Photo by Megan Hassler- Mustang Daily
Frear's rock paintings do not have their real names displayed in order to ensure the protection of the art. Photo by Megan Hassler- Mustang Daily

The life of an artist doesn’t normally become dangerous, but for one artist his work lead to threats.

Robert Frear’s collection of photographs of the rock paintings in the Los Padres National Forest broke friendships and were requested to be burned.

Frear is one artist featured in the “We Belong to the Earth” exhibit at the Art Center in San Luis Obispo. This exhibit was part of the Art After Dark on Friday, Nov. 6, where Frear and Linda Vallejo, another of the featured artists, participated in a presentation. While all of the artists’ work ties into the indigenous cultures of California, they are very different in their creation and subjects.

Local artist Frear spent three years working with the Los Padres National Forest and a group called Partners of Preservation on a government grant. Frear had access to many sites once home to the Chumash people that are not open to the public. He was in charge of taking pictures of the sites.

Frear also took photos of various rock paintings. The shots are featured in the exhibit.

The Chumash saw these rock paintings and carvings as personal expression. They believed that the creator was the only one who was ever supposed to look at the work. Frear’s pictures were called “blasphemous” and some asked him to burn them.

The hardest working Chumash, Native Americans originally from the Channel Islands and Santa Monica Mountains, worked three hours a day. This left them lots of free time to create the rock painitngs and carvings, baskets (which could hold water) and canoes lined with tar (which never sprang leaks). Frear says this creativity and the need to create art is part of human nature.

“Humans have always created art. There is something so basic and … human about it,” Frear said. When describing his work with the Los Padres National Forest he said, “It was like finding this long lost abandoned art gallery.”

The exhibit also features Linda Vallejo’s “A prayer for the Earth,” an installation of paintings, earth-based sculptures and a central mandala. Mandala translates to “circle” and this piece features a circle of pictures.

The outer images are of the pollution of the Earth, which surround the rest of the images of people engaged in acts of prayer. In the four corners around the mandala are four offerings with natural objects like stone, shell, rock, coral, feather, dirt, ash, obsidian, plant and tree materials. These represent the four elements: earth, fire, air and water.

Vallejo’s work is greatly influenced by her participation in a dance group called Las Flores de Aztlan Dance Troupe. She joined in the 70s and has performed and taught Mayan and Azteca dance at many festivals, ceremonies, universities and colleges.

She has been compiling the work for this installment since 1990. The latest piece is from 2006.

The third artist, Sheila Pinkel, is from Southern California and is a professor at Pomona College. Her Sherman Oaks Library mural from 2003 is featured in the exhibit. She worked for two years with Tongva Native Americans, who were in the Los Angeles area before the Spanish, to help “properly represent their culture.” Pinkel’s description of her work on her Web site explains the placement of all the elements and how the cycle of the moon and Tongva ritual of coaxing it out each month relates to the mural.

The San Luis Obispo Art Center is showcasing the exhibit from Oct. 9 through Nov. 20. When Gordon Fuglie, the Art Center’s adjunct curator, saw the “Prayer for the Earth” exhibit he thought it would go well with a few pieces he had seen previously. He began assembling the exhibit and contacted the artists. The planning began over six months ago.

“We Belong to the Earth” is called a tribute to California’s indigenous traditions. Frear said the Chumash had a way of life that was not invasive on the Earth, which left little trace and is “something we need to tap back into.”

While striving to help people feel connected to some of the original art of California, Frear did not necessarily know what he was getting into. Being told to burn your work isn’t the reaction artists want to hear.

The Art After Dark program is held the first Friday of every month from 6 to 9 p.m. It features local artists from about 20 local businesses and galleries and provides snacks at some establishments while people explore the exhibits.