An artist, builder, surfer, and friend who has lived for decades at the Hollister Ranch, Kit Cossart offered reflections about what it means to live in this remarkable part of the world. He talked about his early adventures surfing beyond the gate of Bixby Ranch, the paintings and sculptures he creates, and the faith that is his source of strength.
“It’s the isolation and the smells. The sage. The wind. The asphalt black night with the stars like they were paint splattered across the heavens. Isn’t that it? And the wind. This God-awful howling wind. I mean, really, you felt like you were at the southern tip of South America standing at Tierra del Fuego being pelted by the gods. You were just absolutely petrified and totally in awe.”
IT'S LIKE A DREAM I WOULD HAVE BEEN AFRAID TO HAVE
This interview took place on July 9, 2014 at the Hollister Ranch, Gaviota, California.
We generally start with your date and place of birth.
I was born November 28, 1950 in Santa Monica, California.
Can you tell us a little about how you came to find this place.
I was originally exposed to it through some publications. One was Surf Guide to Southern California by Bill Cleary and it was published probably in 1964. And being a young avid surfer I read the book with relish because it documented all the known surfing spots, and unknown surfing spots, a lot of them, along the Southern California coast. And of course they started at Jalama and came down the coast, and they did a piece on the Bixby and Hollister Ranches. Even though they were private at the time, they’d become known as a surfing mecca for those in the know, and I didn’t know, but I became one of the knowers. There was another publication...Surf Guide...I think it was a magazine in the 1960s, about that time, and there was an article that didn’t specifically say where it was but you kinda got this drift where it was. So there was this mystique.
And of course we liked to travel anywhere that wasn’t close to home because we didn’t like to be under our parents’ purview, and so we... oh, I know how the story goes...one summer my mother and father wanted to take a trip to San Francisco, and my mother was looking at Sunset Magazine, and there was a story about lighthouses, and she was like, oh we should visit a lighthouse. And I said, “What about the one at Point Conception?” And she says, “Well, it says it’s private, and you have to call the coast guard to get permission to come in.” I was like, “Would you do it?” She said sure.
So she calls the coast guard and the coast guard says, “Well, we can’t let you in, but what we can do is we can give you the phone number of the ranch foreman of the Bixby Ranch, and you can call up the ranch foreman. His number is blahblahblah.” So my mother, bless her heart, called the ranch foreman, Floyd Smith. And Floyd said, (gruffly), “Yeah, sure. There’s a combination that’s 2809.” And it was like the Holy Grail. It was the key that unlocked the goal.
So, on our trip we came in and we looked at the lighthouse and we drove around looking for surf, and we had a surfboard on top of our car, and of course it was too late, we didn’t find any, we were out in the middle of nowhere, my parents wanted to skedaddle, so we split. But I had the magic number! Wo-ow. And from then on, the stories go on and on and on, but that was the intro.
What does it mean to you to be here?
Oh wow. (silence) Next question. I have to let that sit for a while.
So, coming back to coming out to Bixby for the first time, can you take us back to that time? Give us your impressions? What was happening for you upon first entering that place?
The isolation and the smells. The sage. The wind. The pitch black. The asphalt black night with the stars like they were paint splattered across the heavens. Isn’t that it? And the wind. This God-awful howling wind. I mean, really, you felt like you were at the southern tip of South America standing at Tierra del Fuego being pelted by the gods. You were just absolutely petrified and totally in awe.
Has it changed a lot? Does it still seem that way?
It becomes habitual, sort of. You see the contrasts when you go to town, and then you come back and it’s just absolutely quiet, silent. And it’s the same sky, still milk...the Milky Way. One of my favorite things when I get up in the middle of the night–we have south-facing windows–when I go up and down the stairs and I can actually look out, and I can see the constellations of the Milky Way moving during the seasons, and I can tell what time it is and tell my orientation and all the rest of it, to the heavens and to the earth and how it rotates. So really, the sense of place I think has expanded quite a bit as you see yourself in context not only to the geography of the world but the universe that we can see.
What fundamental experiences have shaped your world view?
(laughter, joking discussion about the question being too broad)
Maybe a family event? Surfing for the first time? Something in particular that shaped the person that you became?
We can come back to that. I would tend to come up with a laundry list of things. I can’t say that there’s one cathartic issue or…
Okay, then. Here’s a different question. What inspires your creativity and how do you express your creativity?
I think it's about the way we’re wired, the way we’ve been created. It runs all of us in some way shape or form. In terms of inspiration, individually we have a propensity for one thing or another. I think what inspires...that’s a hard one...
Maybe, could you speak to a piece you’ve created that is particularly memorable to you? Maybe something that really stands out as something you were driven to do, or something that just captured you?
Let me think of an example. Well, here’s a funny one. When I started landscape painting about four years ago, which I hadn’t done, even though I was trained as an artist and I loved making art and I’d been drawing from the landscape since the 1970s, pencil and pastel chalk, over the years periodically, I guess I’d call it therapy. There was one picture, I came home from work–I was building your in-law’s house–and I came home and Beverly was down here making dinner for the kids, the kids were running around like crazy, and I came home and sat on the lawn right over here, and it was sunset, and it was in the summer. There’s a hill. You can’t really see it now, the trees have grown up so far, and you know how the light shines, when the summer light hits those hills in the evening, it just lights up. That’s an inspiration. It’s your sense of place. You’re looking, outside...and you’re just like, wow, check that out...and the contrast of the sky behind it and what’s going on in the foreground. I would grab a tablet...a paper tablet...and I would grab some leftover chalk and I’d start to do a big sketch, like I was in a life drawing class, and making a mess, and the kids are yelling and running around the yard, and it was my way of, like, drinking a beer. That’s an example.
It’s not too heavy, just a simple process. I don’t think any of the artwork I do is particularly “heavy”. I’m not burdened. I was reading a book on Jackson Pollack, the painter, and he said in an interview...the interviewer was trying to get to what Jackson was about as a painter, and Jackson said painting for me is self-discovery, and every good painter expresses who they are...it’s right here…(getting a book)...I bought this at the Getty the other day. I always get this wrong and I’m trying to remember: “Painting is self-discovery. Every artist paints what he is.”
And that’s a little much for me. For two reasons: One, it’s a little heavy-handed, but the other part is being kinda afraid to find out who you are. I guess Jackson was pretty tormented on a number of levels. Hence the painting styles that he came up with were pretty dark. And he’s struggling. That’s all he did. All he did was paint. Being an artist full-time like that in the context he was in, there was a lot of pressure on him. So in terms of life-driven affirmation of what drives you, I posed that question when I was 21 to a gentleman who was in his 70s–I was visiting an art collective in Toronto, Canada–I was thinking of moving there or to New York City. This gentleman was from Holland, and I had my little notebook in front of me. I had all these questions I’d written down, and I was a blossoming art student, wanting to know the meaning, because all these artists were driven by important concepts and meaning and theory, and I asked him this heavy question: Why do you make art? And he looked at me and he laughed and said, “Same reason I like to butter my toast in the morning and I like to kiss my wife.” And that was his answer.
What defines success? What defines success in terms of pursuit of your art, and in life itself?
In the art part, it’s feeling comfortable with at least some of the work you do. No artist is going to feel comfortable all the time. They’re their own worst critics. It’s the cliché but it’s true. When you have someone come in and admire something you’ve done and actually buy it, it’s really an affirmation.
Does that happen for you?
Yeah, all the time. Like the last four years, every time I sell a piece, every time somebody buys something, it’s like, wow! They shelled out x amount of dollars because it’s something that they like! Which is kinda like, they like me too. So that kind of success is great. Or as a builder, someone asks me to do their house, and I respect them and think it’s a worthwhile project, that’s success. And having your kids love you, and your wife.
As far as success on a broader level, there’s something in the bible about success. Success is basically about your faith in God. He’s the one ultimately that’s gonna drive your success or failure, which is not to say that if you “succeed” in the world’s eyes, you’re stamped by God as being blessed, because as we all know, the rain falls on the rich and the poor alike. No matter who we are we’re going to experience some devastating issues in our lives. So success in that case would be how you deal with those things and get through them.
And how do you get through the hard stuff?
You just swear and kick the doors. I get really pissed off. (laughs)
But yeah, a lot of it for me personally...as a Christian, I’m admonished. I mean God loves you. Look at the birds out there eating. Jesus says they don’t weave, they don’t plant, they don’t harvest, they just collect. Your Heavenly Father, he says, provides for them. Or the flower, Solomon in all his glory, he says, has not been arrayed as one of these, and why are you worried about your clothing, or your food? Seek first his kingdom of righteousness and all these other things are going to be added unto you.
Your priority, your success, is not based on acquiring all these things or seeking after financial gain or fame or anything like that. It really comes from a whole different place. “Real” success is your ability to see who has given you your life, your breath, and your sight, and creativity, and your ability to live in a safe place.
So how do you do that? You, personally.
I pray. I study the Bible. I go to church periodically. You know. It kinda gives you context. That’s a community of sort. If you wanna call it the spiritual community, it’s one community that’s beyond place, beyond geography. You’re doing it in a geography, but it’s a community of like-minded people who recognize some of the same things, at different maturity levels, some people have just become new Christians, some people have been there for a while, some at a different level, but we’re all basically in the same boat.
Were you introduced to Christianity as a child? What is your spiritual or religious background?
A little bit. My dad was an atheist, and my mother’s bent was Christian Science. The thing I can recall from her, when I was little, she used to say the Lord’s Prayer. She’d say that at night sometimes. So I was kind of adrift. There wasn’t a religious or spiritual anchor there. But in high school your brain starts firing off and you start thinking about things like that, and somebody shared Christ with me. I was a senior, and I went off to college and claims of Christ seemed like they might be plausible, so I got on my knees in a studio apartment and asked Christ into my life, and nothing really happened. You know, the windows didn’t rattle, and there wasn’t like a change in the light bulbs, but it was a lot like a garden. The seed was planted, and the garden grows.
So when you say it’s kind of like a garden, you plant the seed and it grows. In what way has it been like that for you? Can you point to an experience that has shown that growth or that you have felt that growth within? Is it something that happened? Does it happen often?
Well, as Paul the Apostle talks about there’s the fruits of the spirit and the fruits of the flesh. And the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control...The fruits of the flesh are other things like anger and jealousy and spite and fighting and sexual immorality, that sort of thing...so I think what happens, without thinking of a specific situation, is that you become sensitized to the things of the spirit that you weren’t really sensitized to before, and you can be less selfish. I think you can learn those things outside of Christianity, but I think that inside...with your faith in Christ...you find you don’t have on your own the strength to be patient or to be kind. The natural tendency is not to be that way.
Actually Christ in you...you know, He said, I am the vine, you are the branches, you really can’t do anything apart from me. Essentially He’s living by His spirit through you the things God wants you to do. A specific example would be if somebody cut you off on the road or something, and you wanna flip him off, but you tend to think twice about it. I’m more sensitive to that. Or if a woman flirts with me, trying to make a come on or something like that, I’m flattered, but hey baby, I’m busy. I have my woman. And that’s the kind of things you go through. So a specific situation would be something like that, on a day-to-day basis. You stub your toe, what are you gonna say? A lot of times I say the wrong one. Instead of fudge, it’s something else. So you try to temper your language. You try not to be coarse. That kind of stuff. When the guys get together and wanna talk about something inappropriate, it’s like, see you later.
Why did that become important to you?
I don’t know. I think that was the garden growing. The sensitizing. I would call it in Christian terms the Holy Spirit made me more sensitive. And you stumble every day. It’s a journey, for sure. Pretty soon I’m gonna have you guys asking Christ in your life here…(laughs) But we digress.
What are you proudest of in your life?
Well, of course if you’ve had kids, you’re always gonna say my kids.
Maybe let’s say one thing...what are you proud of?
I am speechless. Next question.
How has your life been different than you imagined it would be?
Oh my gosh. I didn’t think I’d be in this house, in this place. If you had told me when I was opening that combination on that gate at Bixby Ranch in the pitch black with the headlights on it, trying to get those numbers right, figuring out you had to push the lock up first and then pull it down, if you had told me that I would be living in one of these canyons here, with a family, and talking to you guys, I’d fall over and pass out. It’s incredible. It’s just absolutely incredible. It’s a dream I would be afraid to have…because it was too incredible for me.
Any message, wisdom, or advice you would like to share?
In Proverbs there’s a verse that says “Guard the affections of your heart because from them are the wellsprings of your life” The affections being like if you, let’s say you say “I really wanna learn how to ski. Skiing seems like the real thing to do in life. I’m gonna be a snowboarder!” And that becomes your affection, and the springs of life, your energy, your focus, what you’re gonna throw your life into. Like, “I’m gonna move to Utah!” and I’m gonna become a ski instructor, and that’s the thing to do. I have friends, in college, that’s what they wanted to do...I’m gonna go to Mammoth, that’s great. And they spent four years on the mountain, skiing, and being ski instructors. So to guard your affections, I think there’s a warning there as well as a ‘go for it’. The warning is, be careful where you throw your affections, because those affections are gonna be driven.
So how does that manifest for you? It may be obvious, but what are the affections of your life?
One of them was finding my wife (Beverly), who wasn’t my wife at the time, because after college, that was really what drove me. I can’t let this person go. I’ve gotta make some changes here. She’s going off to college, and if I don’t make a move and get somewhere in vicinity where she is, she’s gonna forget about me. So that was one of the things that drove my earlier, young adulthood. Chasing after my wife.
How did you find her?
She was one of those cute thirteen or fourteen-year-old girls that rode bikes around the neighborhood. And then about three years later, I met her, oddly enough, at a bible study, and her older sister introduced us. I was just back from freshman year in college, and Barbara said, “This is my sister; she’s a freshman.” And I said, “What college do you go to?”And Beverly was in high school, and Barbara was furious. “She’s a freshman in high school.” Basically, it was like “I’m the big sister.” It was very cute.
Then, it was sorta like later on...at that time she was 14. I didn’t ask her out until she was 17. And when I asked her out–this is just an aside–I called her up and said do you wanna go for a walk? What else am I gonna do? I’m a cheapskate. I’m not gonna go someplace and spend money on someone that might not be that nice. So let’s go for a walk. So Barbara and Beverly didn’t know if I knew who Beverly was, and maybe it was Barbara I was asking out and didn’t remember her name, or if it was Beverly. So they both got dressed up, ready to go for a walk, and Beverly was gonna come to the door and see what the response was. So I said, “Hi Beverly. Are you ready to go for the walk?” So that was the right choice. Sisters.
Coming back to the affections of your heart, and you said be careful in choosing what those are. So how have you chosen what those are? Because yes there are many, so how have you known in your life where to focus and where to be careful?
I just looked in the end of the book to see where the answers were. That’s the one.
I need that book.
It’s funny that you say that, because you’re always trying to second-guess yourself, right? It’s like when I got out of college, I graduated with this degree in art, and what’s the next step? What do you do with this degree in art? Well, you make art. And how do you support yourself in the arts? Well, a lot of people teach art. You’ve gotta get a teaching credential. A lot of the artists go on and get MFAs. I actually applied. I thought “This is what I’m supposed to do. I got this gift as an artist, and I’m gonna pursue the life.”
And I went to Toronto and New York City, considered the options, applied to graduate school. You know, there are these little signposts. Doors. Some don’t open and some do. And some of them you have to knock on pretty hard if you really wanna do it. But I got into grad school and I realized that my options were I’d have to move away from the ocean and my geography, where I was born, five blocks away from the ocean. For some reason I’ve always been connected to the water. And as much as I could see myself working and thriving in New York or Canada, the other part of me was just too strong, my sense of my earlier geography, because my art and my life by the ocean were combined. To diverge from that personally, I began to realize, wasn’t gonna do it for me. I wasn’t gonna be happy, basically.
So I decided right then, I’m not gonna go for the MFA, I’m not gonna teach, I’m gonna try to be an artist in another way. I’m gonna try to find a job that sorta fits the both of them together. And that was an unknown.
Do you have any regrets? Anything you wish you’d done differently?
Oh, everyone has regrets.
Is there any particular person who’s been a really special influence in your life, or a role model, or a mentor? Somebody like that. And I realize there may be many.
The first person that comes to mind is the gal who introduced me to Christ. Her name is Jody Hodges, and she’s now married: Jody Hodges Matthews. And we were both in high school together. I didn’t know her in high school. The first time I saw her was when we were in our caps and gowns and lined up in the gym waiting to go out to do the ceremony. I was looking at all these people I’d never see again. And I happened to see her in the line-up, she was right across the way. Then I met her later–we had some mutual friends–I met her at the beach, and she took me to a couple of Bible studies with some of her friends, and I still have the bible she gave me; it’s up on my desk. It’s got a little note in it. And we reconnected. She’s got three kids. She lives in Kansas. She wasn’t really a beach person either. There was a romantic interest there for about a week. We knew that wasn’t gonna last. But she was a huge influence. She was intelligent. She was articulate. And she introduced me to Christ, and that was a huge thing.
Then there’s my father-in-law (Spencer Boise). He passed away, of course. He was quite a guy. You would come to his house, and he’d say “Lori, how are you doing? Tell me about yourself. What’s going on in your life?” And he would focus in on you and you would go, hey he wants to talk to me. And you would tell Spencer all about yourself. Very cute. It’s a technique I learned from Spencer, when you don’t want to talk about yourself. And he was a very honorable and hard-working guy. It’s hard to find people like that. And Marty was great too.
I’ve seen the plaque: "What would Spencer do?"
It’s there where the old pool is on the north side of the Hollister House. It’s supposed to be the county’s first swimming pool. It’s filled in with grass now, and at what was the deep end of the pool there’s a bench somebody made out of an old oak log, and then they made a little brass plaque and laid it into the bench.
So that was influential people. We have two there. Not to mention my wife. And lovely friends.
Do you have a good sense of a community here?
Community. I looked it up in the dictionary. It’s somewhere between communism and commute. And, so this is a dictionary that I think came from my 8th grade graduation. Community: 1) a group of people who reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural or historical heritage. 2) A locality inhabited by such a group. 3) Social, religious, occupational, or other group bearing common characteristics or interests. And it goes on.
Sense of community? I think so. We’re a group of people in the same area. We’re very different, from very different backgrounds. The Hollister Ranch has a certain mix of community, and the ranches that are borders have certain demographics and backgrounds. It was like Vista, the school, made up of Caucasians and primarily Hispanics, and the dichotomy of the Santa Ynez High School, where it was the rich white kids whose parents employed the poor Hispanic kids. So they’re the same community, but they diverge.
Within the community there can be a sub-community. Like out here, there’s the surfing, if you can call it community, the surfing interest. And you go to the beach for surfing and you know people casually or maybe more deeply. So yeah, I guess there’s a sense of community. There’s a sense of community of people who live here, live aboards. There’s an agricultural community, a small one, there’s the cattle community. So there’s the overlays, and they all interface with one another. The families interface with the local school, and other communities. So there’s these kinds of concentric circles that surface. You could draw them on a page if you want to be visual, and color in the little places where they connect. I think they have computer-generated apps like that.
But community can also be an emotive feeling. Like this is really cool...we’re all into organic food, we wanna live off the grid, and we share those things in common, and there’s certain values there, so I think a community of values is distinct. We have people that are very wealthy here, that are very well-known and very wealthy, and there’s a concentric circle here, the more humble abodes where we live, we’re part of a more intimate kind of community, as opposed to the film guy, Cameron, or Yvon, or Jackson Browne. They come to our community.
You’ve been here a long time. Has this always existed?
I think it’s always existed, but in a simple, reduced number. I think when we first came here, there were a few wealthy individuals who were buying in. That’s who they were catering to. Then there was a whole ‘nother batch of people who got in here by their fingernails who wanted to surf and go back to the land and all the rest of it, and there was a whole community of those folks, sort of more dissipated, although there are people still involved or interested in that. Like Cameron, there was a piece in the L.A. Times about their organic garden, I don’t know if you saw that.
So I think the community...the cute thing somebody said once, is “It takes more than a hundred acres to keep a secret.” So in terms of the size of the community, we could be in the outback of Australia and still have the same issues, like our neighbor’s fence is broken, and those guys are trespassing over in the corner of our property, or let’s get together with so and so and have a barbecue.
That’s a good summation. I’m tempted to ask if there’s something you really would like to make sure that you said that we haven’t asked you...some last words?
It’s just a great privilege to be part of the mix here, and to have you two chase a bunch of these random stories down is really a kick.
It’s gonna be great fun. Thank you very much.
One post-interview comment on smells and sights:
I remember coming in from sailing from Hawaii, we were thirty days out, and we were approaching Point Arguello, and it was about midnight, and we were trying to cross the shipping lanes, it was kind of hectic and it was pitch black, there was no moon, and no stars, no nothing, your compass light, and motion of the boat, and wind howling off Point Conception, you’re all reefed down, and trying to keep an eye on the freighters in the dark, and we saw the Point Arguello light, and we didn’t see the Point Conception light right away and we finally got closer, and we got the lee of protection of Point Arguello where the seas started to slow down and we got closer and saw the Point Conception light, and the thing that just turned me over was the smell of the summer sage coming off the land with those offshore winds. It just knocked me right over. You know that white sage, the kind the Indians burned…it was like that. We’d been at sea for a month. It was an assault. That’s a sense of place. Right there in the geography.