In terms of landscape juju, the iconic California canyon home occupies a wavelength all its own. Its mystique is tied to the idea of backyard as wildlife theater, and to the feeling you get there — a gravity-defying feeling that is, somehow, also very down-to-earth. Here is where shrubby terra firma meets infinite sky meets coyote stories told over dinner.
The studio of artist Natalie Bessell is perched on one of these San Diego brinks. This canyon lifts and interrupts a garden that’s rambunctious with tropics-loving plants, desert-loving plants and species in between. Succulents in half-buried pots, paddle-shaped opuntias, intoxicating plumeria flowers, staghorn clusters, and lustrous philodendron cascade down from the midcentury-modern house — built in 1968 and extended in ’74 — that Natalie shares with her boyfriend John Fraher, friends Renee Moreno and Amanda Morrow, and pooches named Maude and Hutch. Renee and Amanda own the Pannikin coffee shop in La Jolla where Natalie and John work, and where Natalie and John first met. The chickens in the backyard also have a view to squawk about. (Yeah, there are hawk stories too.)
“Completely and utterly encompassed” is the sense Natalie gets when she’s out here in the yard. She says, “I feel such a connection to the natural world with just that little bit of ‘nature’ we have tucked away on a canyon in Southern California, not too far from the beach. It is getting harder and harder to escape the concrete, plastic environment, and here, I feel far away from it. I become fully aware of my surroundings and notice beautiful, delicate life at play — birds, bees, lizards, and snakes.”
You can see how these surroundings might inform Natalie’s paintings and illustrations. Check it out on her website, and on her Instagram feed: Her art could be described as “mystic realism” — familiar animals and objects brought together in improbable, sometimes ecstatic, often death-inspired ways, like a painting of a haloed, beatific fox, a monkey crowned with plantains and calla lilies, and a portrait of naturalist John Muir with antlers and his shoulders outlined with a mountain range.
Recently Natalie has been working with vintage prints (“I find them at the swap meet, thrift stores, or old bookstores [like] DG Wills”), adding floral Día de los Muertos masks to faces and sometimes UFOs to the background “because I think they are a light-hearted symbol of something profound, questions we have always had: ‘What are we doing here? Who are we? Why are we? What don’t we know?’ Et cetera,” says Natalie, who attended New York’s School of Visual Arts for a year, leaving after she felt the curriculum was taking a toll on her passion.
“Aside from the mask series,” she adds, “I have been developing a type of drawing/painting that maps out the human face. You can see this in the John Muir, Kurt Cobain, Dr. Seuss and the Elvis. This style developed naturally from painting face after face (I am also a portrait artist). I have had to stare at and focus on such minute details in the human face that it has left me with what I consider a mathematical algorithm. Essentially, I have created my own paint-by-numbers. There are so many things happening in the face! The shadows fall in ways that create patterns that I have trained my eye to see, and then I illustrate exactly what I see.”
Natalie’s art studio (approximate dimensions: 10 by 14 by 9 feet) was built by her father, famed surfboard shaper Tim Bessell, and John out of pallets, plywood, corrugated metal and plastic, and reclaimed supplies. The flooring is constructed from an abandoned wood fence Natalie and John found on a bike path. A floor-to-ceiling window/wall is patched with the legs of tables and chairs. Just outside the studio and under flowers of a ponytail palm you’ll find a dirt surface with stripes regularly raked into it by John, inspired by the Japanese “wabi-sabi blend of organic and organized,” John says.
When Natalie isn’t in her studio, you might find her playing chess with John across from the showstopping 7-foot-tall variegated agave, or photographing the bee action inside a cactus flower, or nursing “alongside its mother, a baby hummingbird for two weeks until it was old enough to fly.” All while Dylan, The Doors or Buena Vista Social Club play from the speakers.
The home is owned and the landscape gorgeously designed by Dan Grunow, whose father owns Grunow Construction, a longstanding La Jolla company. It’s John who does the majority of the gardening; he grew up outside San Francisco and here in San Diego, always preferring the outdoors.
“I think gardening is fulfilling for so many reasons,” John says. “The balancing of such delicate needs of the plants and the physical struggle of the labor. It’s much like yoga and meditation, I think. It allows you to use all your stuff. Physical and mental and ebb and flow between focus and play.”