The Art of Agriculture

John Nichols discusses a unique Ventura County alliance and life on planet Santa Paula.

By Ivor Davis—Photos courtesy of John Nichols

Nichols used high dynamic range photography to capture a Santa Paula ag field backdropped by South Mountain and “cooperative clouds.”

Acclaimed painter and rancher Gail Pidduck, who grew up on a Santa Paula citrus farm, does not mince words: “We would hate to see our valley swallowed up and become the San Fernando Valley or Orange County.”

It’s a familiar lament for those who live in Ventura County and continue to battle some of the horrors of the 21st century that have seen huge swathes of lush  agricultural Southern California transformed into sprawling suburbias, shopping centers, and parking lots.

So Pidduck, and John Nichols—photographer, art gallery owner, and all-around renaissance man—have put their considerable talents into a subtle campaign to try and preserve the best of their heritage while at the same time reinforcing  local efforts to save the vanishing agricultural hinterland.

Enter a three-year-old project dubbed the “Ag Art Alliance.” Nichols and Pidduck are leading a low-key but increasingly effective war to maintain the integrity and beauty of the farm and ranchlands of  the Santa Paula region, which to many in Ventura County still remain an island of tranquility.

Self-portrait with “Sespe Red.”

The other day, Nichols sat down to elaborate on the Ag Art Alliance and to explain why many believe it could be a key step in the salvation of the still verdant Santa Paula Valley.

Nichols, who taught science at  elementary and junior high schools in Thousand  Oaks for almost a decade, changed direction in l984 when he opened his first art gallery in Santa Paula. For a quarter century he tried to stay ahead of the economic ups and downs of the business, transforming his gallery into a framing store, an antique and book store with regular poetry readings, and a gallery specializing in digital photos focusing on the area’s historical landscape.

His current passion—besides his wife Leslie, chair of the board of the Santa Paula Theater Center—is photographing ag lands in the area.

John Nichols’ iPhone photo, a distinct artistic approaches to celebrating local agriculture.

How did the whole Ag Art thing start?

I was on vacation and saw that the University of Oregon has been collecting art about agriculture for 25 years. I thought Ventura County could benefit from that concept because we needed to call more attention to our agricultural heritage. So I simply stole the idea.

When did you get going?

In 2007 Gail [Pidduck] was invited to stage a weekend art event with an agricultural theme at the Ventura Fairgrounds. Frankly, she didn’t have enough work to fill the room. So she invited me and we invited other artists. By the time the exhibit opened we had 40 artists filling the room and it was a huge success. It showed quite clearly that marrying art and ag was a viable way to go.

What’s your ultimate goal?

We quickly realized that through the eyes of the artists we could raise people’s awareness, encourage them to go search out the issues and educate themselves about the importance that agriculture plays in our lives.

What methods do you use to do that?

We take artists out to the Limoneira Ranch. Many don’t know how vibrant the place is. At the same time, they discover fantastic locations to shoot pictures and paint scenes.

Ventura painter Hilda Kilpatrick’s “Fields and Flower Fields.”

Do you have an agricultural background?

Absolutely not. I was a teacher first. Then I opened an art and framing gallery in downtown Santa Paula and in between did an assortment of other jobs. Gail helped me appreciate the precious ag resources surrounding us in Santa Paula. The more I learned, the more I wanted to understand. I’m always looking to learn.

Do you paint?

No, I specialize in photos: new agricultural vistas as well as collecting old sepia farmland pictures from years gone by.

Are you still shooting pictures?

All the time.

“Large Ball, Fagan Canyon,” from an exhibit with Gail Pidduck, co-founder of the Ag Art Alliance.

Do you shoot with fancy cameras?

In September I went up to do my annual stint as stage manager of the Monterey Jazz Festival. I’ve been doing it since l977 because of my lifetime passion for jazz. I shot a whole bunch of photos with my cell phone.

Cell phone pictures?

I find that it’s challenging to use my iPhone, and fun to use that little object to shoot flower fields and create art even though it can be somewhat limiting.

Do you also use more traditional cameras?

Yes, I shoot with a Cannon 5D. But I love variety and sometimes I use a pinhole camera—it doesn’t have a lens because the hole is the lens. And I even use plastic toy cameras.

In “Pepper Fields Near Piru,” sunrise transforms the Santa Clara River Valley into a theater of light and shadows.

Are you personally pained by cities encroaching on Southern California’s shrinking farmlands?

Our civilization and culture is shortsighted, eating our seed corn and building on arable land. But even today I am amazed that Santa Paula—less than an hour from LA—is still a forgotten land. And while I live in Santa Paula and often drive to Ventura, I find it strange that many in  Ventura don’t realize the highway runs both ways. To many, Santa Paula is a different planet.

Where can we see what the Ag Art Alliance is up to?

Our current “Art about Agriculture” exhibit is on display at the Santa Paula Art Museum, running through February 6, 2011. It features work from both Gail and myself and also displays 40 local artists who create in two- and three-dimensional mediums: sculpture, ceramics, photography, water color, oils, collage. These exhibits once again draw inspiration from our agricultural heritage and/or contemporary agriculture. That inspiration includes, but is not limited to, depictions of rural landscape, farm animals or products, rural life, and art that in a more abstract way deals with issues and ideas related to agriculture. The Santa Paula Art Museum is located at 117 North 10th Street, Santa Paula. You can call us at 805.525.5554 or go to our website,


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