Driving through the Carpinteria Valley to meet esteemed painter Whitney Brooks Abbott, I notice the abandoned greenhouses on the roadside near her house. They stand there in a ghostly manner, both worn out and defiant, surrounded by the beauty of the natural landscape. Not surprisingly, when I walk in Whitney’s studio, I see “Field Notes,” the main work of her first solo show at Sullivan Goss in five years — a painting of the greenhouses.
“I’ve always been fascinated about the cross between agriculture and industry,” she says. I study the image and nearby canvases, older works representing rusting farm equipment and horses. “Greenhouses intrigue me,” she continues. “They’ve transformed with all the rain. It touches on so many elements that are relevant today. It touches on what it means to be a farmer — property value and climate change in California. Nobody owns the property. It was purchased in the hopes of it becoming a cannabis farm, but they never got the permits. It changed Carpinteria. It has shifted the property values. It has been inflated to such a point that no one can afford them. It’s a real predicament.”
The painting itself, “Sunrise Through Greenhouses,” commands my attention. “It used to grow geraniums,” she says. “Climate change has accelerated its decay.” The length and height of the greenhouse takes over the frame. The sky, the overgrown weeds, the sagging roof, and the splendor of the reflection of the rising sun on it all create an effect of the whole scene as though it was taken in a single evanescent glance — capturing the ephemeral quality of the passage of time. There are no human figures in sight, but their activity is felt. There’s both an ugliness and beauty about the subject. Water has collected on the pockets on the ceiling, and the colors are dramatic. It brings up the question of what is beautiful.
“Untouched nature is important to the soul,” she says. “But in my paintings, there’s a coexistence that we have to recognize. In my mind, I’ve come to an understanding as to how they work together. They’re opposite elements, but they’re more similar than we assume.”
Adjacent to “Sunrise Through Greenhouses” is a transcendent companion piece, which she recently finished, called “Cover Crop.” In a vertical composition, she depicts the ground cover surrounding the Ota Farm in Rincon Canyon. The main subject is the foliage in contrast with the barn at the top of the frame. Infused with bold strokes made with big brushes, the work is exhilarating, jubilant, and fresh.
Susan Bush, Contemporary Curator of Sullivan Goss, says, “I’m most intrigued by Whitney’s brush strokes. She’s a plein air painter influenced by her impressionist painting mother, and yet her brush strokes are very calculated. She may be capturing a fleeting moment of time and light, but her brush strokes are placed carefully and often become large shapes of color that then become a chunk of the composition. They are direct and strong and obvious — not blended into each other.”
Whitney Brooks Abbott’s latest show displays maturity and depth. She is an artist at the top of her game, and yet the day I meet her, she’s nervous, as the exhibit date is nearing. “I’ve put so much work into it, and I have so much trepidation,” she confesses. “Is it relatable?”
When I later meet with her mother — the illustrious painter Meredith Brooks Abbott — and tell her about her daughter’s apprehension, she lovingly tells me, “Whitney has developed to the point where she’s compulsive about painting.”
Besides her uncommon talents, one of the most interesting aspects about Whitney Brooks Abbott is that she comes from a multi-generational Santa Barbara family of both successful painters and farmers who have been in this area since the early 1900s.
“When I was 5, I wanted to be a painter,” she says. “At an early age, I drew a lot. It was all imagination. It was a while until I drew from life.”
She recalls her mom putting high-quality drawing and painting supplies on the kitchen counter for the kids to encourage their creativity. “All my kids went painting with me,” says Meredith. They had their own easels.”
Whitney says her mom’s ’66 yellow Mustang’s trunk was always full of painting supplies. “It was so wonderful to have her as a model, for she worked on her art every day. The car smelled like turpentine. Turpentine is the smell of creativity and ideas.”
Whitney’s parents, Meredith and Duncan, grew up together in Carpinteria. Meredith lived at the top of Rincon Road, while Duncan lived at the bottom of the canyon in an 1870s house on a 55-acre avocado and lemon ranch. Duncan’s father bought the property in 1922, and Duncan and Meredith still live in that house today. Robert — Whitney’s brother — lives in the house his mom grew up in. “It’s very Frog and Toad,” Whitney acknowledges with a smile.
In the ’60s, Duncan became a portfolio manager and worked in San Francisco for Bank of America at Haight and Ashbury for 15 years. That’s where Whitney was born. In 1975, when she was 3 years old, the family moved back to Carpinteria, for Duncan decided to manage the family avocado ranch.
Whitney grew up in Rincon Canyon. The trees in Carpinteria were her playground. With her siblings and friends, they used their imaginations and the trees would become their houses. They’d spend a lot of time close to nature, hiking the mountains and making forts at the creek that flowed next to their property. “Since then, I learned to value open spaces,” she says. While attending High School at Cate, she became involved in environmental causes, an interest that continues to this day.
“I loved all the classes I took at Cate, but art resonated the most,” she says. “I would draw my friends — there was a big imaginative quality to all our work. We would make album covers.”
In 1990, she decided to go to the art school at UC Santa Cruz. “I had really cool professors,” she says. “They had senior studios that I took as a sophomore, and I painted all day long. I started to paint from life. I’d paint portraits, and I painted my first interiors — my messy college dorm room.”
Teachers like Hardy Hanson and Robert Chiarito encouraged her to spend hours on one painting. They also didn’t tell her what to paint, and thus she started to discover her voice on her own. “They taught me how to paint — and taught me a work ethic,” she says. In 1993, she received a fellowship to study at the Yale School of Art in Norfolk, Connecticut.
“After college, I could either go to grad school or come back to Carp and work. I moved back home,” she says. “Part of it was financial and part of it was intentional. What I wanted to do was paint what I knew. I wanted to paint what I was connected to. That’s when I started painting the rural life around me. I didn’t understand what an agricultural community I lived in until I moved away to go to college.”
She met her husband, Murray McTigue, when they were both in college. He was going to Cal Poly and majoring in electrical engineering, and his sister was Whitney’s roommate at Santa Cruz. After they both graduated and were back in Carpinteria, they started hanging out. He was working for a company called Kilovac, which produced high-power electric relays.
They started dating in 1998 and got married in 2005. “It took us forever to get married because we didn’t think it would change our relationship, and we weren’t too into the institution of the state,” she says. “For me in particular, it was about equity. Twenty years ago, ‘marriage’ was a flawed legal definition of unity. Not everyone could get married. As the laws changed, all of us siblings got married in a short period of time! I officiated my brother William’s marriage. My brother Robert officiated mine. My uncle officiated Robert’s. But here’s the funny part — we were all raised very Catholic. My husband’s family and my whole family were flummoxed about the idea of us getting married without a priest! So after the vows were spoken, my mom and my aunties gathered in a little sitting room and busted out their Hail Marys and Our Fathers for a good 10 minutes in secret … or maybe not so secret. It was pretty hilarious. Then we had chile verde and cupcakes.”
The wedding took place in the Rincon Canyon home where Whitney grew up. The couple bought the avocado farm they currently live in from her uncle. “It’s so special,” Whitney exclaims. “Grandpa Tirey planted the avocado trees in the ’60s. As a kid, I helped paint the walls of the main house.” Both Murray and Whitney work the farm. They have about 900 trees in 10 acres. In a good year, they harvest about 100 bins of avocados — 900 pounds each. “It covers our property taxes,” she says. “You never know as a farmer if it’s going to be a good year. Luckily, we have our other jobs.” In addition, Whitney and Murray have three children, Gwen (16), Agatha (13), and Forrest (9), so it is definitely a busy life.
Before she was able to concentrate full time on her painting, Whitney had to take part-time work. Among her many jobs, she enjoyed teaching art to children. “I realize I have spent a lot more time working with children than adults,” she says. “Children teach me just as much or perhaps more than I could teach them. Their art is raw and real.”
She taught art at Crane School from 1997 to 2002, and she continues her involvement with the school — all of her children either attend Crane or have graduated from it. Joel Weiss, Head of School at Crane, says about Whitney, “In addition to having a very successful art career, she also has almost no ego. She never brags or shows off, she simply loves kids, she loves to help, she has a huge work capacity, and she’s very generous with her time.”
A key aspect of Whitney’s oeuvre is canvases portraying domestic scenes. In her interior paintings, there is often a chair, a place to sit down, and a path through it — an open door or a window. She romanticizes everyday life. A piano lesson, a lecture, a tea visit. There’s a spirituality about these paintings — as she plays with patterns, different planes, and with light both natural and in reflections. They are meditative works, for there’s a palpable stillness.
“I tried not to make it too composed or perfect. A sweater has been casually left behind,” the artist tells me. She calls her work an intersection between abstraction and realism. “It’s abstract because we’re forced to address the patterns of line and shapes,” she explains. “Other subject matter is more organic.”
“As a hands-on mother with young children, Whitney was restricted to home life and the landscape of her immediate environs,” explains Bush. “With small children on the premises, painting is done in fits and starts — a scene of a comfortable living room chair can be worked on more readily than a view from an ocean bluff. Whitney’s children are old enough now — they are all in school — so that she has more time to dedicate to painting, more time to get out and about in different landscapes. Which is why we’re having her first show in five years!” she laughs.
On a good day, she spends five to six hours painting, mostly on location. “It’s been hard having to paint the past few years,” Whitney says. “It started with the Thomas Fire. Everybody evacuated. My studio was filled up with belongings and detritus. I started to take a sub job at Crane School. I thought it was going to be for a couple of weeks and it ended up being a year. Then COVID hit and after that a construction project, so it’s been difficult to reclaim my time.”
A lot of the paintings in the current show came about because of her kids’ schedules. While her son was participating in an intensive program at St. Anthony’s seminary, Whitney painted that location.
To this day, mother and daughter painters Meredith and Whitney inspire one another. “We used to do these trips where we would paint,” Whitney says. “I always learn so much from her. Sometimes we set up our easels so that we can’t see each other paint. And I’m always in awe of what she’s done.”
Meredith fondly remembers mother and daughter gifting one another with three hours of posing time for Christmas, which to her was the ultimate gift. In Meredith’s studio, there are several paintings of Whitney at different ages. “I’m just thrilled with Whitney’s painting. I wished I could paint the way she does,” says Meredith.
Whitney adds, “She’s so important to my career. She was formally trained as an artist. Her knowledge of portraiture and landscapes trickles down to me. I admire her work ethic. She has a successful career and has raised a family.”
On January 3, three generations of Abbott painters took their easels to East Camino Cielo toward Carpinteria to paint together — matriarch Meredith was joined by her children Robert and Whitney, and Whitney’s teenage daughter Gwen. “She’s got the bug,” declares Whitney.