Coons Gallery was built in 1945 by artist Robert Clunie and is the oldest continuously operating gallery in the Sierra Nevada.
"In all weathers, he painted the majesty of the wilderness: snow-capped granite peaks, emerald-colored lakes, high pine forests with sun-filled skies or violent mountain storms, and radiant sunsets.
"This was a most incredible feat, made possible by Clunie's passion for the Sierra. He thrived on her 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."
--- Richard Coons, 'Robert: Clunie: Plein Air Painter of the Sierra'
Robert Clunie was fifteen years old when he and his older brother arrived in New York in 1911 aboard the SS California from Scotland. They went to Saginaw, Michigan, settling on a farm belonging to family friends. In March 1918, Clunie traveled to Pasadena, California by train. He spent several months in the west, deciding that was where he wanted to be. He returned to Saginaw to pack his belongings then, in October, he and his brother Bill left Michigan for good, headed to California with everything they owned tied to a Buick, which had a roof, but was otherwise open to the elements. Initially they drove at night since travel was easier on the frozen snow. It took them 31 days to cross the country.
Clunie found employment as a set painter at MGM in Culver City, working on the film, 'The Red Lantern.' When studio work slowed down, he followed other studio artists to Oxnard, in Ventura County, to paint box labels for fruit packing companies. He met his wife Myrtle Ireland at a dance in nearby Santa Paula. They married and settled in Santa Paula. He quickly became friends with fellow residents and painters Jessie Arms Botke, Cornelis Botke and the architect Douglas Shively (all featured on the Artists and Architects mural in Santa Paula: http://www.santapaulamurals.org/mural8-artistsarchitects.htm)
Making his first painting trip to the Sierra Nevada in 1928, Clunie stopped in Lone Pine where he painted the Olivas Pack Station and Mount Whitney. A few months before the stock market crash of 1929, Clunie hired a mule packer to carry him and his painting gear up the North Fork of Big Pine Canyon to Fifth Lake near Upper Glacier Lodge. Over the next forty years, Clunie returned to the same spot, setting up a permanent summer camp, living in and painting from a canvas tent.
When Clunie’s painting, 'The Cliff,' was stolen from a gallery exhibition in Los Angeles in 1930 (the painting which was photographed for a review that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, was recovered in 1999 and is on display at the gallery), he decided to move permanently to the Eastern Sierra. He purchased a small parcel of land on Sierra Highway along the North Fork of Bishop Creek from rancher Ed Matlick, and after World War II, built his art studio there. The timbers used in construction came from Manzanar War Relocation Center following its closure after the war. The brick was made in Bishop from cinders harvested from the volcanic tuff north of town. Though his budget for materials was limited and resources scarce, Clunie designed the studio after the adobes he fell in love with on painting trips to the southwest.
In following his artistic star, Clunie's life took many unpredictable turns during the next 66 years in California. A painting member of the California Art Club, Clunie's career was well documented by a 35-year exhibition record in Los Angeles museum shows until 1950, when petty artistic rivalries caused him to turn his back on the art world. As a result of his wanting to spend his last 30 years painting in the quiet atmosphere of his Owens valley home, Robert Clunie’s name since that time has been virtually unknown.
The son of a Los Angeles Department of Water & Power hydrographer, who was also a surveyor on the Tioga Road through Yosemite, RICHARD COONS was born in Los Angeles, two months after the 1929 stock market crash.
In the fall of 1945, Richard's grandfather, owner of the local brickyard, asked him to help deliver a load of bricks to newcomer, Robert Clunie, who was building a residence on the North Fork of Bishop Creek and Sierra Highway. Aware of Richard’s notable track accomplishments at Bishop Union High School as reported in the local newspaper, Clunie struck up a conversation about sports with Richard. Clunie’s spectacular paintings of the Sierra landscape inspired Richard. However, thirty years would pass, before he would realize his own dream of becoming an artist.
Richard was 47 years old when he started painting, and turned to Clunie for guidance. The two men spent many weeks together painting in the High Sierra. Following Clunie’s death in 1984, Richard purchased the studio.
A signature painting member of the California Art Club, Richard participated in numerous juries and published exhibitions in notable venues, including several California Art Club Gold Medal Shows, as well as a joint exhibition with Robert Clunie at the Ventura County Historical Museum. Before his untimely death in 2003, Richard wrote and published the definitive volume on his mentor’s life: 'Robert Clunie Plein-Air Painter of the Sierra.'