THS Brings Essence of Topanga to Malibu

Mary Wright among her watercolors. Photo Suzanne Guldiman

Forty miles of paradise, the Santa Monica Mountain Range in which Topanga nestles, stretches parallel to the Pacific Ocean from the Hollywood Hills to Ventura County. Humans have lived here for 5,000 years with evidence to suggest it has been 8,000. The indigenous people of Topanga, the Tungva, left a very light impression on the land and were an oral culture so that little is known about them; their neighbors on the coast, the Chumash, tell us something of themselves through their rock drawings on the outlying islands.

Since 1974, the all-volunteer Topanga Historical Society (THS) has been archiving the modern history of the canyon so that future generations will have a more detailed recorded past to draw on. As part of their quarterly local history program, THS hosted their annual picnic on April 2, at the home of architect Eric Wright and watercolor painter Mary Wright.

Eric Lloyd Wright is the son of an architect and grandson of the visionary Frank Lloyd Wright; three generations passionately dedicated to the ideals of organic architecture who set the current green-building movement in motion and laid the foundations for so-called smart design. Tungva translates as “people of the Earth” and the Wrights seem to naturally belong to that group.

THS Board member Gail MacDonald-Tune had the idea to visit the Wrights and produced the event with a groaning board of good food to start off. While the sound system was set up under the natural canopy of two old oaks, Mary Wright’s watercolors were on view in the glorious and still unfinished house whose creation had brought them to Topanga in the first place.

It is immediately clear that there are two notable artists in this couple; the lightness of touch of her brush suggests Japanese grand masters and, indeed, it transpires that Mary has lived and studied in Japan. The colors and subjects and streaming sunlight are all Californian however. This Los Angeles-born woman is as impassioned as her husband about ecological integrity. Whereas his work is so concrete, hers may seem ethereal yet resonates long after you have stood in the presence of the painting.

While he could have swept us away with tales of his life at Taliesin working with his grandfather, or of his work on the Guggenheim Museum or the house in which Anais Nin took her last breath, instead he graciously first spoke to the subject at hand, Topanga history.

He and Mary moved into a small cottage on Fernwood in 1960, intending to spend three or four years while he worked with his father, Frank Lloyd Wright Jr., designing a house on some raw land he had bought overlooking Malibu. That four-year stay turned into more than 20 and they raised their sons in the canyon. Now in his 80s, Eric Wright spoke eloquently of those Topanga years.

“Topanga is a special community that you don’t find anywhere else,” he said. “It exposed me to a way of life that is unique and beautiful. Topanga has a magnetic attraction for artists, teachers and researchers. I knew people there from the major think-tanks who lived there as a counterweight to their highly scientific lives. It is the only small community in the U.S. to have had two orchestras, the Topanga Symphony, still going strong, and the Topanga Philharmonic, long gone along with Roger Bobo the Tuba player who lived up the hill and brought the L.A. Philharmonic here and invited locals to join in. I played the flute with them. When Bobo moved to Hawaii, the Philharmonic disbanded.

To keep the essence of Topanga intact, Eric joined with Canadian émigré-architect Earl Wear and his wife Lisa among others, to form an active opposition to overdevelopment. “Don’t lose that essence,” he said to the 100-or-so people gathered around him. “It’s where creative energy finds expression.”


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