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Sonoma Coast Captures Artists’ Imagination

The majestic beauty of the Sonoma County coastline inspires artists of all types.

Artists flock to Sonoma County’s 55-plus miles of California coastline, attracted by the rugged cliffs and magical light that can be softly diffused by the fog, or intensified in a brilliantly blue sky — sometimes both in the same day. 

The fresh, salty air and pounding waves inspire towering sculptures, pristine pastels, and handcrafted pottery. Sparkling artisan jewelry mimics the sunlight bouncing off the waves.

This rugged Sonoma County coastline inspires artists, and the resulting artwork enchants visitors looking for a one-of-a-kind souvenir in the studios and galleries that have sprung up in Sonoma's small coastal towns.

There are also a number of public art works on display throughout the area, adding to the visual appeal of exploring this area. Highway 1 hugs the coastline, granting stunning views as you travel from place to place.

Perched on the northern-most edge of the Sonoma County coastline, the town of Gualala has a thriving creative community, and hosts an annual Art in the Redwoods Festival each August. The Gualala Arts Center (46501 Gualala Road, Gualala, 707-884-1138) is a multi-million-dollar cultural facility that supports year-round programs of art, music, theater, and arts education.

Head about five miles south on Highway 1, and you'll find the non-denominational Sea Ranch Chapel, a tiny, whimsical building topped by a winged roof that seems ready to take flight. Teak doors lead to a serene and peaceful interior, with hand-carved redwood benches, free-form sculptures, a white plaster ceiling embedded with sea shells and seas urchins, and countless other artistic touches.

Located at 40033 Highway one (on the east side of the road, near mile marker 55.5), this 360-square-foot architectural gem was donated by Sea Ranch residents Robert and Betty Buffum, in memory of Kirk Ditzler, a navy pilot, zoologist, and artist. Ditzler's drawings formed the basis for the chapel's design. It is open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset (although it occasionally closes for private events) and admission is free (donations are accepted).

Many artists in the area participate in the annual Art by the Sea/The Sea Ranch Art Tour each Labor Day weekend, with some artists also showing their work the following weekend. This free, self-guided tour offers art lovers the opportunity to meet with Sea Ranch artists in their homes or studios, view their works, and purchase art directly from them. The tour also includes nearby artist-owned galleries in Gualala.

Heading south another 18 miles or so, keep watch for the 93-foot Peace Obelisk by the late Benjamino Bufano, a renowned San Francisco sculptor. Also referred to as the "Madonna of Peace" or the "Expanding Universe," this 93-foot-tall and 20-ton sculpture perches on an isolated cliff overlooking crashing waves, and is easily visible from the road.

The obelisk took seven years to construct, using concrete, mosaic tile, redwood, and lead. Like the majority of Bufano's work, this sculpture portrays streamlined, abstracted figures. Although the sculpture is on the grounds of the Timber Cove Resort (21780 Highway 1, Timber Cove, 707-847-3231), you don't have to be a guest there to view it. Just park in the gravel lot north of the inn and follow the short path leading back to the obelisk.

Another 14 miles south on Highway 1 brings you to the small seaside town of Jenner, which attracts art seekers with unique shops. (It's also a great place to grab lunch.) For even more selection, drive just four miles inland to tiny Duncans Mills, which has a rich selection of artist-owned galleries, as well as several tasty local restaurants. 

Back on Highway 1, drive south about eight or nine miles to the Children's Bell Tower. A tribute to children in Bodega Bay and Italy, this unique structure was inspired by the death of 7-year-old Nicolas Green, who was killed in 1994 while vacationing with his family in Italy. His family donated his organs to seven recipients. Their generosity raised awareness of the need for organ donations in Italy, and sparked an outpouring of support.

Standing on open ground on the west side of Highway 1, about 1.5 miles north of Bodega Bay, this elegant, three-tiered steel scaffold holds 140 bells, almost all of them donated by Italians: school bells, church bells, ships' bells, mining bells, and cow bells. The centerpiece of the structure is a 30-inch bell, inscribed with Nicholas' name and the names of his seven organ recipients. Whenever the wind blows, as it often does on this exposed coast, the bells chime.

And now you're just outside the picturesque fishing village of Bodega Bay, where you'll find more shops that carry local works of art. On clear days, you may even see artists set up their easels along the cliffs. Plein air painting never looked so inviting. 

Selected coastal artists also participate in the annual Sonoma County Art Trails on the second and third weekends in October. This juried and self-guided tour lets art lovers visit artists' studios countywide.