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  • James Stewart

West Coast (Cannery Row to Yosemite)

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

Piers Ottey: Artist, Artisan, Polymath, Conjuror, Humorist & Man of Integrity.

‘San Francisco, Lockdown’, oil on canvas, 153 x 153 cm

Piers Ottey’s new body of paintings reflect and represent a recent trip to California, travelling ‘on the road’ from Cannery Row to Yosemite, taking in San Francisco on the way.

The exhibition will run from 3 to 24 October in our gallery in Arundel with an online viewing room on from 28 August to 24 October. Many of the paintings are set out below, after the background text here:

It was a ‘stop over’ on the way back from New Zealand to the UK in which Piers Ottey followed in the footsteps of such West Coast painters as Wayne Thiebaud, Richard Diebenkorn, Ed Ruscha and other Bay Area artists. Ottey wanted to explore the area that produced a lot of the work that he likes by artists that he respects. So he visited places like SFMOMA as well as Crown Print Press, where a lot of the influential West Coast artists & others produced editions.

Artists are drawn to the West Coast, in a similar way that they are to Cornwall, because of the light, amazing colours and culture (“happiness” as Piers Ottey calls it).

In the case of Yosemite and Sierra Nevada, Ottey wanted to follow in the footsteps of Ansell Adams.

“When photographer Ansel Adams looked through his camera lens, he saw more than Yosemite's rocks, trees, and rivers. He saw art. Hues of wildness surfaced in this great American photographer's stunning black-and-white prints. And for most of his life, Yosemite National Park was Adams' chief source of inspiration.“ [from the Yosemite National Park Service Website]

Any trip to the West Coast for Piers would not be complete without a visit to Monterey, Cannery Row and Pebble Beach.

Cannery Row is of course the novel written by John Steinbeck. Published in 1945, it is set in Monterey during the Great Depression on a street lined with sardine canneries. The actual location Steinbeck was writing about, Ocean View Avenue in Monterey, was later renamed "Cannery Row" in honor of the book.

The literary connection continues with Jack Kerouac and his iconic, Beat, road trip book ’On the Road’ in the background and on Pier’s mind during this journey.

Finally, Pebble Beach, the centre in the US for vintage vehicles represents Piers Ottey’s other passion. Piers restores vintage motorcycles and cars, often building them up from scrap. So a visit to Pebble Beach, on the way to Carmel, around the peninsula from Monterey was a must. The highlight each year in August is the Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance, which started as an ‘add-on’ to the Pebble Beach road races in 1950, but now has grown to become the ”worlds premier celebration of the automobile”.


Born in London, Piers Ottey trained at Chelsea School of Art in the 1970’s and has been painting professionally ever since. He moved to West Sussex in 1980 and set up the Mill Studio Art School in 1994.

Painting mostly in oils, his subject matter has often been influenced by his travels (often to the Alps and Europe) but he always returns to painting the human form, London and local Sussex landscapes. Although contemporary, there is a knowledge of tradition and the classical in his compositions, Piers Ottey cites Coldstream and Uglow as influences and sometimes uses the golden section as well as other geometry to hold a painting together.

A further influence is Patrick Symons, who brought a rigorous approach to his paintings. Like Symons, Ottey would make numerous preliminary drawings and continually corrected his compositions (changes which can often be seen in the finished work); and like Symons, Ottey’s work Can be read on many levels. They both pay close attention to geometry of paintings but also to the specific content.

Piers Ottey says “I find compositions simple, but the process of painting complex”; Deciding what to paint comes easily to him, the process is a longer and harder journey.

Recording places in a state of change or with interesting histories are a favourite theme for Piers Ottey: He has painted the Shard (See ‘Bermondsey & Southwark’ 2011) in London over twelve times, as it was being built from the ground up, once the construction was complete and so would no longer change, his interest waned. The same is true of his Battersea Power Station paintings; these are not nostalgic for a London past, nor are they sentimental, they are current, ‘London in flux’, and record the now.

Marc Steene, then director of Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, wrote in 2013 “Ottey deliberately charts and reveals the process and thinking that goes into each of his paintings, detailing each colour as it is painted in the margin to his work. He willingly reveals the symmetries and relationships he has discovered whilst he creates the architecture for his paintings; two crossing diagonals may mark the centre of the painting or lead the eye to a particular form or colour”.

The late Norbert Lynton, professor of History of Art and Chairman of the Charleston Trust, wrote of Piers Ottey in 1999 “His many conscious and instinctual choices, rooted in his experience of art itself as well as working with the visible world, give his pictorial statements some independence of it. At any one moment, his spirit, together with what drives him to be a painter at all, leads him to work on this and not that. We, coming to see the results, may speak of direction and influence, but the possibilities before him at any moment are well-nigh infinite and all the time he is deciding what not to do, never or just today, and what to focus on and begin to work with. And ‘working with’ includes a whole range of processes, from experimentation to Fine tuning at the end”.

Mary Rose Beaumont, author and art historian, wrote in 2008 “Artists with a sense of humour are agile, deft and defy categorisation, which is wonderfully refreshing when the work is as challenging as Piers Ottey’s. He revels in his power to puzzle the viewer, both visually in the paintings and verbally in some of his titles. He has a propensity to leave out important features in his landscapes whilst still titling them as if they were there, in other words the artist plays at being a conjuror”.


See below a selection of paintings from the exhibition, or click on one image to see a slide-show of all the images. Contact the gallery with any enquiries.

San Francisco, Lockdown’, oil on canvas, 153 x 153 cm

This painting is all about the square space around the crosswalk in the foreground rather than the TransAmerica building in the background (with the unfinished painting at the top!).

The relationship of the foreshortened square (on the crosswalk) to the edge of the painting is as important as the subject itself.

‘We Love San Francisco’,

oil on canvas 102 x 90 cm

Piers Ottey also calls this painting The Bay Bridge and Treasure Island.

Treasure island mystical sound, romantic even, but in fact its a military base in the middle of the bay - Piers Ottey liked that irony.

‘San Francisco, Two Horizons‘, oil on canvas 121 x 150 cm

This painting has two horizon lines, normally paintings have just one.

This view is from the top of a hill; the buildings point to a vanishing point in the bay, and the road creates a separate vanishing point halfway down the hill.

The end result is a painting that recreates the feeling of being on a roller coaster! This for Piers was the fascination with this subject, as well as the large open space in the foreground compared to the detail of the buildings lower down the hill.

’Downtown, One Way’, oil on canvas, 183 x 122 cm

Influenced by Wayne Thiebaud, and his flat cityscape paintings.

This shows one way traffic up the hill with the traffic lights going up the hill all with differing colours.

The composition has no base nor does it show the top of the buildings; this gives the viewer the impression of hovering over the scene.

For Piers Ottey this painting summarises San Francisco, he has indulged himself in the beauty and idealistic side of this city of contrasts. (In a future series Ottey may look at the underbelly of poverty there.)

‘The Majestic ‘Atlas’ of Columbus

(The Sentinel Building, San Francisco)’

oil on canvas, 90 x 142 cm

Piers Ottey perfectly captures not only the structure, but also the essence of this historic San Francisco landmark: The distinctive copper green Flat iron sturcture is an anachronism in the heart of the Financial District.

Built in 1907 The Sentinel Building has a glorious history: as office for Abe Ruef, a notable political figure; in 1950 it was home to Hungry I, a nightclub which was influential in stand-up comedy in the US, later in 1958 it was dilapidated a for a short period renamed ‘Columbus Tower’ as home to the Kingston Trio music group. Now, as The Sentinel Building once more, it is home to Francis Ford Coppola’s Co: American Zoetrope.

‘The House on the Hill’, oil on canvas, 177 x 103

This painting is very much about the interesting technical problem of how photographs distort reality: Inserting curves where there are straight lines.

Piers is attempting to make ther scene more real than the photo by adjusting the perspective.

All the diagonals taper, they are not parallel and this helps adjust for the photographic distortion. The result is gorgeous, indulgent, emotional, and a typical example of west coast, wood clad, architecture, surrounded by greenery on a hill.

‘Coit Tower’, oil on canvas, 90 x 102 cm

This 64m tower in Telegraph Hill is a local landmark that gives panoramic views over the city and across the bay.

It was built in Pioneer Park in 1933 using money bequeathed by Lillie Hitchcock Coit and dedicated to the volunteer firemen who had died in the five major city fires. Lilli Coit, a, eccentric wealthy socialite, loved to chase fires and help out in the days before an established city fire department.

‘Blue Hill’, oil on canvas, 77 x 102 cm

Another classic Wayne Thiebaud inspired view, the road appears flat on the canvas, no tapering as it goes up the hill.

You are on one hill looking down, yet the road goes up another hill in the distance.

The Steinbeck Painting, oil on canvas, 61 x 92 cm

This is the first of two paintings in homage to John Steinbeck. Cannery Row, his novel published in 1945, is set during the Great Depression in Monterey, California, on a street lined with sardine canneries that is known as Cannery Row.

The story revolves around the people living there: Lee Chong, the local grocer; Doc, a marine biologist; and Mack, the leader of a group of derelict people.

The actual location Steinbeck was writing about, Ocean View Avenue in Monterey, was later renamed "Cannery Row" in honour of the book.

‘Doc’s Lab’, oil on canvas 92 x 122 cm

Doc's Lab, as fictionalised in Cannery Row as 'Western Biological Laboratory', by John Steinbeck, in reality it was 'Pacific Biological Laboratories'. This laboratory was owned and operated by marine biologist and pioneering ecologist Edward Flanders Robb Ricketts (1897-1948), the best friend and collaborator of writer John Steinbeck.

Ricketts provided the model for the several “Doc” characters in Steinbeck’s fiction, including the 1945 novel Cannery Row. The Lab was where much of Ricketts' and Steinbeck’s literary and philosophical vision germinated and grew.

Yosemite Valley’, oil on canvas, 112 x 12 cm

This glacial valley 7.5 miles long and 3-3500 ft deep is surrounded by granite summits such as Half Dome and El Capitan with the Merced river running through it.

This painting shows ‘Tunnel View’ from State Route 41, the first view most visitors see as they enter the park.

‘Sierra Nevada’ oil on canvas, 182 x 153 cm

This mountain range sits between the Central Valley of California and the Great Basin and is part of the American Cordillera, an almost continuous chain of peaks that form the western backbone of the Americas.

Ansel Adams' Garden, oil on canvas, 92 x 102 cm

When photographer Ansel Adams looked through his camera lens, he saw more than Yosemite's rocks, trees, and rivers. He saw art: Hues of wildness surfaced in this great American photographer's stunning black-and-white prints. And for most of his life, Yosemite National Park was Adams' chief source of inspiration.

Here Piers Ottey paints his homage to Adams, not in black and white, but in varying hues of blue, grey and white.


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