There’s a reason why, “At the top of the world” is also an expression referring to one’s state of mind. On the way to Branham Rendlen’s home last weekend, I remembered this. I felt clearer up there, happier. The healing power of the earth is more palpable when you experience her grander vistas, the ones that give you immense perspective.
This past year as we have healed from the Basin Complex Fire has been all about perspective. From shock and destruction has come new growth and beauty. We learn to believe, again, that happy endings are possible. "The fire," Branham says, "has become a story of watching destruction create healing, both in the land and in our community.
Painter Branham Rendlen lives at the tippy top of Castro Canyon, on the Old Coast Road, with a view of the Santa Lucia mountains that is out of this world. Last summer, her home was in the war zone longer and more perilously than most. During our visit she points out to me a small singed oak tree, about twenty feet from her front door. Without her husband on hand to put that fire out, all would have been lost.
It took her months to venture back outside to paint the post-fire lunar landscape as it began to come back, and you can see some of those results at her online gallery, as well as at the Del Campo Gallery here in town. This is the third time she's felt fire so close: there was the '96 fire and the '99 fire as well. During the '99 fire she actually painted it plein aire style, setting up her easel on the road above her house, looking southwest into the back country.
She also contributed to "Recovered and Renewed — A Year Later” (which can now be viewed online) a unique show presented by the Big Sur Health Center and the Ventana Inn and Spa, showcasing the work of thirty Big Sur Artists, each having created a piece that reflects the surge of fire-inspired creativity. A founder of Monterey Bay Plein Aire Painter's Association (MBPAPA) she reminds me that they currently have a show at the Pacific Grove Art Center.
Branham has been drawing and painting her whole life, beginning by taking art classes with her mother at age 6. She has a Masters degree in printmaking from the University of Kansas, and received support for her creative development all along. She works now primarily in oil. She paints landscapes, and imaginative works like her Condor and Hummingbirds series, going where the artistic flow leads her.
A soft-spoken shaman, her message is simple and hugely powerful: Art heals. It heals individuals, and in doing so, heals us all. The brain-wave state of the creative mind opens the psyche. Using music or meditation to get to this place can help. She shows me Dr. Michael Samuels' book Creative Healing, which features her artwork.
"For some reason, making things heals people," she says, "Writing, music, painting, cooking, whatever, we can use that energy inside us to be either destructive or constructive, depending on how we choose to be with our feelings. Art can also raise consciousness individually and collectively, by bringing people joy and peace." To quote Dr. Samuels, "The moment you see your spirit is the moment your heart opens. When you glimpse your spirit you gasp and cry, you feel emotion, you know who you are. That is the moment you begin to heal."
Branham came to Big Sur in 1986 with a few dear girlfriends, and began to make her life here. It's one of those Big Sur stories where she was handed a job and place to live, boom. The doors opened and she couldn't say no, letting go of her vision of herself as an art school professor. We laugh at the notion that, as she predicted, she met a guy, fell in love and stayed. "It was the land that grabbed me," she said. "I'd lived in rural Kansas and grew up in rural Missouri, so I knew country. But this was something new, something deeper, for me."
As we conclude our coffee, cookies and conversation, we talk a little bit more about art and healing. “Through the artwork, I have come to understand myself as a part of this energy that heals, that is creativity and love (which I hope doesn't sound pompous)" she adds with a quiet laugh. "Basically, people are hungry for soul," she says, and Big Sur is the essence of soul in the land."
Paintings by Branham Rendlen:
Condors Configuration with Fire, 36" X 34"
Photos by Linda Sonrisa