From the fields to canvas


California's Salinas Valley, with its fertile fields and high yield of food crops, is known as the Salad Bowl of the World. Sarah Phillips Deen knew it for much of her 83 years of life as home.

Moving to California from Alabama with her parents at the age of 6 months, Deen has first-hand knowledge of the lettuce industry that fueled the Valley's economy and put greens on the tables of families across the country — an industry that her father, Bill Phillips, worked in for decades.

Starting during the Depression as a box car loader for lettuce crates, Phillips played a number of roles in the lettuce supply industry during his career. In the 1960s, he helped to design, build and maintain the first vacuum cooling plant, and invented the heat tunnel used to shrink-wrap lettuce, according to his granddaughter, Vanessa Deen Johnson of Woodside.

About 20 years ago, Sarah Deen, an artist who now lives with Vanessa and her husband Brian Johnson, began to document 1940s life in the lettuce fields and warehouses of the Salinas Valley with a paintbrush and canvas, using her father's Polaroid photographs depicting the harvest and the lettuce packing process of that time. But a series of health setbacks derailed the project until recently. Now, she has completed her series of 10 oil paintings.

Deen and the Johnsons opened their Woodside home on a recent Sunday to display those paintings, with about 100 people dropping by, Vanessa Johnson said. Deen's goal is to donate the work to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas or to Taylor Farms, the large grower and packing company her father worked for.

Vanessa Johnson said she recently met with the Steinbeck Center curator, who is "very interested in Sarah's series and will likely include them in an upcoming exhibit in January. Meantime, we're in talks for donating them into (the center's) permanent exhibit."

It wouldn't be the first time Deen has shown her work at the center. With a lifelong interest in painting, Deen was encouraged by an art class teacher decades ago to pursue her interest in depicting scenes of her past in Salinas, she said. More recently, she entered one of them in a Steinbeck center competition, and the work was one of 40 out of 500 entries chosen to include in an exhibition at the museum, Deen said.

Her long-term project now complete, Deen said she's not putting down her paintbrush yet. "I love to paint," she said. "Being creative keeps the juices flowing."

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