The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1986, Volume 32, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Painting Ladies ~ The Artists ~ The Images

b. Indianapolis, Indiana January 6, 1885
d. San Diego, California January 18, 1969

The daughter of George and Julia (Stanclift) Grove, Esther moved to California about 1895. Her mother may have remarried, because her brother Samuel also had the last name Stevens. After being graduated from Stanford University, Esther studied at the Art Association in San Francisco for a year. This was followed by a year and a half at the Art Students’ League in New York with Kenneth Hayes Miller and with Charles Hawthorne in Provincetown, Mass. Going abroad for a season, she was among a group of students who traveled and painted with Robert Henri in Spain. Upon her return, she continued her studies at the Beaux Arts Institute in New York where she won first medal for mural painting.

Esther Stevens Barney (far right) Returning to the West Coast, Esther was listed in Berkeley in 1917, and in Monterey in 1919. In California, her work was exhibited at Gumps in San Francisco, the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery, and in solo shows in Pasadena, Hollywood and La Jolla. In 1921, she won a gold medal at the San Francisco Art Exposition. Esther married Walter T. Barney and moved to San Diego about 1921. During the mid 1920s they lived on Walter’s homesteaded ranch in Ramona. It was here that Esther began to study the unusual flowers and plants that thrive in and climates, and these became important design elements in her work.

In 1929, Esther opened the El Prado Gallery and Studio on Fourth Street to exhibit the works of Southwestern artists, but this venture apparently fell victim to the Depression, Beginning in 1929, she had an annual Easter party at the ranch in Ramona that became quite a tradition, and was attended by members of the local art community. Sometime in the early 1930s, Esther and Walter decided to get a divorce. She remained at the ranch, and divided her time between San Diego and Ramona.

Banana Flower and Leaf By 1934, Esther was on the government payroll, and produced an eight by five foot mural Gateway to the Desert for the Women’s Building at the California Pacific Exposition in San Diego. Also for the fair, she designed hangings for the Flamingo Room and a gold screen for the Sala de Oro in the House of Hospitality. Using the banana plant as a design motif, she exhibited a watercolor and a wall hanging at the exposition’s art show. The exposition committee awarded her a bronze medal for her many contributions to the fair.

After the exposition, Esther occupied one of the studios in the Spanish Village, and here she produced a line of commercial hand block-printed textiles under the name “Star Stevens.”‘ She remained at the Spanish Village until December of 1941, when the cottages were taken over by the Navy, Staying in San Diego for a few months, she eventually moved her studio and textile operation to the ranch. Unfortunately, her Ramona home and studio were destroyed a few years later by a fire in which she was badly burned on one arm. Although she rebuilt on the site, the work of a lifetime had gone up in flames. She stayed in Ramona until about 1959, when she moved to La Jolla where she remained in retirement for the last ten years of her life.

(Ref. AAA 1977, 1919, 1921, 1924, Moure: SDET 2-18-39 A4:5-6