Cover Story —
Home to all manner of creativity, the Santa Ynez Valley fosters a full measure of sculptors, painters, potters and thespians. The region’s sunny fields and supportive community seem to attract talented people, including one imaginative woman for whom life itself presents an ideal canvas.
A petite powerhouse with quicksilver wit, Karen Langley Stephen drew and painted as a child, believing she would, indeed, grow up to be an artist. Life intervened, however, and her abilities diversified to meet daily challenges.
Karen abandoned the formality of fine art and instead allowed her creativity to inform ordinary activities, whether they involved raising her son or decorating for Christmas.
Over the years, she transformed a dinner party into a surprise wedding (her own), Thanksgiving get-togethers into wreath-making fests and simple words of wisdom into a best-selling book.
Probably her largest work of art to date is her home, the historic Trout Farm, located centrally in the Santa Ynez Valley. Since buying the property in 1991, she has restored the house—built by the Hanley family in 1886—enlarged rooms and brought the 1940s-era trout pond back to sparkling life.
“I was so intrigued by the name ‘the old Trout Farm,’” Karen explains. “When I stepped out of the car with the realtor, I said, ‘This is my dream home,’ but it sure needed some TLC.”
Today, tall trees, blooming water iris and a wide lawn skirt the glimmering pond, which teems with bluegill, bass and catfish. Karen encourages guests to drop a line into the clear water as long as they agree to observe the house rules: “You catch it, you clean it, you cook it, you eat it.”
Karen and her husband, Jon Stephen, have even begun to restore the three locks that once held young trout and still keep silt from entering the pond. Karen envisions bridges to allow easy access to the horse pasture beyond and a future waterfall, though Jon, owner of Jon’s Equipment and Construction, gently deems that “unrealistic.”
While remodeling the guesthouse, which sits waterside like the rustic fishing cabin that it is, Karen let her imagination run wild. With help from the late Alden French, an artist whose media were tile, rock and concrete, she turned a run-down shack into a gracious getaway for family and friends.
To create a natural surface on the kitchen floor, Alden mingled fractured shell tile with river rock. When Karen asked for a concrete sink with a trout motif, Alden went one better, carving fins and tail into the wooden counter and lining the sink with a mosaic of flowing water.
Into the concrete backsplash they pushed a rusty tackle box that “popped up in the pond,” well-worn kitchen knives and a long neck beer bottle to honor Karen’s late son, Jeff, a Special Operations Firefighter/Paramedic for Los Angeles County Fire Department, for whom the Jeff Langley Training Tower at the LACFD heliport is named.
In the shower, the image of a cowboy fishing from a rock amid swaying reeds plays out in river rock and colorful bits of tile. Wallpaper leaves and a genuine tree trunk set into one corner complete the idyll. “I told Alden I wanted a rock shower,” Karen relates. “When I came back, this is what he’d done as a gift to me.
I flipped when I saw it, because it’s so fabulous. “I’d have an idea and he would enhance anything I came up with,” she adds. “He loved that I was turning him loose and that we could create together.” For nearly four years, Karen plowed through the arcane challenges of construction, hydrology and well maintenance, but grading and septic repair issues proved too complicated.
Enter the unflappable Jon Stephen, of Jon’s Equipment & Construction, whom she hired to help with the work. “I found my dream man in the driveway,” she laughs, remembering the day he arrived on the job. “He told me I needed to have a dry well and I’m such a city girl, I looked at him and shot back, ‘What’s the point? Who on earth would want a DRY well?’ He still thinks that’s the funniest thing he’s ever heard.”
A lifelong Valley resident, Jon was living in a 5000-square foot home he built himself. Karen appreciated his construction savvy and relished discussing her projects with him. He always gave advice willingly, his suggestions smart and creative, and their friendship soon blossomed into love. “I loved his dry humor,” Karen says with a grin, her eyes sparkling beneath wisps of blond hair. “He’s very soft spoken and steady, and I’m insane, so it all works! A
nd we both love to create and design. “I’d done a lot before meeting Jon,” she continues, “but he raised the visionary bar for me and then helped make our ideas happen. We feed off each other’s ideas—it’s like a creative jam session! We designed the entire kitchen ourselves and it’s perfect, it’s exactly what we wanted.”
Throughout the old farmhouse, Karen and Jon have created a décor reminiscent of a bygone era, yet with modern conveniences cleverly integrated. In the new kitchen, what looks like a country cupboard beneath the bar holds a dedicated icemaker, while an indoor barbecue nestles in a “cabinet” of rock and concrete.
Everywhere, the earth tones of rich wood glow, and the eye catches on some cowboy- or trout-related treasure from the past. There is a profusion of spice boxes, tin signs, archaic utensils, leatherwork, vintage tack, framed photographs and fat bouquets of flowers.
With all the accoutrements of a well-stocked antique shop, the “cowgirl bathroom” encourages guests to linger, especially over the framed portraits of the 19th century couple who built the house. Elsewhere, bent-willow chairs bump against natural wood wainscoting, and a 1930s school desk sits beneath weathered oars, creels and duck decoys decorating the walls.
When not busy with design projects, doing volunteer work or hosting friends, the couple likes to get away with their horses, riding on local ranches or camping in the wilds. Karen also fully enjoys her memberships in the 60-year-old Sage Hens riding group, as well as the Fillies and Saddle Skirts. Although Jon grew up around horses on a ranch in Los Olivos, Karen came to them later, in the 1980s, while still living in Southern California.
“My dream was to be able to look out my kitchen window and see my horse,” she says with delight, pointing at the yard with its paddock, barn and chicken coop. “And there it is!” Raised in La Cañada, Karen often accompanied her father, who was involved in the publishing of Photoplay and Motion Picture magazines, to Hollywood sound stages. The first time she saw a crew shooting a television commercial, the proverbial bolt of lightning struck.
“I said, ‘This is what I want to do,’” she remembers. “I loved every phase of it because it was fast, highly creative. I was probably 21 years old when I started standing on stages and working for nothing, just to learn my craft. “I was lucky,” she adds. “I learned on the job and earned my way up the ladder to become a commercial producer.”
After a forgettable date in the mid-1980s brought her to the Santa Ynez Valley for the first time, Langely visited regularly for what she calls “sanity maintenance.” Though she’d often stay only a few hours, friendly shopkeepers began treating her like a local. Eager to move to the Valley, Karen retired early from her job and left the big city behind.
“I was so ready,” she admits, “and I was so, so, so in love with the Trout Farm. I still love it madly.” Thanks to the careful ministrations and lively personalities of Karen and Jon, the Trout Farm lives on, full of love, warmth and merriment. With imagination and skill, they have redeemed a worthy property and preserved a beloved piece of Valley history.
“I would love to paint and draw like I did when I was a kid,” Karen says, “but I’m very happy with the route my life has taken. I’ve been very, very lucky. “When I had the opportunity to retire and move to this beautiful valley,” she adds with a smile, “I never looked back. I felt I’d come home.”