Rancho del Cielo sits on a windy ridge, about a mile-and-a-half up from Pacific Coast Highway. Owned by husband and wife duo Jill Palethorpe and Sparky Greene, the sunwashed property is arrayed with fragrant flower bushes, hosts vast groves of olive trees, and is framed by panoramic views of the Pacific and the Channel Islands. Normally, the place is abuzz with weddings, Easter egg hunts, sunset dinners—but not since the pandemic hit.
Palethorpe got the idea for a garden gallery when she accompanied her close friend and running buddy Sooki Rafael to North Carolina for an operation on a pancreas tumor. The two painted together, and Palethorpe noticed her recovering friend’s talent: “I said, “Sooki, you have to have a show! You can do it at my house!”
Now, Palethorpe Zooms art shows to online audiences of about 80 viewers, who may submit questions to the artist in real time. The artwork is spaced throughout the garden; Palethorpe interviews the artist about each one as they and the cameraman walk through the flora-filled space.
Palethorpe and Greene bought the Rancho del Cielo property in 1997. “I thought my husband was out of his mind, I really, really did,” Palethorpe said. Slowly, the pair built it into the California-style home that it is today. When a friend suggested they begin hosting events at the property, they did. That business soon became not only an excellent source of income, but also both of their passions: Palethorpe tends the roses, jasmine and lavender bushes while Greene “is more of a tree guy,” according to his wife.
But then the Woolsey Fire reduced the whole property to “about 70 percent of what it was,” Palethorpe estimated—which meant their business, which had already booked events through the half the year, went up in smoke, too: “Those were the hardest six months of my life.”
But after months of work, Rancho del Cielo was back … right in time for the pandemic.
“Suddenly, I had this glorious garden and no one to be in it,” Palethorpe said. So she filled it with her latest venture: the Garden Gallery.
Palethorpe most recently hosted Topanga-based ceramicist and Samohi alumnus Matt Doolin, whose tile work you probably know from Point Dume’s Fire Station 71, Malibu Elementary (formerly Point Dume Marine Science School) or perhaps your neighbor’s pool.
During his November Zoom Garden Gallery walk-through, Doolin shared several sculptures he made in college. His pieces, which took weeks of planning, building, firing and glazing, address themes of racism, environmental recklessness, corporate criminality and homelessness. A sculpture of a curled fist knocking on a bent black door—named “Protest”—ties the collection together.
Doolin also presented a series of wave sculptures, an idea he first came up with while in the studio with his 10-year-old daughter. While the waves are “not [as] conceptual” as some of Doolin’s other work, he described why they were special: firstly, because they touch on Doolin’s lifelong love of surfing and secondly, because Doolin likes the process of “turning a piece of solid clay”—which Doolin described as “a very natural, raw material” involving “earth, air, water and fire”—into something that is fluid-looking.
“The way the glazes capture light,” glistening in direct sunshine but becoming entirely otherworldly at night, is also unique, the artist said.
Doolin had been looking for a way to share those pieces, particularly the ones about social justice topics, for a long time, especially the one about racism, which he says “is kind of depressing.”
“What usually happens is people just look at it and walk away; now, they’re talking about it,” Doolin said.
And that dialogue is aided by the Zoom format Palethorpe devised. Through Palethorpe’s warm conversational style and steady pacing, Garden Gallery artists can lavish individual attention on each piece and share their ideas with dozens of people at once, whereas at a normal, in-person art show, they might be pulled away by a single journalist or stuck talking to one patron.
“I got to highlight what each one was and what it was about in a much more detailed way,” Doolin said.
“I think this formula we backed into is immensely satisfying. To be in on a conversation about the artist and the artist’s work and process and history and their feeling about it, which [viewers] normally wouldn’t have …” Palethorpe added. “Before the pandemic, if you went to an opening, you’d get a glass of wine, grab any food that was there, talk to your friends and, if you looked at the art, you’d have a brief walk around and then go get another glass of wine.”
Now, you can still certainly have your wine, but at a safe distance from home. And you can have what is essentially an unbroken, in-depth, seaside conversation with a local artist, too.
The next Garden Gallery Zoom exhibition will be on Sunday, Dec. 27, showing off the “lyrical and lush” work of Lisanne Messinger, according to Palethorpe. Doolin is available for both artwork purchases and commissions and can be contacted on Instagram @mattjdoolin, his Facebook page Matt Doolin or through his family business website topangaarttile.com.