Delving into a trove of photos taken by The Californian's photographers in the 1940s and '50s has led five local artists on an expansive journey, one that's had an impact on their personal lives as well as their professional work.
Titled "Kern County Then and Now," the project is sponsored by the Arts Council of Kern, and its purpose is to raise money to help the Kern County Museum preserve the 50,000 negatives, which are rapidly deteriorating.
"This project is one I feel like I've worked for all of my life; it has taken me in a direction I've never been before," said Monica Nelson, who did her figurative oil paintings on site as she observed workers harvesting grapes at Giumarra Vineyards in Edison.
The brainchild of Jeanette Richardson Parks, a former director of the Arts Council, the multi-faceted exhibition opens on Tuesday with a reception at the museum's main building.
The paintings are merely the starting point.
Each artist created a display on the museum's main floor using historic artifacts -- things like a plow, a grape press, advertising labels on produce boxes -- that have been tucked away for years in the museum basement.
"We got a chance to look at a lot of the archives," said watercolor artist David Gordon. "We met with (museum curator) Lori Wear and told her what our interests were, and she narrowed them down. "
Gordon chose 60-year-old exterior photos of City Hall and the courthouse.
"I like palm trees and in the photos they are small," he said. "They are much larger now and this gives me a chance to paint them bigger; one of my canvases is 30-by-40 inches."
To carry out the governmental theme, his display will include a policewoman's uniform, designed by Mary Holman Dodge, Bakersfield's first female police officer, and a nightstick carried by Elonzo P. Davis, a city constable in the early 1900s.
"I have pushed my limits further regarding capturing everyday life and how our history of this place has changed and how we seemingly react within it," Gordon said. "The museum has an amazing history that is in desperate need of sharing with the residents of Kern County -- the historical research possibilities are endless."
David Beigle, an artist who lives in Pine Mountain Club, is unfamiliar with the county's history, saying one of the best parts of the project was being exposed to the museum.
"The collection of vintage vehicles and furniture is truly astounding," he said. "In doing my research for the project, I have been greatly impressed by the depth of the history and the fantastic growth of an incredibly vital community."
As an aviation illustrator he was drawn to the county's airport facilities.
"I have found that Kern County was an important force in the development of the industry," he said.
"Many brave and daring men and women operated out of Kern County and laid the foundation for the wonderful facility in existence today."
One of his paintings shows an Army jeep near a control tower, perhaps at Minter Field near Shafter; others show contemporary passenger planes at the new William Thomas Terminal in Bakersfield.
Also involved in the project are Duane Anderson, who teaches perspective drawing and presentation graphics at Bakersfield College, and Sebastian Muralles, known for the many wall murals he has painted.
"Kern County Then and Now" is one of the council's Creating Community projects and is funded by a grant from the James Irvine Foundation. All of the paintings are for sale; the historic artifacts will be returned to the museum's archives.
The entire exhibit can be seen through Dec. 5. Museum trying to save trove of newspaper photos
Kern County Museum curator Lori Wear explained the need for preserving 50,000 photographic negatives donated by The Californian 30 years ago.
"Currently they are not being stored properly," Wear said. "Each negative should be (put) in a separate sleeve to prevent sweating."
Sweating, she said, is the term used to describe how a nitrate or acetate negative exudes moisture, which leads to rapid deterioration. The majority of present-day negatives are polyester, which has a more lasting quality.
"The sleeve is made of acid-free paper," she said. "It fits over the negative like a T-shirt."
About two years ago the museum asked a professional conservator based on the East Coast to make an assessment of the collection and to estimate the cost to restore it.
"He estimated it would be close to $2 million," Wear said. "But if we copy (the negatives) digitally, it would be much less."
Thus far the museum has received a few small grants for the project and is hoping to eventually get a major one from the National Endowment for the Humanities.