An Artist’s Journey through the 20th Century

Channing Peake (1910-1989) cut a unique path through the art world for six decades, reflecting in deeply personal terms many of the great upheavals of his time—upheavals that transformed art in the 20th century. Restless, inquiring, and devoted to experimentation, Peake heeded a powerful inner compass during his long journey. That compass led him to artistic heights, but it also brought him into conflict with family and friends. Through it all, applauded or disparaged, he continued exploring new territory, faithful to a deep inner calling.

While Peake achieved a good measure of recognition in his lifetime, he, like many other artists, fell out of critical view (and favor) in the latter part of his life—and into obscurity after his death. As the world changed around him, Channing Peake became yesterday’s news. The irony is that his work has never lost any of its artistic force. If anything, it seems even more powerful in today’s frenzied and fractured art scene. The art of Channing Peake has what all substantial art has—boldness of conception, seriousness of purpose, and the depth that comes from inspired, courageous, and honest effort.

Channing Peake’s Life in Art

“I don’t see any difference between so-called abstract and figurative work.
The problems are…the same in both—drawing, color, composition, and feeling.”
— Channing Peake

As an artist, Channing Peake stands out for the breadth of his interests. He inquired into both outer and inner phenomena—the properties of material objects and the psychological processes of perception and expression. Over the years, Peake was drawn to explore the territory between objective and non-objective painting, combining a love of the physical world with an interest in underlying or archetypal structures, including what might be called “energy fields.” Although fascinated by physical forms, he was ready to deconstruct them in his search for a greater reality.

Peake’s imagery flowed from diverse sources: the indigenous peoples of the Ameri-cas, Pre-Columbian art, ranch life, nature, the human figure, the world of jazz, and color and light phenomena, to name the obvious ones. He drew profusely, worked in oil, watercolor, and gouache, painted murals, and created bronze-cast sculptures.

For its diversity, Peake’s work evidences a deep integrity and organic unity. In all periods and media, his images engage enduring themes: the natural world and our place in it, the beauty and dignity of work, the power of creativity, the magic of light and color, and the endless wonder of life in all its forms. At all times he gave himself broad creative latitude, inclining always toward new modes of expression and ever-wider perspectives on art. He put it this way: “I’ve always felt that I never want to be trapped in one area of painting. I’d rather have choices, be able to do something tomorrow that I’ve never done before.”

Channing Peake’s artistic journey included stops at a number of locations in the United States, Mexico, and Europe. As a young man, he ventured into the indigenous cultures of the American Southwest and Mexico, carefully recording them with an almost ethnographic eye. Excited by the mural movement in Mexico, he worked briefly with Diego Rivera in Mexico City. Later he participated in other mural pro-jects with Lewis Rubenstein, Rico Lebrun, and Howard Warshaw. While studying at the Art Students League in New York in the mid-1930s, he experienced some of the currents of Modernism. Later he worked in San Francisco, Paris, Los Angeles, and Morelia in Mexico. Along the way, Peake enjoyed friendships with Rico Lebrun, Frank Perls, Pablo Picasso, Rufino Tamayo, Mel Ferrer, Gregory Peck, and Audrey Hepburn.

Over his long career, Channing Peake received numerous museum and gallery shows in the U.S. and Europe. Collectively, these exhibits chronicled the evolution of an original artistic vision—one that gave him a significant place in his generation. His achievements were noted by many critics:

  • “All this reviewer knows about Channing Peake is that he lives in Santa Barbara, has studied with Rico Lebrun, and is doing painting which for sheer force of design and color has no parallel on the Coast, perhaps in the country.” —Arthur Miller, Los Angeles Times, April 1948
  • “The oils are constructed by means of simplified areas of flat, pure, and often intense color. Forms move in a rotating rhythm that gathers cumulative weight as the eye travels downward through unrefined reds, blues, and brilliant yellows.” —Jules Langsner, Art News, Oct., 1950
  • “Shimmering distillations of light, color, and atmosphere constitute the exuberant work of Channing Peake at the Felix Landau Gallery. During his absence in Paris for over three years, the veteran California painter…has found a language all his own and a manner which best expresses his zest for life and his mature achievement as a superior colorist.” —Henry Seldis, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 1962
  • “The paintings of Channing Peake have brought to New York the color, light, atmosphere of the American Southwest. This American artist has a way of his own with brush and colors as he creates devices of an expressive character to communicate thought and feeling about environment. He creates a variety of textures which are often captivating. Episodic linear devices approach an elementary script.” —Dorothy Adlow, Christian Science Monitor, July 1963

A Journey in Two Worlds

For all his artistic passion, Channing Peake had other loves, including the rolling ranchland of the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County. It was there that he presided over the fabled Rancho Jabali—a place known for quarter horses, roping contests, and frequent visits by Hollywood celebrities. Together with his wife, Katy Peake, he ran the 1,600-acre Jabali as a working ranch. It was also his sanctuary, a place where he found inspiration and drew sustenance from the land.

In a catalogue for an exhibit at the Frank Perls Gallery in Los Angeles in 1953, Peake made the following observation about what he viewed as the complementary relationship between ranching and painting: “There has always been, for me, in handling the material of my immediate surroundings, the twofold aspects of observer and participant. Concern for the well-being of this land, the animals, the crops, and all of the implements of husbandry have become integrated into my painting, thought, and feeling. There is not a definite line of separation; the continuing processes of painting and ranching overlap and intermingle.”

Bridging the worlds of art and ranching, Channing Peake played a vital role in Santa Barbara County for several decades. He helped establish the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and he was also a founding member of the Pacific Coast Quarter Horse Asso-ciation. Even today, his influence can be felt in the cultural life of Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley.