Robert Clunie

Robert Clunie

Robert Clunie (left) pictured on the Santa Paula’s artist mural.

Every year, for almost 40 years, on the day after July 4th, Robert Clunie left his studio in Bishop with his car packed full of paints, brushes, canvases, (even masonite boards as big as three feet by four feet) coffee, sugar, wine and other supplies, and drove to the Glacier Pack Station at the end of Glacier Road west of Big Pine, where the packers loaded all the gear on the mules. The Glacier Pack train carried Clunie and his supplies to Fifth Lake, almost seven miles in along the North Fork Trail, where they dropped him off next to a granite rock outcropping. On the other side of the rock was the Palisade School of Mountaineering’s famous lower basecamp. Over the course of several decade, Clunie drank wine and shared a smoke or meal with the school’s lead guides, Norman Clyde and Smoke Blanchard.

Clunie extracted his tents, wood slats, graniteware cook pots from within the deep crannies of the granite rock outcropping. Delighted that they had survived another long Sierra winter, he set up camp in full view of Fifth Lake and the Palisade Crest. Aside from Yosemite Valley, Clunie believed that the Palisades provided the best scenery for painting in the Sierra.

From sunrise to sunset, until the end of the Labor Day weekend when the packers returned him to the trailhead, Clunie painted the mountains, emerald-colored lakes, high pine forests with sun-filled skies and violent mountain storms, and radiant sunsets, from different vantage points. He was passionate for the Sierra.

Clunie thrived in the harsh environment and captured it en plein-air, while others, being limited by it, made only token examples back in their studios. No man knew this subject better than Robert Clunie. The same determination was unmistakable at the early age of 15, when he was banned from his home because of rebellious acts toward his native Scotland’s rigid class distinctions. He knew his options — “This country is unjust; I want to go to America.”

After spending seven years in Michigan and New York City, he traveled west, arriving in California in 1918 with a well-established art career; he found it to be a painter’s paradise. Clunie was blessed with superb drawing abilities that gave his work a distinct, finished look; his paintings showed remarkable balance of design with strong values, bringing them alive with light. While following his artistic star, Clunie’s life took many unpredictable turns during the next 66 years in California. His career was well documented by a 35-year exhibition record in the Los Angeles museum shows until 1950, when petty artistic rivalries caused him to turn his back on the art world.

For almost 60 years, Robert Clunie lived and painted in the Eastern Sierra working out of his art studio-residence, now the site of Coons Gallery. He spent summers at his well-established camps at Fourth and Fifth Lakes in Big Pine Canyon beneath the Palisades, painting as quickly as he could to fill orders for customers. He often commented that he would never finish all of the commissions he had in his lifetime — and he didn’t. Both Clunie and Myrtle died peacefully at home, their art studio along Bishop Creek. Both are buried in Santa Paula, California, where they first met in the early 1900s.

In 1985, Clunie’s friend, Richard Coons purchased the studio making it his own studio and gallery, while carrying on the legacy of his mentor and inspiration, Robert Clunie, the adventurous Scotsman who found his heart in California’s Range of Light.
©2011 Wynne Benti