In Pictures & Words, Watercolors & Legends, Artist Galen Wolf Left Us the History of the Coastside

sketchingthumbnail10.jpg (Photo: Sketching on Tunitas Creek Rd. Note the old Tunitas one-room Schoolhouse at left.)

[I wrote this in 2002]
By June Morrall

When 87-year-old Coastside artist Galen Wolf died in 1976, the inventory of paintings he left behind could have been created by two different peoploe.

Most them are know as “the Pictures,” and then thre is a small, unique series called “the Legends.”

The “Pictures” are watercolors and some oils, many of them of reflections of Galen’s beloved Coastside. There is also a series devoted to the Peninsula’s famous 19th century mansions, historic California missions and evocative seascapes painted in Mendocino, home to one of his three brothers.

Galen began sketching as early as 1909, and aside from artistic merit, his work may be as valuable to historians as are vintage photographs. His pictures provide a visual history of scenes that may have changed or no longer exist.

This Coastside artist was neither reclusive nor Bohemian. Galen Wolf was outgoing. He loved people and they returned that love. Wearing suspenders and a hat, sometimes a tam o’ shanter, he was an advocate of plein air painting, often sketching on site at remote Tunitas Creek, Mills Mansion in Millbrae, and Mission Dolores in San Francisco.

At his modest studio on rural Frenchman’s Creek Road north of Half Moon Bay, he transformed the smaller drawings into larger pictures.

But Galen’s talents as an artist did not help him in his role as a husband and father. During the desperate years of the Great Depression, he made a decision that forever marked his life: He separated from his wife and their two children, with emotional repercussions for everyone.

We may not know all the reasons for his break with the family but he did fit the description of the classical artist, a free thinker who said what was on his mind, un-fazed by conventional pressures, driven to paint, paint, paint. Galen supported himself painting pictures of people’s homes for a small fee and earned a few dollars teaching students as well.

Outside Galen’s studio on Frenchman’s Creek Road, there was the unusual sight of a avocado tree. Without the help of a tropical climate, the avocado tree thrived through the long summers of endless Coastside foggy days. It flourished, as did Galen, who also seemed like a transplant from a different place.

There was always laughter and chatter in the studio as Galen painted. He had a loyal following. Many–mostly women–made what could only be called “the pilgrimage” to see and hear “the master.” Some of the students were there to learn to paint while others sat his feet and listened to the retelling of Galen’s Coastside Legends. Certainly Galen Wolf would be the first to say he was no guru but all who met the artist revered him and agreed he spun a magic web about Half Moon Bay.

Besides the “Pictures,” Galen Wolf also left behind an extraordinary small collection known as the “Legends.” The “Legends” were Galen’s fanciful work, so different from his watercolors and oils that they might have been produced by someone else.

The “Legends” consist of 16 mosaic paintings. They are called mosaics because of the broad fields of color used. Each of the mosaics represents a Coastside legend, some based on fact, some just good old imaginary stories. What makes the series unique is that the viewer, in order to fully appreciate and understand the art, must learn the details of each legend.

One of Galen’s legends tells the story of the Sir John Franklin, a 19th-century South Coast shipwreck. The other legends tell stories of fishermen and the sea. Another recalls the stand-off between a Frenchman and a bear; several legend pictures describe the lives of early pioneers including dairyman William Steele who raised cattle at Ano Nuevo.

But while the visual legends may bring pleasure to the viewer, Galen felt that the written stories were required for a true understanding. He surely intended that whoever owned the special Legend series would keep it intact.

Allen “Lorry” Bunes of El Granada knows the Legends. He has owned the collection for more than two decades. And Bunes has been faithful to Galen by keeping them together, displayed on the walls of his home.

“I bought one of Galen’s pictures of a whale, and I liked it so much that I bought the Legends,” Bunes told me in 2002. A semi-retired commercial fisherman and owner of the 40-foot salmon trawler, “Susan Lee,” anchored at Pillar Point Harbor, Lorry Bunes loves everything nautical.

Besides Galen’s Legends, his pride and joy is a ship’s wheel –inlaid with black walnut so polished it looks brand new. But Lorry remembers that it was anything but new when he salvaged the wheel from an antique shop in La Honda long ago.

“I was told the wheel came off the Sir John Franklin,” said Bunes, a skilled woodworker who recalls the wheel was painted and that pieces were missing. It took him two years to restore the wheel to its original splendor.

“I can’t swear it came off the Sir John Franklin,” Bunes mused, “but it had been around a long time. ” Listening to him makes you feel pretty sure that the wheel came from the stricken ship.

Surely Galen would heartily approve of Bunes’ ship’s wheel located so close to the shipwreck picture hanging on the wall. Although Allen Bunes doesn’t fish as often as he used to, he appreciates Galen’s mosaic called “Fisherman’s Dream.”

Down on his luck, a fisherman’s fortunes change when the sea comes alive with fish. The high waves sweep them onto the ship’s deck and all is well. This is something a fisherman understands.

“It’s true and real,” says Bunes. “One day the sea is barren and the next the fish are back.”

Allen Bunes’ daughter, Shannon Nottestad stimulated her father’s interest in the work of Galen Wolf.

“In the 1940s,” Shannon said, “Galen was commissioned by County Librarian Clara Dills to go all over the county painting the buildings and landscapes before they changed or disappeared.”

Galen was paid with Works Project Administration (WPA) money and Shannon said watercolors of the Mills, Flood and Crocker estates are housed at the county library’s headquarters.

“Galen’s pictures are available to libraries that want to put them on exhibit,” she said, adding that she has also seen examples of his work at the County History Museum in Redwood City.

Shannon knows the stories of Galen Wolf’s 16 Legends by heart. “Galen developed a technique called ‘mosaic,’ basically broad fields of color. The painting technique he used with the Legends is called gouche and he only employed it with the Legend series.”

Shannon Nottestad said she’s preparing Galen Wolf’s Legends for publication in 2008 (a very exciting historical event for Coastsiders.)

Galen Wolfe’s daughter, Reesa Fairbanks, has lived with husband Marvin in Millbrae for more than 50 years. She’s a quiet person, a housewife who loved to square dance as a young woman.

“My father tried to teach me to paint but I couldn’t do it,” said Reesa.

Marvin Fairbanks was a navigator in the Army Air Corps during WWII, stationed in England. Back home after the war, he operated a successful wholesale bread route.

On the Fairbanks’ living room wall hangs Galen’s oil painting of Frenchman’s Creek where his studio-home was located. It’s a vivid picture showing the fields of heather in bloom.

“The center of Galen’s life was painting,” said Marvin about his father-in-law.

Marvin and Reesa met during WWII at Letterman Hospital in San Francisco. Reesa was driving ambulances and Marvin had just returned from duty in England. In 1944 they wed, and when the war ended. Marvin started his bread route, delivering the famous Langendorf sliced rye and the Rich Pie Company’s pumpkin and berry pies to Bay Area restaurants.

He notes that the pies were fresh-baked every day and “that industry went down the tubes because the freezer changed everything.”

Reesa says her father, Galen, was born in San Francisco in 1889. His father, William Wolf, was a general commission merchant dealing in potatoes, onions and beans. Perhaps it was through the food business that William Wolf met his future wife, Mary Griffith, the daughter of Half Moon Bay pioneers.

Business was good that the Wolfs could afford a sea voyage to Europe.

They visited Paris, where teenager Galen took paintings lessons at the Louvre Museum and was influenced by the Impressionists.

Back in San Francisco, Galen’s parents were moving into a new home on Telegraph Hill when it was destroyed by the 1906 Earthquake and fire. Now, facing hard times, the family relocated to Half Moon Bay, the home of Galen’s mother’s side of the family, the Griffiths.

This may not have been a happy time for Galen. Reesa remembers hearing that her maternal grandparents weren’t crazy about him. But young Galen was consumed with his sketching and painting.

In 1914 Galen married Reesa’s mother. The family moved to Portland and Stockton, where Galen unsuccessfully managed ranches and a gas station. Then the Depression came, and things went from bad to worse.

“Things were tough and Galen lost his property in Stockton,” said Marvin. “There was no relief. Whatever you had you shared or bartered.”

It was during this difficult period that Marvin Fairbanks explained, “Galen disappeared. He gave up the ship.”

Reesa added, “The Great Depression broke the spirit of many men. Galen didn’t like the real world. He was strictly an artist.”

Galen did not divorce his wife and Reesa recalls the family getting together on the holidays in Half Moon Bay and Millbrae.

In the early 1930s Galen Wolf moved into the studio on Frenchman’s Creek Road in Half Moon Bay. Known by the locals as the Wolf Ranch, Galen felt secure there because his brother Harold managed the property. Galen lived simply, painting pictures for $2.50 and framing them for an additional few dollars.

“The day WWII broke out in 1941,” remembered Reesa, “my mother moved to Sharp Park” in present day Pacifica. For years she worked at the water company and at real estate offices.

Like sem-retired El Granada fisherman Lorry Bunes, the Fairbanks hang Galen Wolf’s work on the walls of their home. Marvin pointed out that the Pictures and the Legends are done in very different styles.

He said that the “Toy Ship” legend impresses people because the shipwreck of the Acuelo occurred off the coast of Montara–and oldtimers remembered recovering dolls and toy soldiers on the broad sandy beach.

Many Coastsiders display Galen Wolf’s watercolors in their homes and businesses. Since the 1970s, I have owned several picturing El Granada decades ago.