butcher paper, boxes and wire, collected feathers, arrowheads and rare plants. In this way, Jonathan developed an open mind, and is passionate about diverse fields of study today.

His parents, Roger and Beverly Newell, are artists as well, and fostered a sense of wonder in their children, with everything from music and dance lessons to landscape design projects at the Ranch. With his brother and sister he began learning of the mysteries of the deep at the Monterey Bay Area Research Institute's Lyceum school during the summers. (This is now the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, MBARI.)

One of Jonathan's earliest memories is of dissecting a giant kelp bulb's root system to find a baby octopus inside. He was certified as a scuba diver at 13 years old, and began diving for Big Sur Jade soon afterwards. One dream was to become a marine biologist, and while he pursued these studies he also traveled and led diving expeditions in Indonesia and the Caribbean.

There is a place where scuba diving and the art world converge: diving for treasures lost at sea. Gold coins from the 17th century Spanish shipwreck, the Atocha, sparked Jonathan's imagination. He'd begun learning jewelry and metal design in college, and mixed this with his love of marine creatures by creating golden octopi holding these treasure coins in their tentacles.

Over the past decade, Jonathan has created a huge body of work with his solar and wind powered metalworking studio, JN Design. He provides elegant design solutions and one-of-a-kind artwork in bronze, steel, glass and stone for homes and businesses up and down the Central Coast. With architect Mickey Muennig, he created the steel railings at the Esalen Institute baths. He's also an inventor, building a wind-turbine generator and tweaking designs for a hydrogen powered car. His dream nowadays is to raise awareness of our marine environment through art and to develop technology that helps the planet. It's all going on in the sorcerer's workshop at JN Design.

In 1999 he married Paula, also an artist, and they have two beautiful children. JN Design is in many ways a family endeavor. Paula contributes design concepts, helps with the finish work, and keeps everything working smoothly, while Kyler and Micaela play in the studio with paints, paper and clay. "With Paula," Jonathan says, "I'm ambidextrous. Together we can be both spontaneous and meticulous, and manifest so much more, on all levels."

Artistic progeny: Kyler's first sculpture at age 6 was an oriental fish kite cut out of paper, complete with moving parts. Micaela's a painter, and that means coloring outside the lines, sometimes with indelible markers on a new leather couch, but hey, she's so adorable, who cares?

You can see Jonathan's work in Big Sur at the Del Campo Gallery. He recently installed some of his latest works in bronze there, including a chair suitable for Neptune, made from the cast forms of giant kelp leaves and bulbs, and a beautiful sea orchid lamp that lights up at your touch.

His fulfillment as an artist is deeply connected with his ideals. "Success began to come to me when my kids arrived on the scene," he says. "I stopped trying to be this persona and began working on doing the best job I could do. It was putting my authentic self out there that made the difference. Challenges became exciting. I now learn more from my mistakes, and feel I'm closer to my dream of helping create a better world."

To complete the Machado poem, with a fitting reference to the ocean:

By walking one makes the road,
and upon glancing behind
one sees the path

that never will be trod again.

Wanderer, there is no road--
Only your wake upon the sea.

Photos: Newell Family collection
Trumpet flower and leaves by Paula Newell

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