FILMMAKERS DOCUMENT THE VAQUERO WAY

When Summerland residents Paul Singer and his wife, Susan Jensen, lived in New York City, they rode from the venerable Clermont Riding Stable, navigating their steeds through city traffic, to reach the trails in Central Park. It was a far cry from the wide open spaces of the American West, where they dreamed of living a cowboy-themed lifestyle.

“My concept of the West was formed from seeing Gene Autry movies,” relates Paul.

Paul Singer started out as an artist, and attended New York’s School of Visual Arts. He brought his artistic skills to the advertising world, and worked as a creative/art director at several major ad agencies in New York. He created ad campaigns for companies as diverse as Pepto-Bismol, Fujifilm, Gillette and Volkswagen, and has been honored with several industry awards.

Jensen pursued a similar track, eventually becoming a senior vice president at several New York ad agencies, including Ogilvy & Mather, one of the world’s foremost advertising firms. She developed ad campaigns for several Fortune 500 companies, but always had an interest in documentary filmmaking, and took classes at NYU Film School to learn the craft.

The couple met when Jensen attended a gathering where Singer was meeting a blind date. Together they founded their own advertising firm, J&S Productions, in New York City in 1989.

But the Western lifestyle continued to call to them. Singer particularly indulged his fantasies by purchasing numerous pairs of cowboy boots from mail-order catalogues, while Jensen maintained her interest in the Metropolitan Opera. One day, when hopping a cab for the ride home, Jensen gleefully announced that she had obtained tickets for Wagner’s “Ring Cycle,” a four-performance set that is considered a marathon even by die-hard opera fans. Singer wanted to groan, but wisely held his tongue. Whenever another box of cowboy boots would arrive after that, Singer would simply hum the famous tune from “Die Walküre” in response to Jensen’s raised eyebrows.

Eventually Singer and Jensen commissioned a large log cabin-style home to be built in Jackson, Wyoming. They moved from New York and spent four years in Wyoming, before discovering Santa Barbara and moving to their Summerland “ranchette” in 2000. They sold their Wyoming home and most of its furnishings to someone who wanted a “turn key” Western-themed house, right down to the mounted game heads on the walls and dishes in the cupboards.

After moving to California, Jensen continued her studies at UCLA Film School, where she honed her skills at cinematography and editing. The couple became obsessed with the Californio ranching traditions, which preserve the ideals established during the days of the great Spanish land grants. This led to their first film, “Vaquero,” a half-hour overview of vaquero history and current practices, which highlighted Central Coast ranches and local personalities. The vaquero is a cowboy whose methods and style are descended from the Spanish, and was the source of the anglicized word “buckaroo.”

“People don’t realize that cowboy ranching culture is alive and well,” Singer says. “These are the people who put food on our table.”

Nancy Crawford Hall, owner of the 10,000-acre San Lucas Ranch in Santa Ynez, commissioned Singer and Jensen to produce another documentary focused on her property and the challenges faced by modern ranchers.

What Singer refers to as “an endless chain of discoveries” led them to their most ambitious film to date, “Tapadero.” This feature-length movie ostensibly chronicles the patience and skill a vaquero needs to train a spade bit bridle horse. The multiple-year process starts with the hackamore bridle (when no bit is put into the horse’s mouth), progresses to the two-rein (when a hackamore, or bosal, is used in conjunction with the bit), and culminates with a finished bridle horse that uses only a spade bit (attained when the horse is designated “straight up in the bridle”).

In reality, “Tapadero” is a rich chronicle of many facets of California ranch life, encompassing the history of Spanish settlers, vignettes on rare horse and cow breeds, cattle husbandry and cowboy lore. Several Central Coast ranches are featured, and no doubt “Tapadero” will one day be seen as a snapshot of early 21st century ranch life. In fact, since the movie was shot, changes have already occurred at some of the ranches featured, which include the Cojo-Jalama, Ronald Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo, and the 17,000-acre Rancho Santa Margarita located just north of San Luis Obispo.

“I shot sixty-five hours of film in the making of ‘Tapadero,’” Jensen says. “My first cut was over four hours.”

Musing about their new role as documentarians of a cowboy way of life that has far from vanished, Jensen observes, “It’s a second life for us. People are hungry for this material. People from all over the world are looking at our website.”

When not working on their next film, Singer can be found riding his paint mare, Cappuccino, on the local trails in Montecito and Summerland. “I try to ride two horses per day,” he says.

Jensen rides a mule named Miss Faye Dunaway, which she bought right off the string after riding her to the bottom of Arizona’s Grand Canyon and back up again. “She had been in the string for eleven years,” Jensen says, “and was so bored that she had developed what we think was a psychosomatic cough. But that cough disappeared once she realized she didn’t have to go up and down the Grand Canyon anymore.”

Mark Your Calendar

Friday, July 7

“Tapadero” Under the Stars

Wildling Art Museum

2329 Jonata Street

Los Olivos

7 pm, free admission

Dress warmly, bring a blanket and chair to the museum’s garden. Live music until sunset, when “Tapadero” will be shown outdoors. Filmmakers Paul Singer and Susan Jensen are on hand for questions.