The California challenge! NOT looking at the bright side..

As a plein air painter I get to see and know the state pretty well. One of the most depressing things about California is the fact that anywhere you go, everything is fenced in. No exceptions. Even if you drive into the most remote areas, there’s apparently still enough money to put up fences, making it all but impossible to paint from anywhere else than the road.
That way many of the most beautiful vistas cannot be visited because the owners of the land put up barbed wire and signs that threaten legal action. A recurring theme in the USA.

Having said that, it’s not like that everywhere in America. In Vermont, for instance, you can park at the side of the road and with few exceptions walk anywhere you want. No barbed wires there. California? Forget it unless it’s BLM land, state owned land or a National
park. We live in this huge state and 90% of the land is inaccessible! Kind of sad, isn’t it?

So for those of you who come from out of state and especially visitors from other countries:
You may look at the beautiful rolling hills but you may not walk around and explore! Private property, no trespassing!

In Europe it’s completely different. I painted in France so much in 2008 and 2009 and never had a problem. Park at the side of the road, take gear and walk into the fields. Nobody cares. Sometimes I had to park my vehicle in someone’s vineyard, no problem either! I just put a sign on the dash (artist painting in the area) end of story. Imagine that here. Your car would be towed and they would sue you for trespassing, just because you want to paint ‘their’ land.

There’s a gynecologist in the area who actually threatened to sue an artist for painting his estate on a hill off of Highway 46. When she painted it, she wasn’t even on his land.
Her painting was on exhibition in a nearby vineyard where he spotted it on the
wall and demanded it taken off. When the owner of the vineyard refused, he pulled it down himself and took it with him. The artist had to actually call the police to get her painting back. True story!

I know this is an extreme case but you’ve got to wonder! If we don’t revere art and artists, what kind of a society are we?

I don’t want to be completely negative here because there are many people out there who welcome artists on their property. Even if they don’t know anything about art, they understand that artists play an important role in a society and they try to be supportive. My deepest thanks goes to them!
It is never a good idea to generalize everyone, but I am trying to make a point here.
In California, the fact that you own property means that you can put barbed wire around it and keep people out. In Germany and France you own the property also but you have no problem with someone walking across it and let them enjoy it as well.
The question is, why are two seemingly similar societies so different in that regard?

20 thoughts on “The California challenge! NOT looking at the bright side..

  1. Heike Covell

    Just read your newsletter and enjoyed reading, as always. I believe, the signs are posted in the US, because sometimes people just build a shed or a house on the property they do now own. It’s an impossibility in Europe. Firstly, people usually do not own the amount of land, that people in the US enjoy and secondly, nobody would even think of doing that. I agree, the signs are annoying to an artist, who just wants to get a better view. (I grew up in Germany.)

    1. frankeber Post author

      I think you’re right. There is a disturbing mentality among certain people here and they wouldn’t think twice about squatting on someone else’s land. Something unthinkable in Europe. thanks for your contribution!

  2. Michele Missner

    Good grief, Frank, what happened to all those liberal s in Ca? So far I’m not aware of that in the politically repulsive state of Texas!

    love seeing your work and all of the awards you are racking up.

    Did you ever hear anymore about Nick Simmons death? I’m Facebook friends with his wife. She had a message about receiving his cremains by ups or fedex so I assume he was out of the country. She shares his ( and our) liberal views.

    Hope you like you new home town and area.

    Michele Missner

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. frankeber Post author

      Interesting. What you’re saying is you can go paint everywhere then in TX? I remember it looking much like here when I was there last. I also don’t think it has so much to do with the political left or right.
      I did hear more about Simmons but I’d rather not write anything here…
      The new (not so new now) digs are great, minus the no trespassing signs! Central coast is really beautiful!
      thanks for contributing!! hope you and M are good!

  3. Janette

    By looking at the signs in your photos that have been put up, it seems to be more about the few, who have abused these peoples land and therefore find it easier just to keep every one out. I am sure if you just ask first for permission to paint most would say “yes”. Then they know why you are there and not damaging their land. It seems people have hunted on their property and also probably take maron (prawns..not sure what you call it over there) or fish from their dams. Probably leave rubbish behind and their land may also be at risk of a fire from cigarettes & camp fires . Probably need to keep to public places or if you paint someone house & land from afar just alter it so it does not look exactly the same. After all it is their land and we need to respect that. I feel in France art is a bigger part of their culture making it more acceptable to paint anywhere. Here in Australia (Perth) I have never seen a painter in the street or on a side walk..sooo sad. In fact I think it may be against the law. I would love to see a street just for artists to show their paintings.

    1. frankeber Post author

      All good points and certainly all true. I don’t think the French or the Germans necessarily care more about artists, it’s just a common thing to let people walk across your property. It has always been like that so nobody would think of putting fences up! thank you for your comment!

  4. Matt Myers

    I live in Wyoming and that is not a problem here. There is lots of BLM land and National Forest land and you can walk, paint, hike, take pictures, or whatever. I know there are other states though that are like California and I don’t know what the problem is. Maybe too much government control. People seem to be a lot more possessive or suspicious nowadays also. You are welcome to come paint in Wyoming anytime you want. If not on BLM land, you can talk to the local landowners, most would let a person paint on their property too. Sad that it is the way it is though.

    1. frankeber Post author

      I’ve been to Wyoming and I noticed there is open land there and very few no trespassing signs. I think California has gotten worse in the last ten years or so.. Thank you for your contribution!

  5. cathy belleville

    What you’re observing may be due to differences in the way liability falls: in the rest of the world, if you stupidly impale yourself on someone’s fencepost, it’s your own fault. Here, you can sue the owner of the fence post. This probably doesn’t explain all of what’s going on, but it might be a contributing factor. 😦

  6. Pam Barker

    Hi Frank,
    This report is disturbing. It’s an interesting topic to think about, though. I came up with a few possible reasons that private property is so overly protected in California: it may be the result of the “liability” phobia that seems to be happening everywhere lately. Or, is it because California has lots of cattle, thus the need for fencing? Another might be a problem with folks wanting to use private land for hunting, like much of the signage warns against, or because the fear of fire/arsony is so prevalent in California? Is it a way to control littering, keep out homeless camps, dog walkers, equestrians, fishermen, kite flyers, ATV riders, and prevent water diversions??? It might be as simple as people having the all too common attitude of, “It’s mine, I bought it and I don’t want anyone using it!”
    The central coast and California in general is a unique and beautiful place. It’s a shame that so many scenic places are inaccessible. Personally, I think artists should be exempt from any and all “no trespassing” signs. As you said, Frank, art and artists should be revered! After all, the artist’s contribution to society of documenting the beautiful scenery we all enjoy, is an important one. Especially now that so much of it is off limits. =(
    I wonder how that homeowner’s case might stand up in court, concerning someone painting his house without permission… Better paint all the houses, ranches, barns and private property scenes you can while the gettin’s good!

    1. frankeber Post author

      I think you have some good points and I thought of them also. The liability is by far the biggest and most threatening to land owners. It is a sad state of affairs that you can actually sue somebody if you break your leg on their property. I am very happy this post created a stir! thanks for contributing.

  7. aHorseForElinor

    Yes to all of this! After 16 years in California I STILL haven’t gotten used to how ALL the land, all of it – unless it is a state park, or open public little area, is shut off to everyone else.
    Driving along beautiful country roadside, the strip of asphalt is lined with, you named it, barbed wire. Forget pulling off to take a quick peek at a creek or a meadow, no one can get through.
    As for trying to ride horses anywhere but outside the property they reside on, it is quite complicated. You have to trailer out, or ride down the road risking being roadkill since no one really drives 45 or 55 on those roads as posted.
    I’ve tried going down little enticing gravel roads, but they all lead to private property, and of course they are flanked by barbed wire, so none of the land on the side of the road is accesible.
    I’d imagine as an artist, it must feel much the same… My take on it is that it would be rewarding to have many contacts with each and every one of the local winemakers, no? They usually own many acres, Plymoth area for example have tons of them all spread out, and would (hopefully) welcome someone carefully traipsing their land. Or one would hope. (Horses, forget it!)

    1. frankeber Post author

      I think our Euro background makes it even harder to get used to this. I came here 20 years ago and, like you, I just don’t get it! The main issue people are afraid of are the legal ramifications. Someone breaks their leg on your land and he/she somehow has the right to sue you for their own mishap. So the real problem might be the American legal system. The question to me is: why is this possible???
      Thank you for contributing. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to find public horse trails…
      Yes, here in the Paso Robles area most vineyard owners welcome painters, but we actually have to sign disclaimers for some of the ranches in order to paint on their land. I love the US but this sort of thing makes me want to move back to Europe!

  8. Jody

    Since I’m a California native, this is a very eye opening topic. All the ideas have merit and the legal system in the US seems to be very high on the list of reasons for this exclusion of the artist/public. Recently there was discussion on FB about some towns in Florida that have laws against plein air painters on their streets. Really? I remember, Frank, setting up with your workshop in San Pedro and you beIng very careful to make sure that none of us blocked paths or sidewalks. So you are very aware of the artist’s image in public and passed that along to your students. Last week here in Humboldt a group of us were painting at a dairy, mostly on the road, but really on their property. The owner came by to see our work and was very happy we were there. We are lucky here because there isn’t so much money and these ranches have been in families for generations. Thanks for you very thoughtful blog posts. Jody

    1. frankeber Post author

      Jody thanks for pitching in! Yes, there are so many crazy stories that plein air painters have! One friend of mine was approached with a shotgun while painting (and he was on ‘his side’ of the fence) I haven’t heard the news about some florida towns! That’s a new one. I am imagining signs on the road with a silhouetted painting figure crossed out in red.
      As I said in my post: we are not a real society if we don’t have art and artists who paint about the times we live in!

  9. David J. Teter

    Hi Frank,
    Yeah it really is about legalities and liability which is sad. I’m sure there are some owners who would not mind but they are so afraid of getting sued, losing all they have worked for, they feel they have no choice but to just keep everyone out. It breeds its own kind of paranoia. Frivolous lawsuits, lawyers and even insurance companies help contribute to it all.
    Reminds me of a joke I heard years ago.
    Why is it that New Jersey get all the toxic waste dumps and California get all the lawyers?

    New Jersey got first choice! ; )

    1. frankeber Post author

      LOL David! Love the joke! Ha! You are the man…thanks for contributing! That seems to be the common theme here in the USA. Lawsuits. I really think legislation needs to change accordingly so that such lawsuits are no longer possible. But then, big money always wins here I just don’t see that happening anytime soon..
      Sorry I had to run off the other day without finishing our conversation! Had a workshop to teach in Morro Bay the next day and needed to get back on the road. I would guess we haven’t sold all our paintings yet at the Muck, eh?

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