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Happy birthday Edna! 

Now, who the hell are you?

According to Celtic tradition the name Edna signifies fire in Hebrew, rejuvenation, pleasure, and delight and in English the name translates to rich in friendship. For Pattea Torrence, who has devoted the last decade to resurrecting the town of Edna Valley, her two-acre lot encompasses all of those meanings, and more. For her, the past 10 years have unfolded like a storybook, passing as quickly as a dream and introducing characters far too fanciful for fiction. The rise and arc of her tale are rooted in the themes expressed by the name Edna: trial by fire, rejuvenation, and meaningful friendships.

But in Edna Valley speculation abounds regarding the identity of the woman who lent her name to the diminutive agricultural community. Torrence has historical papers and deeds tied to the two-acre lot littered with eight structures in various states of repair. But none of the documents suggest an identity, or recall a face, for the mysterious woman. So, in celebration of the town site’s 100th birthday, Torrence invited three local painters to create portraits depicting their vision of the enigmatic woman. All she could offer the three painters in the way of jumpstarting their imaginations was a trio of rumors.

“How could something be named Edna, yet no face appears,” demanded Torrence. “The three versions that I have been told are the following: a nun who came to the historic town site to try and save sinners who would drink at one of the two former saloons on site, a prostitute who serviced men who would jump off at the Edna depot to gather supplies at the general mercantile, and, last but not least, a young girl who was born to Mr. Maxwell, one of a few residents who subdivided Spanish land grant properties in the late 1800s.”

click to enlarge MAYOR TORRENCE :  Pattea Torrence watches over he town site by night. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • MAYOR TORRENCE : Pattea Torrence watches over he town site by night.

From these small nuggets, lodged somewhere between possibility and fact, painters Tracy Taylor, Shane Yates, and Gene Francis stepped forward to champion the faceless woman. But to truly understand the significance of their mission, you’d have to travel more than a century back in time.

In 1906 the tin building, which is now home to a deli, antique store, and art studio, was first assembled. A mere two weeks later the structure was consumed by a fire, an incident Taylor—whose studio is situated in the upper level of the tin edifice—attributes to a drunken brawl. It was resurrected in 1908, the same year the mellow country cottage that Torrence now operates as a bed and breakfast was constructed.

When Torrence began remodeling the site 10 years ago and against the advice of many, she began in the tin building.

“To truly open up the history box it took a lot of trips to the dump,” she confided, from a tranquil balcony overlooking her property. “My hands are rough and old now.”

Back then there were a few die-hard Ednaites lingering at the property’s periphery, among junk cars and a palpable vibe. Torrence, with her soft-spoken demeanor and hands that always seem to be equipped with a screwdriver and hammer, is an unlikely pioneer, cultivating a space where residents once tied drunks to a nearby pepper tree so they wouldn’t crash their trucks into the creek. But the Shell Beach resident has always blazed her own path, forgoing college in favor of life experience. She points out that her current occupation is one of the few that allows her to pursue and meld her interests—interior design, restoration, and architecture.

While she was growing up in Arroyo Grande and Nipomo, Torrence’s family often visited Edna Valley, and she can recall many a moonlit party in what is now Taylor’s studio, where wine flowed freely and the guest of honor was a hashish-smoking artist from Amsterdam. These colorful remembrances were what prompted her to purchase the town site in 1998, more than six decades after the zenith of the community’s glory.

 “It was as though we were in a play and the performance needed to continue,” she reflects.

To a certain degree, establishing a role for each of the structures on the property was simply a matter of trial and error. Torrence converted the former woodworker’s shop into her office and studio. Originally, a blue structure called The Blue Belly Barn—so named for the blue belly lizards that now inhabit it—functioned as a dairy. And according to an old-time woodworker, one of the domiciles clearly functioned as an illicit workspace for local prostitutes the building’s lay-out, from the single door, small wood burning stove, wood floor and lack of windows bear the imprint of a profession older even than Edna. Three years ago Torrence opened the Edna Valley Bed and Breakfast in the cottage that had previously served as an antique store, shuffling the antiques to the tin structure. The shop, now called Zoey’s at Old Edna, borders the Old Edna Deli, owned jointly by Torrence and Kim Frederick with food created by Frederick. The upstairs gallery and studio, called In The Tin, is indisputably Taylor’s domain. A tree house that would put the Swiss Family Robinson to shame rounds out the structures.

click to enlarge SHANE YATES: - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • SHANE YATES:

Not all of the dwellings have a specific purpose, and together the eccentric assembly of cottages, farms, shacks, wagons (a replica of a gypsy wagon that once rolled through Edna), and tree houses resemble nothing so much as a whimsical army called to attention and awaiting orders. But Torrence is patient. She has witnessed the arrival and departure of countless businesses, and finally believes that they have struck upon the perfect composite.

But she is by no means finished with her work Torrence continues steadily moving backwards, away from Old Price Canyon Road, toward the railroad tracks that border her property. From her balcony retreat she looks wistfully left, to the land adjacent to her own, where Sextant Winery has plans to construct a wine tasting facility. Because the town site is located on a state highway, Torrence has fought her share of battles, negotiating with everyone from CalTrans to the neighbors to realize her vision. And now, with development imminent, she is torn between wanting her community to grow into a vibrant commercial affair and preserving the privacy of her beloved retreat.

 “I don’t know how to exist in any other world,” she said happily, suggesting that the resurrection of the town site will progress indefinitely, just as any evolution does. In the meantime, celebrating the existence of her matriarchal community, and the structures that have weathered 100 years of trials and change, seems like an obvious decision.

The party commences on Nov. 29 with featured storytellers, a gypsy fortune-teller, food, and wine. But the true highlight will be the unveiling of the three mystery paintings—also on display at three different locations in downtown SLO in the week preceding the auction. To solve the mystery of what faces will materialize from the canvas—nun, prostitute, girl, or something altogether different—you must first familiarize yourself with the artists who will be conjuring them.

 Tracy Taylor has lived in Edna Valley for a cumulative decade, working within the spacious studio full of white walls, light, and oddities, for the past two years. Painting has been her sole profession since she was a teenager and at the age of 26 someone asked her to paint fish henceforth the snorkeler became known as the patron artist of fish (parrot fish are her specialty).

click to enlarge TRACY TAYLOR : - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • TRACY TAYLOR :

“People say that I’m whimsical,” acknowledged Taylor. “I say silly. If it’s not fun I don’t really want to do it. I used to want to be a serious artist but it didn’t really sit well with me. I wake up happy.”

Recently, Taylor found herself painting Madonnas, a departure that took many of her admirers by surprise during a recent exhibit at the Steynberg Gallery. Her motivation for painting the icon is not bound to religious fervor as much as Taylor’s view of the figure as “a chick that works too hard.” In her gallery, the faces of several Madonnas are an unexpected addition to an already unorthodox assortment of fish and still-life typewriters—her father wanted her to be a secretary and her amusement at this fact spilled into a tendency to paint the machine.

Of the artistic trio, Taylor is the most secretive about her portrayal of Edna.

“The girls downstairs think she’s either a goat or donkey and they’ve been trying to convince me to paint a donkey,” laughed Taylor.

But she refuses to reveal even a single feature from her piece, saying instead that Edna wasn’t always old, a not altogether surprising clue from the painter who exudes youth.

Gene Francis paints from the same hole-in-the-wall Garden Street studio that he has been working from for the last 10 years. For the most part, his paintings are tinged with a ö‰s era nostalgia, his most frequent subjects including vintage cars crowded in downtown streets, models in bathing caps, diners, and train depots littered with sailors, luggage, and hat boxes. When Torrence—who owns one of Francis’ paintings—selected him as one of the artists, she knew he would bring a sense of history to the project.

Despite the sense of nostalgia inherent in many of his pieces, Francis is eminently practical.

“I do like history,” he acknowledged. “But I learned long ago that when you start delving into history you’ve got to be ready for its ugly side. I like our perception of what we think the past is. But our perceptions of the past are fantasy at best.”

That said, Francis’ portrait is as much an expression of an era as an individual. He placed his Edna, barefoot and wearing a hat, in Depression-era Edna Valley, standing in front of Torrence’s tin building and holding a bouquet of wildflowers.

Like Taylor, Francis is a full-time artist, but by accident. He got his start by creating some paintings for a woman he fancied. Someone saw and appreciated his work so he continued painting. Today, his gallery is filled with memorabilia—candy dispensers, bomber jackets, a suitcase covered in travel-themed stickers. Time passes quickly, he insists, and he commands the gift of gab. But rather than feeling dejected by each day’s swift passage, he uses his skill to freeze time, if only in a painting.

“When you’re looking at a photograph from long ago and you see the little girls and boys, you know they’re no longer alive,” he said. “They lived their life. They had their moment in the sun and now it’s ours.”

click to enlarge GENE FRANCIS : - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • GENE FRANCIS :

 Between Taylor, Francis, and Yates, the latter’s subject matter is undeniably the darkest. During his most recent exhibit at the Steynberg Gallery, in September 2007, the majority of his work consisted of what Yates calls psychological portraiture. His interest, he insists, is not simply painting a pretty, smiling face, but creating an image with depth.

“I was told when I went to art school that you don’t have to necessarily capture the physical likeness in a portrait,” he said. “I’ve got to capture the likeness, a mood, a personality, and their essence. Otherwise it doesn’t work.”

Yates frequently incorporates events and figures steeped in historical significance and association—the Black Dahlia and even the occasional can of Spam—into his work. But unlike Warhol, whose depictions of canned food are bold and confrontational, Yates’ are somehow thoughtful, murky, and deliberate.

So how does an artist who paints murky cans of Spam and 60-year-old crime scenes envision the mysterious Edna? Yates is approaching the piece as a story that deserves to be told, painting a black and white photograph. His intent was not to merely capture the features, bone structure, and coloring that collectively form a person’s appearance, but to convey the impression of life, not a simple task altogether when the past is often shrouded by a veil of death and decay.

The Edna that Yates conjured in his garage studio is a blurred reflection in a turn of the century dress, as much place and time as person.

Torrence may never know how close her painters came to capturing Edna’s physical likeness, but the mere opportunity to celebrate her life and the vibrant beauty of the community that now bears her name is satisfaction enough. The party itself marks the conclusion of a long and toilsome 10-year period, a closing chapter—though certainly not an ending—to Torrence’s Edna Valley fairytale.

“Never settle for a simple life,” she concluded softly.

 

INFOBOX: Put on your party hat

The Old Edna Town site is hosting a 100-year birthday celebration on Nov. 29. Festivities will include storytelling, gypsy fortune-telling, food, wine and an unveiling and auction of three portraits of Edna by local artists. The event takes place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with storytelling between 3 and 5 p.m. The silent auction of the paintings, which began Nov. 15, concludes on Nov. 29 at 5 p.m. The three mystery paintings will be on display at the Steynberg Gallery (1531 Monterey Street), Monterey Street Wine Company (1255 Monterey Street), and Founders Community Bank (237 Higuera Street) through Nov. 28. The town site is located at 1655 Old Price Canyon Road.


Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach will tell you who Edna is. For more information send $10 checks to aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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