For nearly 40 years, the Topanga Canyon Gallery has been a home to emerging and established fine artists in all media. The gallery’s current location in Pine Tree Circle opened in 2000, providing an innovative cooperative exhibition space for artists to showcase their work.

The gallery’s monthly shows, popular annual studio tour and constantly rotating and dynamic showcase of local artists are part of the creative heart of the canyon. 

Until the coronavirus emergency shut it down, the gallery was a popular destination for art enthusiasts and collectors from all over the Southland, as well as an important community resource.

Now, Topanga Canyon Gallery needs the community’s help to survive. 

“If we are going to stay we have to figure out how,” glass artist and gallery spokesperson Sari Scheer told the Topanga New Times.  

Scheer explained that the coronavirus crisis has devastated the gallery, which is dependent on art openings, foot traffic and the studio tour to stay afloat. The extensive emergency closure delivered a crushing blow.

The gallery is looking for ways to survive, including a GoFundMe campaign. Instead of the much-loved annual studio tour, TCG is planning a digital tour, and the annual auction that has traditionally accompanied the tour has moved online and is now a critically important fundraiser featuring works by many of the artists who would have traditionally opened their studios for the tour.

The auction features 50 small works in a wide variety of mediums. Sculptor Susan Nissman and tile artist Matt Doolin have both contributed ceramic wall hangings, while artist and illustrator Calamity Cole has entered a detailed drawing of wild children and fox spirits.

“We are moving quickly online,” Schaar said. “We are planning electronic shows and exhibition walk-throughs. The world is trending that way and we are going to be a part of it.”

Schaar said the tentative plan is to offer a different studio tour in the fall, depending on the coronavirus situation. The gallery is also discussing ways to reopen by appointment first, and then with limited walk-in traffic that meets the county’s strict requirements to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“This is truly a new world for us,” Schaar said. “But we are determined to remain in the canyon and to be here for our artists and the community.”

Kit Plumridge is one of the gallery’s artists. For the last 18 months he has been preparing for a major exhibition that was scheduled for August before the coronavirus shutdown occurred.

The exhibit would feature his evolving series of steampunk sculptures featuring a cast of characters inspired by the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, each built around a musical instrument, with elaborate leather masks for faces.

Plumridge, who has transitioned from painting to sculpture, crafts every element—wood, metal, leather—by hand.

Each sculpture takes many weeks to complete. “I make them slowly and organically,” Plumridge said. 

His two pieces for the auction are a miniature preview of the project: a pair of detailed and evocative masks—one modeled on the bird masks worn by plague doctors in the 17th century, the other a wizard’s mask with an owl’s face. 

The project, begun more than a year ago has, become increasingly relevant, moving from surrealism to a disconcerting reflection of current events.

Susan Dukow, a relatively new TCG artist, is the chair of the auction this year.

“The auction has always been attached to the studio tour,” Dukow told the Topanga New Times. Each participant in the tour could submit two 8 x 8 pieces that would be on display in the gallery for the month leading up to the tour. 

“Last year was my first year participating in the art walk,” Dukow said. “The gallery has been an opportunity for me to return to art after 50 years in the film industry. I suggested that we could put the auction online and I wrote a proposal. It was fortuitous. We were moving forward with that when the pandemic hit and the gallery had to close its doors.”

Dukow spoke of the challenges of putting together the virtual art show under the shadow of the pandemic, the economic fallout, and the protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

“It’s really hard to power through everything,” she said. “But art can be a way through anxiety, fear and frustration.”

The two paintings Dukow created for the auction are experimental works that pigment made from beet juice. She is also creating a different body of work for the same August gallery show that was scheduled to feature Plumridge’s sculptures. The two artists are sharing a 19th century steampunk theme for their work in this show. 

“Before I joined the gallery I was painting in a bubble,” Plumridge said. “Working with other artists opened things up. Artists need to feed off each other. It’s been a fabulous experience. One I’m truly grateful for.  I know the gallery can survive because of the people in it. We have wonderful leadership.”

Dukow shares Plumridge’s outlook.“Being part of the gallery is an inspiration for me,” she said. “Working on this show with Kit inspired me to move my work in a different direction. Keeping the gallery open is going to be a challenge, but I want to see how the story ends,” she said.

A sampling of the 8 x 8 pieces on auction at the Topanga Canyon Gallery during the Magical Artists Tour.
Layout by Bonnie Morgan

The art auction runs June 6-20. Participants can bid or buy any piece they desire for a fixed price. To participate, view the artwork, and learn more about the gallery, visit www.topangacanyongallery.com. You will find a link to the Gallery’s GoFundMe campaign on their homepage.

Look for video interviews with gallery artists online at www.topanganewtimes.com/tntv