Long before the tiny hamlet of Graton was known for its art galleries, antique stores and Zagat-rated bistros, locals packed the standing-room-only community center to protest reconstruction plans for an old apple-drying building in town. The year was 1980, and the project, led by architect J. Lamont Langworthy, involved turning the long-since-abandoned building into a collection of artist studios.
"People were against it," Langworthy tells me with a chuckle, "as they often are against things that are good for them."
Originally built in 1918, the condemned building still bore the evidence of a time when apples reigned as a major cash crop. During the '20s and '30s, a conveyor belt of water floated the fruit across Bowen Street to the dryer, where they were cut, peeled and left to drip their juices onto the floor.
By the time Langworthy discovered it, the building had been abandoned for a decade. "The place was a mess," he says, "full of old, greasy, apple-peeling machines." The architect spent the next six years transforming the drying rooms into artist studios, sparking a renaissance that breathed life into Graton, which he says was "a ghost town."
The refurbished building (named Atelier, French for "workshop") began renting out its studio spaces in 1987. Twenty-five years and countless creative ventures later, Atelier One is hosting its first open studio with a weekend-long anniversary celebration that kicks off on Friday, Sept. 28.
Two of those peeling machines still preside over the hushed hallways, whose walls are strewn with the paintings, photographs and mixed-media pieces of the 28 artists, designers, musicians and, of course, founding architect who work there.
Vintage collectable sculptor Monty Monty occupies a corner workshop that would bring any steampunk to his knees. Using everything from old fishing rods to film reels, Monty creates fanciful yet functional art—like the bowling ball bass he'll be playing at Friday's gala.
Also sharing the roof of Atelier One are a smattering of painters, including SRJC instructor Lisa Beerntsen, Robert Breyer, Cindy Cleary and Charles Becker, who does for fruit what Marvin Gaye did for first dates—never has there been a sexier strawberry. Fashion designer Emily Melville rents a studio space, as do the Spiral Foods Co-op, which is 300 members closer to bringing the only member-owned food cooperative to Sonoma County.
"I'm grateful to have found a comfortably weathered place where no one worries about tromping down the halls in wet boots," says Maureen Lomasney, who's rented studio space for 16 years and currently curates the gallery at Funeria, the first of its kind in the country.
Devoted exclusively to crematory vessels, Funeria asks artists to honor death by thinking outside of the pine box. The resulting urns, resplendent in their whimsy and craftsmanship, are not to be missed. There's a giant stamp carved out of a solid block of salt. There's a papier-mâché dog. There's even an urn made out of a vintage vacuum cleaner, replete with a viewfinder through which one can see home videos of the deceased.
As evidence of what Lomasney calls their "philanthropy," Langworthy and co-owner Bruce Stephen are dedicated to keeping the rents low. The result? "We're always full," Langworthy points out, "and have no need to advertise."
"Affordability helps buy time for shapes to reveal themselves and ideas to mature," Lomasney tells me. "For all of us here, having time to grow is the greatest luxury of all."