Higher Grounds Artist Takes Us Higher

Artist Robert Padilla stands in front of his piece "We Never Close" at Higher Grounds Coffee Shop Gallery.Artist Robert Padilla stands in front of his piece "We Never Close" at Higher Grounds Coffee Shop Gallery.

By Julie Pendray

IDYLLWILD, Calif. — At first, Rob Padilla’s paintings might seem a little overwhelming or nonsensical to the uninitiated. They are “busy,” full of color, sometimes with disjointed characters. Until the moment that you “get it.” Then, Padilla’s style is a language. When you understand it, your eyes open and the canvas invites you to a world of humor, social commentary, community, humanity and, as Padilla sees it, a higher consciousness.

That’s fun and exciting.

Padilla is gallery director at Higher Grounds Art Gallery, a popular spot near the landmark carved wooden sculpture downtown. He’s also a recently elected board member of the non-profit Art Alliance of Idyllwild , a volunteer group that supports opportunities for the many visual artists in this mountain community. His term begins Jan. 1.

Higher Grounds Coffee House & Higher Grounds Art Gallery. Photo courtesy Higher Grounds Coffee House.

Higher Grounds Coffee House & Higher Grounds Art Gallery. Photo courtesy Higher Grounds Coffee House.

Visitors and locals walk past the gallery to grab a latte at Higher Grounds Coffee House next door. On many days, it’s almost impossible to maneuver along the walkway through working painters or possibly a crochet teacher and student sitting among balls of yarn. Padilla is credited with the new energy of the gallery. The artistic space launched about a year ago.

“He has transformed the art gallery into a vibrant place,” co-owner Mimi Lamp says. “He wants every artist on the hill to have a space there. I am so grateful that Rob has set the tone.”

The gallery is a co-op of at least 20 artists, including Lissa Evans, Donna Elliot, Jessica Schiffman, Eric Yandell, George Appell, Jeffery Thumel and Valentina, as well as Joanna Alexander of Strawberry Creek Crochet.


Sorin Andrus learning to crochet outside Higher Grounds Art Gallery. Photo: Julie Pendray.

Alexander says, “Rob has turned our little gallery, which smells like coffee, into one of the most diverse and celebrated galleries on the hill. A few of our artists are young, barely out of their teens. Others are well-established with decades of work, and we have everybody in between. Several are teachers. We celebrate all mediums. Rob is amazing at managing a diverse pool of creative people. But, most of all, he is a really nice guy.”

Padilla says the co-op artists are generally an older group. “The styles they’re attached to is who they are. Their own personalities and life experiences appear in their work. There’s maturity. The calm, cool, collected part is important. There’s no rage or therapy on the walls. They understand what they’re capable of. A gallery like this is a nudge to produce more.”

In addition to crochet yarn, there are other yarns here too. All kinds of connections and stories are exchanged at the gallery and coffee house. Padilla enjoys being in the thick of it, smiling as he goes about his business. One can only wonder what’s behind that sometimes mischievous looking smile. He has a humorist’s mind.

“I’m an observer of people and situations,” Padilla says. “My characters are caricatures. I might accentuate aspects, such as noses, to bring out the humor.” He says his work has been called a lot of things. He hasn’t quite pinpointed the style yet. “There’s Fauvism and Cubism. I try to stay in experimental mode.”


Jimmy Be Free and other Idyllwild locals can be seen in a painting by Robert Padilla.

One day, Alexander was pointing out the locals in one of Padilla’s pieces, as visitors walked by. “That’s Jimmy Be Free (the violinist),” she told someone. “Look, you can tell because he’s in bare feet. He’s always in bare feet.” Looking into this mirror of our town, some of us began to chuckle. We realized how much time and insight had gone into producing all that detail and how Padilla had captured the buzz of activity like you might expect cartoonist James Thurber or satirist Robert Cenedella to do. The “language” of Padilla’s work suddenly made sense. It’s intriguing.

For Padilla, it’s all about detail. One example is his painting, “We Never Close.”

“It’s based on 24-hour diners that I’ve become very familiar with in my lifetime,” Padilla says. “People are pretty captivating. Everybody has an aspect that is a masterpiece. I like to encourage social interaction between people in my pieces. To be adrift is not healthy. I like to include how fun it is when people come together and interact; for example this is a typical early morning breakfast counter scene with layers of independent activity but everyone’s in harmony, with some exchange. People share, whether they speak together or not, like a dance, when you bump into each other. There’s some kind of communication that means you’re alive and well.”

Padilla says some people don’t “get” his work. He’d like to change that. He’s observed that the ones least likely to appreciate it are “middle-aged people caught up in making a living, acquiring possessions and climbing the social ladder.”

“People who understand my paintings either aren’t old enough to join the rat race or they’ve already retired from it,” he says. “They’re able to look at humanity and see the humor.” He hopes that when people view his pieces, it makes them more aware and raises consciousness.

“Art is our gift to humanity,” Padilla says. “It goes beyond just appreciation. There’s a lot of connection beyond just our world that we know.”

Padilla is a Long Beach native. He lived briefly in Perris as the city’s artist-in-residence and moved up this mountain two years ago because his family owns property here, he says. Padilla works at Jack Farley’s Art Supplies in Idyllwild, doing sales. He also volunteers in the SMARTs program at Idyllwild Elementary School, which includes middle school students. During spring and summer, Padilla was a facilitator of the “paint along” mural project at Art in the Park, a monthly outdoor event.

As for his own work, he says, “I’m exploring new projects that explore Idyllwild imagery … trees, performances, people I might like to paint.” He says he’s “feeling the warmth and camaraderie of the mountain.”

“Idyllwild, being centrally located, draws a lot of creative folk. There’s no city buzz, so you can enjoy your own connection to yourself without outside interference,” he says. “It feels pretty good. I’m adding new ideas, new motivation to the scene, with opportunities that have a lot of impact on how this art community develops.” He explains, “Here in Idyllwild, the economy took a tank. I think we’re on a rebuild to get everyone who’s creative back on board. It’s kinda nice to be part of how that develops … in a recognized town for an art excursion. We’re nestled in a pretty nice hotbed region.”

Padilla says he has enjoyed traveling as an artist, always looking for new subject matter and places to plug in his work. For now, he’s enjoying being part of a selection of gallery artists who, he says, are really comfortable about who they are.

A selection of work at Higher Grounds Art Gallery. Photo courtesy: Higher Grounds Art Gallery.

A selection of work at Higher Grounds Art Gallery. Photo courtesy: Higher Grounds Art Gallery.

Besides painting in bright oils and acrylics, Padilla enjoys sketching in black pen on white paper. Most of his paintings are based on quick sketches done on location. For example, he did a series of sketches at Casino Pauma. He says it takes about 15 minutes to do an 8-1/2 x 11 sketch of people. “I have to be quick. I always have a sketchbook on me.”

Padilla says drawing is his way of connecting, by plugging himself into a scene. In his youth, cartooning was a form of entertainment.

“I liked the newspaper comic strip,” he says. “I loved The Far Side, by Gary Larson and Herman by Jim Unger. That simplified cartoon character really resonated with me. That line. On a daily basis, you could come up with a whole new topic and your character could be an extension of what’s important, so I hid behind that. I like that — hiding behind a curtain and creating these pieces. Then there were editorial cartoonists. We had a lot of good ones in town. Paul Conrad at the Los Angeles Times and Richard Wallmeyer in the Press-Telegram, a Long Beach newspaper. I was impressed with the messages that could be shared but in a light format. You can touch on some really serious topics and people don’t get offended or feel strong armed.”

He began by doing editorial cartooning for the Long Beach City College newspaper.

“They didn’t really get my gags,” he says. “Nobody did.” Later, he attended Saddleback College, where he was cartoonist and illustrator at the student newspaper and magazine. “I won awards,” he says. “I teamed up with a lot of talented folk.” However, “My own attempt at being a syndicated cartoonist led to a lot of rejection. I ended up working as a graphic designer for Ocean Pacific swimwear.”

Padilla later did freelance artwork for dinnerware and handbags. His work was licensed and he was featured artist at the Los Angeles Gift Show in about 2008, he says. He also freelanced for greeting card companies. Along the way, he got involved in community art projects, beginning with Long Beach.

“They were going through redevelopment,” he says. “I was involved with city groups and the council to help address downtown blight. There were a lot of homeless. A lot of property sitting there. A lot of stakeholders just sitting there. I helped artists in the first phase in introducing some excitement, such as murals and galleries in vacant storefronts. We were activating vacant store spaces in main corridors downtown where there are some beautiful buildings, and we were creating art walks. Then the loft owners moved in. We were the first responders.”

Padilla says he worked with the Perris Valley Historical Museum from 2012 to 2014, as artist-in-residence, living in a Victorian home, with a beautiful studio.

“My family had property there and I worked on tidying it up. The city was celebrating its centennial, so there was a lot of opportunity to be a contributor. I attended the centennial organizing committee and volunteered as an artist. The next thing you know, I was heading up the art committee. Metrolink was preparing to extend its link to town. City folks were interested in tidying up the town. I walked in with great ideas to cover up graffiti and encourage neighborhoods to get involved. I’m a fan of collaboration with the public and other artists.” He says he helped initiate art activities at city events. One example was the “paint-along mural” project, which introduced topics of the town’s history, plus positive messages, allowing people to be expressive on their own.

“You hand someone a brush with paint on it and it doesn’t come with directions,” he says. “We introduced that there’s a proper way to express themselves. A lot of kids don’t have creative outlets. Give them options and they’ll naturally migrate to that, especially when there’s recognition and you become proud and you become part of the community.”

Padilla would like to explore public art in Idyllwild, using murals generated during Art in the Park. “We’ll continue to do that and eventually decorate the town with them,” he says.

Higher Grounds Art Gallery began as a staff break room for baristas at the coffee shop. Then co-owner, Mimi Lamp, a painter, offered it as a gallery. The late musician Pete “Pedro” Anderson, who regularly performed at the coffee shop, helped launch the space, which still includes some of his etchings. Padilla got involved about six months ago.

The gallery is currently hosting a Mini Show by the Art Alliance through Jan. 3.

Higher Grounds Art Gallery is at 54245 N. Circle Drive. Regular hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday to Monday. For more information, call 951-659-1379.

To learn more about Rob Padilla, visit his web site.

Copyright to Julie Pendray & SpecialsNotOnTheMenu.com

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