Art on the Top of a Mountain in Big Sur

I am not sure when I first saw Erin Lee Gafill’s paintings. It was probably on one of my trips to Carmel, CA. I love barns, especially when they are ruins. But my view of barns changed when I saw Erin’s primary colored, elemental shaped, oil painted versions. I am no art critic but I know what I like and all Erin’s paintings are filled with light, shapes and color that look so easy I think to myself, I could do that. Of course I cannot.


I got to know Erin through her art and her writing. Every trip to Carmel includes a visit to my favorite store, the Carmel Bay Company one of the places her art is sold.  I got to know her better after reading her book, Drinking From the Cold Spring – A little book of hope.

Sitting in Erin’s cabin on a cold, cloudy December afternoon with Daisy the cat, on my lap, I gaze out the window at the scene she sees from her easel of the Santa Lucia cliffs, dropping into the ocean. I think about nature vs. nurture. I wonder if the beauty of Big Sur created the desire to paint and absorb and then share this beauty.

View form Nepenthe

Or it could be the fact that it is in her genes. Erin’s maternal great, great, grandparents were Frank Powers, one of the founders of Carmel and Jane Gallatin Powers a modernist painter who had the first art studio in Carmel. Her uncle Kaffe Fassett is a renowned artist who designs in color – be it sweaters, tapestries, and quilts, paintings or ceramics.

I look around the log cabin filled with art and I feel a sense of peace for the first time in three days, since the Sandy Hook shooting. Erin and her husband, photographer Tom Birmingham invited us to a fundraiser for The Surfriders Foundation. They are selling her paintings and his photos, with the proceeds going to the group that was trying to save a Santa Barbara beach from development.


We mingle with the other guests and choose two pieces of art. One is of bison that Tom photographed as they ran past him in a national park. The other is a small painting of a barn. Both are in our cottage in Carmel.


Tom serves us his very smooth, hot chocolate with home made marshmallows and tiny chocolate mousse “shooters”


Erin tells us the story of the cabin. The original was built in the 1920’s. In the late 1930’s Orson Welles and his wife Rita Hayworth were on a drive, spotted the land and bought it to build their love nest. That never happened because they divorced. When Bill and Lolly Fassett, Erin’s grandparents, saw the land they too fell in love with it and bought it in 1947. They moved into the cabin and built the restaurant, Nepenthe just below. Lolly created a piazza to remind her of her visits to Italy. They raised their five children in the cabin and worked in Nepenthe, which became renowned for its visiting movie stars, writers and artists.

Umbrellas at Nepenthe

Umbrellas at Nepenthe

Erin was also raised in the cabin and with Tom has raised their two children there. It has been expanded and modernized, but still has the solidity of age and feels like it was built into the rock.  Her family is as much a part of that mountain in Big Sur as some of the trees.


It is not an easy life, because the village of Big Sur is not close to anything. To get to it involves driving winding roads. Granted those winding roads pass through and along some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. If there is too much rain, the roads can be closed due to mudslides. If there is too little rain the hillsides can burn in raging fires.  I wonder to myself if Erin’s art would be so brilliant in a different place.

I am entranced by the story and the history. I have traveled the world and visited ancient sites in Israel, Turkey and Greece. I have been in old churches, synagogues and castles. I have visited the restored homes of kings and presidents. However I don’t think that I have sat in a home so filled with history, that is still lived in on a daily basis.

Although Big Sur is her muse, Erin travels to share her art by teaching.  She and Tom teach at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico and at The Esalen Institute in Big Sur. They do an art swing through the south where they teach children and give talks to artists. This winter Erin created an online art course that looks like so much fun I may take it one day.


Erin and Tom

I left that afternoon with the art to hang in our cottage. I also left with the view, the colors, the warmth and the feel of Daisy on my lap, in my mind. As I write this I return to that cabin and those feelings, especially on this snowy, thirty-degree day in Minnesota.

This may not seem like a travel article but it is, perhaps not of a place but of a person. So instead of telling you where to stay I will tell you how to see Erin’s art and let you get to know her and perhaps sign up for a class.

Text copyright 2013 Ann Lonstein. Art copyright Erin Lee Gafill

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5 Responses to Art on the Top of a Mountain in Big Sur

  1. Susan Conrad says:

    So timely Ann,

    I really enjoy your writing, often your words make me feel as though I’m where you are experiencing the same things. Maybe that’s the elementary part of writing but your pen makes it obvious to me. This one makes me long for color (that’s the timely part).

    thanks, Susan

  2. Erin Lee Gafill says:

    Thank you for this lovely story, which reminds me of that sweet visit we all had, and Tom’s good cooking! We are snuggled under blankets today trying to stay warm too! But your words bring me so warmth. Thank you for writing them, Erin

  3. miriam c. ross, ssnd says:

    Ann, I’ve heard you speak of Erin, and now you take me to see her. I loved the line, “Her family is as much a part of the Big Sur as the trees”. YOu plunged me into the earth and the beauty of the seascape with a foreverness. Now Erin and Tom belong to all who read this. Thank you for bringing all this Beauty to us through your simply beautiful heart and pen. I think I’m going to be seeing one of your paintings soon! Love, Miriam

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