Road Trip to Riverside with Cartwheel Art Tours & Obscura Society LA, Coverage by Albert Vitela

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Albert Vitale is a painter living in Los Angeles. A recent graduate of the California State University Los Angeles MFA program, Vitale is know for his figurative expressionist  paintings that draw on history and religious mythology. Here are his impressions of Cartwheel Art Tours/Obscura Society LA’s tour in Riverside, CA

Twelve of us assembled in the morning, and with our driver we all excitedly entered the bus. The day was beautiful, as the late comic Bill Hicks would say of Los Angeles:

Everyday, hot and sunny.

It felt like a whimsical trip, the sensation as of a child going on a field-trip, for indeed it that’s what it was.

Art is a free spirit, sort of like a gypsy. The rules of art, once learned, are meant to be broken; creativity is divergence after all. And in that spirit on this trip we broke away from the typical mundane week into a sort of time machine. As we approached our destination via the freeway we could see in the distance gorgeous  landscapes of mountains juxtaposed by concrete freeway, creating a new jagged landscape, and this is our way of being: we build on nature. Cindy Schwarzstein, founder of Cartwheel Art and Cartwheel Art Tours, and Erin Johnson, Field Agent for Obscura Society LA of Atlas Obscura, were our tour guides and expressed to us the cool style of the Cartwheel Art Tours; certainly impressive was this trip.

Riverside is a sleepy and and in many ways an elegant town, in fact if Los Angeles is a great art center of the world, Riverside is what is once was, its origins of being a town from history. We entered this history as soon as we got off the bus.  The first people we saw were two ladies dressed in antebellum era ensembles, and also a lady dressed in an Edgar Allen Poe style outfit.

I also saw a man dressed like Mark Twain! I was impressed because to me, Andy Warhol could have been Mark Twain’s doppelgänger in the Old West. My sense of Pop Art juxtaposition continued with cowboys and skate boarders sharing the same sidewalk.

The Mission Inn

The tradition began with the founder of the Mission Inn, Mr. Frank Miller, who first opened the Adobe Inn in the Spanish Mission style in 1876. He then built up into different sections like the Ulpia Trajan–an edifice in the former empire of Rome, still extant near the Forum in the city of Rome. Along with being sprawling palaces, both the Ulpia and the Mission Inn share in common painted frescoes, a style of Roman painting, that carried through to modern times.

The Mission Inn also contains many bells, which Miller added in honor of his wife Isabella. And the Inn still serves oranges, a tradition from the time of Mr. Frank Miller who would dress up like St. Francis and give oranges to weary travelers getting off the train station in Riverside, enhancing the city’s reputation. Our personal docent was a wonderful, informative guide who began the with a 1:100 miniature model of the entire edifice, explaining how the different sections were built onto the original building.

 The Mission Inn had a little of every style of architecture, and as we walked through it we saw painted murals, altars, formal garden design, Spanish cannons, pre-Colombian heads, many styles of Greco-Roman orders of pillars, and arch and vault technology in this wondrous edifice.

The Mission Inn is landmark which has hosted numerous Presidents of the United States, and we we toured the Presidents Hall, in the main reception area, where various Presidents had spent time.  Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy enjoyed an informal honeymoon at the Inn, and John F. Kennedy came for a peace conference as a grad student. In all upwards of a dozen presidents from McKinley to George W. Bush have visited the Mission Inn. We also strolled through a posh interior hallway with classic chairs such as one built in honor of Teddy Roosevelt.

On the second floor we stood in awe of the intricacy of a French style hotel wall showing classical art and columns that were both Doric and Corinthian but at times containing cherub faces in the acanthus leaves and swirls. It was as if looking at the exterior of the Coliseum in Rome, but just a section of wall of three floors height.

We then proceeded to a small chapel with a fountain outside of it and a chapel dedicated to many airmen of the air force and aviators with and golden altar wall that was in the Baroque manner.

 Hundreds of weddings each year occur in this chapel, and that although it is Catholic in appearance, this chapel is actually inter-faith, containing a menorah, and there is also a statue of Buddha.

The Buddha used to be in a bar until a drunk movie star damaged it with high heels sometime long ago, and it was brought into a new chapel and this was the most beautiful part to me, that all could co-exist as one in this wondrous edifice that is the Mission Inn.

One amusing story bout the frescoes: At one point some elephants from a traveling circus got loose and made a dash for the paintings of the elephants at the Inn, thinking they were real and that that they had found a herd to join!

Tio’s Tacos 

We walked  to our next stop, Tio’s Tacos, noticing beautiful vintage cars  and the city’s true Baja California feel.  Tio’s Tacos architecture references both  Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers and Gaudi, with statues of Popeye, Bluto, Olive Oyl, and the cast of Chavo del Ocho made from a variery of materials, including glass and steel. There were tables inside and outside various patios and in a beautiful sense of luxury we were sent again back in time in this pop art style admixture. The food was as delicious as the art, and everyone was happy. We giggled like children giddy with joy at the ambiance. Such is the power of art.

Nick Walker – Muralist/Artist 

After Tio’s Tacos,  we met up with an artist who works with Banksy and he gave us all small samples of artwork as he was spray painting a glorious mural of a figure holding a boom box that was emitting numbers. Nick Walker, the Artist, explained the ontology of the work, “as all is numbers.” Meaning various things objectively.

Women of the New Contemporary 

We then hopped aboard our tour bus again and traveled toward La Sierra University for opening night of the group show, “Women Of The New Contemporary,” which runs through March 17 at the Brandstater Gallery.

There were murals outside and special installations that were also part of the exhibition, curated by Torrey Cook of Artists Republic Gallery.

The group show was phenomenal, vivid colors and a little bit of everything that formed a cohesive whole that worked very well.

I recognized artist Lauren Over (with whom I graduated) who blurs the distinction between reality and metaphysics in her art. She had painted David Bowie. The show features many strong pieces of art, paintings and sculptures. I described sculpture as “painting is like a guitar and sculpture as a piano” to artist Camilla Taylor.

Another artist enthralled with the art was admitted to being distracted by it, but as I told her, “Art is the best distraction.”

On the way home to the Arts District, we passed a beautiful Hindu temple alongside the freeway, all lit up. And though tired we were left with beautiful memories and and new appreciation of Southern California art and history.

I learned a lot from the trip and want to do another with Cartwheel Art Tours soon.

Cartwheel Art Tours:

Cartwheel Art Tours, designs custom itineraries and leads individuals and groups, on an immersive exploration of neighborhoods through tours, to Discover, Explore and Experience the art, food/beverage, and history of the community.

Our tours provide the opportunity for guests to meet the artists and makers of the neighborhoods we explore–in their studios, on the streets or in their businesses–offering our guests, insider perspectives through a rotating and eclectic team of knowledgeable and passionate locals, who are deeply connected to their communities.

Top photo from Tios Tacos. Photo by Cindy Schwarzstein. All other photos by Albert Vitale, unless indicated.

Photos from The Riverside Inn:



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Photos from Tio’s tacos:


Tios Tacos photo by Cindy Schwarzstein

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Photos from our time with Nick Walker who was painting a mural in Riverside


Nick Walker talking to the group. Photo by Cindy Schwarzstein


Detail of mural by Nick Walker. Photo by Cindy Schwarzstein. 

Photos from “Women of the New Contemporary” Exhibition Opening Reception


Mural being painted by Jennie Cotterill and Nancy Chiu. Photo by Cindy Schwarzstein. 


Martha Rich


Paige Smith



Camilla Taylor


Deanna Templeton


Deanna Templeton Installation 


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