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HERB BENHAM: Emerging from hibernation

Last week felt like a coming-out party and maybe because February was gorgeous. Sunny, cool, as if spring had come early, but I guess with the almonds, pears and plums blooming, spring always comes early to the valley regardless of what the calendar says.

“Coming-out party” because a small group of us, with the blessing of the higher-ups at the Bakersfield Museum of Art, were able to tour the new exhibits at the museum featuring paintings by Bay Area Figurative Movement artist Linda Christensen, electrifying local artist Art Sherwyn and a Bakersfield Sound memorabilia collection curated (I’m not wild about that word because people are curating coffee, wine and muffins) by Rachel Magnus.

Think about it: When’s the last time anybody has been to a movie? A concert? In this case, a museum?

We love our public spaces. Our public lives. Our out-in-public finery, even when the finery includes masks, crumpled tissue and hand sanitizer.

It’s easy to cast a wary eye at the museum experience. Fashionable, almost. Small paintings? Why not big ones, they’re easier to see. The hard cement that will have the museum-goer reeling toward the benches in the middle of the room after a half-hour.

However, the museum this visit was like a long-lost lover. You forget what it’s like standing in front of really good art — besides being wowed and entertained (thank you, Art), you find yourself cocking your head a certain way and casting out art history terms as if you majored in the subject and did an internship at the Louvre (“Notice the patterning that serves to disrupt the space”).

All you’re missing is a beret, an easel and a picnic lunch.

None of us had heard of Linda Christiansen or the Bay Area Figurative Movement painters but you wouldn’t have known it by the way we furrowed our brows and stepped forward and back to adjust our perspective as if we were on roller skates doing the art museum hokey pokey.

After filling the forgotten places in our souls with Christiansen’s gorgeous oils, we stepped in the center exhibit room, which housed the Bakersfield Sound exhibit featuring, among many other things, two Fender telecasters — one that Buck Owens bought from Lewis Talley for $35 — photos of Buck, Merle Haggard and Bill Woods, costumes worn by Rose Maddox, Cousin Ebb and Herb Henson, a pair of black boots with red embellishments worn by Haggard with “Hag” written down the side, a steel-framed wood bench and a phone booth from Trout’s and terrific explanations of how the music came from the labor camps and the large numbers of people who migrated west during the Dust Bowl

“It’s a great story,” said Bart Hill, former museum president and a country music lover.

It’s not only a great story but a story that doesn’t get old no matter how many times you tell or hear it.

The exhibit was lean, uncluttered and to the point. It was like the music, unadorned with no swelling of violins in the background. Curator Magnus probably could have filled every inch of space in the room with Bakersfield Sound tchotchkes and made it look like a Saturday morning yard sale but chose instead to select fewer items and allow space between them.

Space is good. Space delineates one idea from the next and allows the museum-goer, or reader (sometimes what you don’t say is as important as what you do), an opportunity to reflect and think about what he or she has just seen.

After the Bakersfield Sound, we hit the two rooms on the left with paintings by former Stockdale High art teacher Art Sherwyn. I have always liked his stuff and it’s more than just a hometown guy makes it a good thing; I was blown away with how good his paintings were. This latest batch of paintings is mind-blowing and I believe him when he says he’s been painting 20 hours a day.

When the museum opens up — Magnus says they are ready now but are awaiting word from the city and county health departments for direction — it could be a homecoming and a celebration of a world that, like spring, will be turning from black and white to color.

In the meantime, before the museum reopens, Magnus said BMOA has partnered with Artland to "produce 3D renditions of the exhibition spaces so the community can get a sneak peek at what awaits them when they do visit.”

View the exhibitions online at

Herb Benham is a columnist for The Bakersfield Californian and can be reached at or 661-395-7279.