Situated at the gateway to a family-friendly town, it comes as no surprise that the Wildling Museum of Art & Nature focuses on families. Colorful butterflies, handcrafted by preschoolers and pasted on the third-story wall by museum staff, are testimonials from kids who enjoy art.

“We are a family-friendly destination, and kids are always free,” said Stacey Otte-Demangate, executive director of the Wildling Museum, located on the corner of Highway 246 and 5th Street in Solvang.

The butterflies, made from bits and pieces of tissue paper, send a simple but elegant message to visitors: This place doesn’t take itself too seriously.

“The world is kind of nutty and always too busy,” Otte-Demangate said. “Sometimes you just need a place where you can get away for a while. We’re not that artsy here, but art and nature are very healing, and we’re very informal some days.”

Patti Jacquemain, who founded the Wildling Museum 17 years ago in Los Olivos to educate people, has said: “The art of nature inspires people to think about nature.”

Before launching the museum, Jacquemain would gather friends and neighbors at her home in Santa Barbara and discuss incorporating nature into artwork in ways that would preserve the environment for future generations. Jacquemain, an artist who specializes in block prints and mosaics, was inspired to open the Wildling by the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Today’s Wildling Museum of Art & Nature is housed in a bright, three-story space with staircases and a service elevator. Like the butterflies on the wall, the modern space blends a variety of art forms from artists of all ages and levels.

“I never want people to feel intimidated by art,” said Otte-Demangate, who was hired in 2010. “We don’t want art to be put on a pedestal — to feel unapproachable. My favorite shows, like ‘Animals: A-Z,’ show the full diversity of art forms. In that show, we have oil paintings, sculpture, felt art, nature prints, block prints, etchings and more.”

In addition to making artwork accessible to the public, the executive director emphasized Wildling is focused on featuring artwork and photographs of Central Valley scenery.

“People need to be reminded that there is a world outside of our human-created one,” said Otte-Demangate, who credits Wildling’s board with recognizing the second-story space should be dedicated to telling the story about the natural history of the tri-county area.

Changing communities

The decision to relocate to Solvang from Los Olivos was carefully made, Otte-Demangate explained.

“We were doing a lot of planning with various consultants, including Fielding University and SCORE, and eventually coalesced around the idea that we needed to move,” she said.

That decision led to Solvang, which brings in an estimated 200 weekly guests, a mix of tourists and residents.

“We did a half million-dollar renovation of the [current] space to customize it for our needs,” Otte-Demangate said. “The physical space offered so much…. It tripled our exhibition space and increased our dedicated education space.”

Wildling’s three levels allow the museum to showcase different exhibits from different age groups and artists at various levels in their careers. One of the most crucial spaces is the second-floor Barbara Goodall Education Center. In addition to doubling as a conference room, it serves as an arts-and-crafts area, where children and families are welcome to draw, color and paste anything they can imagine. They’re also encouraged to mimic the art they see on display. Among the most popular displays is origami — the Asian art of paper folding.

Otte-Demangate credits the Goodall Family Charitable Foundation for pledging money to help fund the museum’s Educational Center.

“We’re very grateful to the Goodall foundation for sponsoring the space,” she said. “They donate money annually for the naming opportunity and to use the space for educational opportunities. When we did our first origami exhibition with Montessori Center School in Goleta, the kids left an origami sheet, and people started doing origami nonstop. People have never stopped folding … they love to leave us origami art.”

Families and kids would drop by the museum after school. They started mimicking the original origami artwork that had been folded by Montessori students.

“We realized everyone loves origami,” Otte-Demangate said. “I’ve seen whole families sitting here doing origami for an hour, and having a blast. You could have a family of four in the conference room, or a young couple coloring. I have literally seen, on a busy day, someone at every table working on every type of craft.”

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Artist-friendly collections

The Solvang museum, with its tall ceilings and three distinct levels, has enabled Wildling to become more than just an upscale gallery. Lest one get the impression Wildling is only for kids and families, however, Otte-Demangate points out the museum attracts acclaimed artists and professional photographers who want to display their works. For example, the museum will host artist talks with Jessika Cardinahl on Sept. 24 and Lynn Hanson on Oct. 8.

On Oct. 27, the museum is offering “The Student and the Teacher: Theodore Waddell and Isabelle Johnson,” along with an overview of aerial photography by Bill Dewey. The photographer will return Oct. 28 for an artist talk.

“We offer more and more classes in a wide range of art forms,” Otte-Demangate said, citing local senior centers — including Friendship House and Atterdag Village of Solvang — which bring groups into the Wildling for hands-on activities.

“We know how important it is for seniors to have a place where they’re able to do art and share it. The use of our classroom for a rotating community art space is very valuable and important. We love seeing different groups come in and share their efforts with family and friends and visitors. It’s very heartwarming for me to see the kids show off their efforts.”

In addition to activities with professional artists and photographers, held throughout the year, the museum houses approximately 110 permanent pieces.

“The board has recognized that we want to thoughtfully grow [the collection] and find quality, historic examples of local art,” said the executive director. “A permanent collection makes sense because we want to preserve the artistic record of our region, along with some excellent examples of works from other regions. There are so many artists on the Central Coast that should be preserved for future generations to enjoy. And because we have more space, we are able to show our permanent collection more often.”

Otte-Demangate is in her element discussing exhibit space, annual donors and upcoming art displays; however, she is equally fond of the families and kids who enjoy the playful atmosphere at Wildling.

“It’s such crazy, busy times that we live in,” she said. “For me, it’s important that we offer a space for people to be creative or contemplative or be inspired by [nature]. Hopefully, they leave refreshed, and think about ways to support and explore our natural world.”