Painting the Mission

A couple of weekends ago I got to be a 4th grader again. It was wonderful.

Fourth graders in California are required to learn about California history. And while what I learned was decidedly a history of Europeans in California, it is true that you cannot separate the state’s history from the 21 missions built by the Spanish in the 18th Century.

Mission San Antonio de Padua
Mission San Antonio de Padua sits in the Valley of the Oaks in southern Monterey County.

The California Art Club is painting the missions this year, the 300th anniversary of the birth of mission founder Father Junipero Serra. So I made the five-hour drive to Mission San Antonio de Padua, in southern Monterey County, for a weekend of painting with the Club. And I got to learn once again about the missions and California history. (Again from a more-or-less European perspective.)

California Art Club painters at Mission San Antonio
Rosario the Cat sits in the shade of a 180 year old olive tree and watches painters from the California Art Club.

Mission San Antonio is the third mission to be established, originally in 1771 and moved to its present location in 1773. At its peak, the mission housed about 1,300 Salinan Indians. They grew grapes and made wine for church ceremonies, grew olives and made olive oil, had a tannery to tan hides for export back to the East Coast (readers of Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, will recognize that part). The mission was abandoned late in the 19th Century, until the Franciscans returned in the 20th.

Today’s structures are only partly original. The church’s roof collapsed in the 1906 earthquake, and other earthquakes and termites took their toll—so, while some original structures remain (such as the walls of the church), much has been rebuilt and fitted with things like electricity and indoor plumbing.

What’s most amazing is that the land around Mission San Antonio has never been developed. Archaeologists have been working since the 1970s to locate and catalog the artifacts, so visitors today (many of them 4th graders) can see the foundations of the Salinan housing, the original wheat threshing floor, the grist mill and wine press (at least partially rebuilt) and tannery foundations. The remains of a millrace, built from Roman instructions in Latin, are still there.

This preservation happened because the mission now sits in the middle of an active Army base, Fort Hunter-Liggett. The weekend we were there, some 4,000 soldiers were on base for training. The irony is that, when the mission was founded, the friars did not want a military presence there.

And the painting? Well, it was definitely challenging. Many artists found painting the building’s archways in perspective during the short window of time one can work on a plein-air painting to be hard. And the adobe changed color every time I looked at it, from yellowish to orange-y to pink-y to dull reddish. (Not to say that all of these things can’t be fixed back in the studio!) So I can’t say I got any finished paintings—but I did learn a lot.

Mission San Antonio de Padua painting in progress, by Stephanie Benedict
A work in progress. This image shows how deceptive photos can be. I have another one that shows that wall in shadow much closer to the reddish color on the canvas.

One final note. Mission San Antonio is in need of a seismic retrofit, which entails drilling through the adobe and installing steel supports. The cost will be about $12 million to $15 million. This tiny, but still active, parish has to raise the money itself. Here’s a link where you can donate money to preserve this important piece of California history. I hope you will consider donating to preserve this piece of California’s heritage.

And if you ever visit Mission San Antonio—watch out for the rattlesnakes.

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One thought on “Painting the Mission

  1. Stephanie, this post brings back fond memories. When I was ten and in the fourth grade I entered my first art competition with a watercolor of Mission San Francisco de Assís better known as Mission Dolores in San Francisco. I guess fourth grade curriculum hasn’t changed much! I lived not far from the basilica and tried to capture the light and shadow on the Mission wall exteriors. Gosh, thanks for taking me back memory lane.

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