Local artist Sandra Charlebois and her bears give color to the mountain arts scene

Apr 26, 2023 | Arts & Culture

Sandy and her latest bears

By Julianne Homokay – Special to The Alpine Mountaineer

Photos by Julianne Homokay

As Mike Harris mentioned in his article in this edition, “Spring means bears are hungry, active.” Spring has finally arrived, and California’s black bears are awake, out-and-about, and looking to cause all sorts of mischief regarding mountain residents’ trash cans. No other local artist chronicles our bears’ whimsies and expressions quite the way Sandra Charlebois does, in her series known as “Sandy’s Bears.”

How did she become fascinated with her bears? Painting wildlife is a natural extension of where she’s always been oriented as an artist. “I was always interested in art.” And “drawing was the only thing I was good at” as a kid, she laughs. Since before she can remember, nature has been the main influence on her drive to paint.

“Plein air painting is about leaving the four walls of your studio behind and experiencing painting and drawing in the landscape,” quotes artistsnetwork.com. This is the school of thought southern California native Charlebois has settled on, having been most influenced by the French Impressionists, and even impressionist painters who live and work in California.

After beginning her work life as a teacher, then taking time away to raise her children, once the kids were grown “I needed to get back to my painting.” Given the demands of teaching and being a mother, she felt she needed to set her art aside for several years.

When she got back to it, she began taking classes again to restore her chops, including a detour through a Bob Ross class she describes gleefully as “a mess!” Shortly after that, she discovered inspiration in plein air painting and the Impressionists, and found her artistic home once more.

Charlebois and her husband, who runs a successful historic restoration business, have owned a house in Lake Arrowhead for 30 years. Originally the house was a second home. Charlebois and her husband have deep ties to the mountain: her grandfather worked for the trolley service that brought visitors up from San Bernardino back in the day. She says, “I spent all my summers up here.” Her husband spent summers in Blue Jay growing up. So, the couple moved into their second home full-time in 2009-2010 after Charlebois retired from teaching.

Where it all happens

Where it all happens

Charlebois’ studio in this home is naturally lit and has a vast view of the Pinnacles. After she began painting there full-time, she noticed that bears were showing up on the deck right outside her studio. The bears would visit a nearby pond and raid the adjacent grove of apple trees. “Sometimes the bears would get drunk [on the apples] and start rolling around… it was fascinating!” Shortly thereafter, the bears took over her artistic focus.

“Holiday Wonder,” Charlebois’ first bear

“Holiday Wonder,” Charlebois’ first bear

In terms of her goals for her art: “I’ve done so many bears, I’d like to put together a children’s book. I started watching people, they would make up stories” about her bears.  “I got such a kick out of it.” In fact, the painting she’s been working on since January features a mama bear and her three cubs in front of a vast, serene lake-and-mountain landscape.

Lily, Charlebois’ first labradoodle who accompanied her on plein air painting sessions

Lily, Charlebois’ first labradoodle who accompanied her on plein air painting sessions

Charlebois works almost entirely in oils. “I like the mushiness. I like the colors you get. I guess I’ve always been a mushy painter.” She also thinks in terms of the process as opposed to the product, especially in terms of her artistic career. “I just like doing it. It’s constant learning. Nothing ever stays the same.”

Charlebois’ art is on display at the Mountain Arts Gallery, 28200 CA-189, Lake Arrowhead, CA 92352; (909)-744-8450.  Find Charlebois on mountainartsnetwork.org or at sandra-charlebois.pixels.com.


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