Christine De Camp has been making art since she could hold a pencil. “I don’t remember not drawing and painting,” she recalls, sitting in the light-filled window of her Second Valley rental in Inverness. As a child growing up in rural Pennsylvania, she scribbled on walls and on any piece of paper she could find. She drew pictures of her stuffed animals and put them in envelopes in the backs of library books so the next borrower would learn that a teddy bear had checked out the book. Her childhood whimsy carries over into the art she now makes.
By first grade Christine was copying women’s clothing ads from The New York Times. This eventually led to an interest in fashion and a hobby of making her own clothes. She considered fashion design as a career, but the cutthroat industry did not suit her gentle nature.
So, after high school, she went to art school—actually, about five different art schools—until she found one where she felt comfortable. Her father, an attorney, and her mother, a typing teacher, tired of financially supporting her Goldilocks quest for the perfect school. The formal education at one of the schools and her feeling of not fitting in with other students so disturbed her that she quit painting for 10 years. Her innate resourcefulness kicked in, and she began paying her own way, as she has done ever since, mainly through waitressing jobs that helped her live as an artist.
Christine has always been adaptable to any circumstance, including sleeping on the floor of art studios when there was no place else. In spite of sometimes having struggled to secure permanent housing, she seems to maintain a cheerful attitude. Her laughter is easy, almost raucous.
Even though she admits to being “not much of a city girl,” she lived in San Francisco for over a decade in a large space near San Francisco City College that she felt fortunate to find, where she could make art and keep her St. Bernard. The first week in the city, a friend brought her out to West Marin and, as she says, she fell in love.
She maintained her city housing and job as a waitress at a Union Street café while making frequent trips back and forth. She joined Gallery Route One and waitressed at a café in Inverness. “I didn’t care how long I had to drive, I was just thrilled to be here,” she says. Eventually, she moved to West Marin full time.
Christine’s art is instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen it before. Almost folkloric, and often whimsical, her work depicts a magical and bucolic realm where animals like owls peer out at the viewer and egrets roam or fly overhead. The colors are bright and the work is dreamlike—the sweet innocent kind of dream we might all like to have.
Only a few non-indigenous creatures appear. One animal that often shows up is definitely not wild: a large brown and white St. Bernard. Anyone who has encountered Christine on the streets of Inverness or Point Reyes Station (or passed her white truck with a huge head peering out the window, taking in the scents) is acquainted with Sampson, her fifth and latest. According to her, he is the most handsome of all her St. Bernards.
“They are big teddy bears, oriented to people and they love children,” she says. And despite being the same breed, all her dogs have had different personalities. (In the interest of transparency, I must report that my dog, Tessie, was wildly enamored with Christine’s previous dog, Joey, with whom she was scandalously flirtatious.)
The only human form in Christine’s paintings is a lone long-haired woman who appears wandering in the pastoral landscapes, bursting from a calla lily, or even sprouting horns. In a recent work, she lies sleeping in a cozy, quilt-covered bed, which somehow doesn’t look out of place in a verdant meadow. If you look closely, you can see a red lizard trying to climb in. She calls it “Lizard Dreams.” She admits this woman just might be herself.
Christine’s influences are varied. She’s partial to medieval art for its detailed borders and use of the color gold. “I feel like I had another life in the 1400s,” she laughs. Then there is writer Henry Miller, known to most of us for his sometimes-erotic writing. His fanciful and brightly colored works speak to Christine. “Henry was an amazing creative force,” she says. “His work was never forced; it flowed. He approached his work with an openness and feeling of play.”
Not surprisingly, Christine is appreciative of many genres of art, especially those that suggest a unique creativity. “I have always liked yard art and have wanted to do it,” she says. But she also appreciates the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, intricate towers adorned by mostly discarded objects, and Grandma Prisbey’s bottle village in the Simi Valley, built out of junk found at the dump. (The work is now designated as a historical landmark.) What she is drawn to, besides the creations themselves, is the obsession these artists have felt. “They had to do it,” she says.
But possibly the strongest influence on both her art—and her belief system—comes from her spiritual mentor of 12 years, Tamara Diagelev, a 91-year-old living in San Francisco. When Christine lived in the city, Tamara introduced her to spirituality. Tamara would go into trances, and when people were dying of AIDS, “she would help them cross the line,” she says. When Christine is absorbed in a painting, it feels to her like going into a trance. She has no explanation for what eventually appears on the canvas. Tamara also inspired Christine to teach herself to do Tarot readings from her “wild spirit oracle deck,” cards she creates from original paintings.
Christine is especially fond of a book of drawings of St. Bernards done by monks. “I have always been a book person,” she remarks. Speaking of books, those who have lived in West Marin for any amount of time will recall Manfred’s Books, named after Christine’s St. Bernard, Manfred, located on Fourth Street next to what is now the Side Street Kitchen. It was an old-fashioned bookstore that didn’t rely on computers.
She owned the shop for nine years, reluctantly closing it due to a confluence of circumstances. When the Pine Cone Diner next door stopped serving dinner, the number of wandering customers dwindled. “Bookstores need foot traffic,” she says. She was also unable to compete with the newly opened Point Reyes Books. And while she was struggling with the store, she was dealing with the death of her mother.
Currently you can find Christine working hard as a waitress at the Point Reyes Country Inn and Stables in the mornings, and at the Station House Café in the evenings. Waiting on tables can be a physically demanding job for someone of a certain age, but she doesn’t complain. Things are going well for her since CLAM found her a small apartment in Inverness with a large yard for Sampson.
Ellen Shehadeh has written for the Light, the West Marin Citizen, The Pacific Sun and the North Bay Bohemian, and interviewed artists and authors on KWMR, for 14 years. She lives in Inverness.