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Calistoga Calling

Wherein the Spotlight writer gets a warm reception on a chilly day

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Ira Yeager

A Portrait of the Artist and His Passion

Situated on the Napa River's east bank, the Yäger Galerie's two rooms tell a unique story on every wall. Stepping inside, visitors are not only greeted by impressionist paintings depicting 17th-century French rural life, but also artifacts: loaves of bread on wooden racks, a food preparation table covered in flour, and a wine press. Standing in the first room, the artifacts, all collected by the artist during his 65-year career, feel like natural extensions of the art hanging on the walls. The effect is that visitors become immersed in a more intimate experience than that most galleries and museums provide.

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The Yäger Galerie owes its existence not only to the artist, who, at 80, still works daily in his Calistoga studio, but also to Brian Fuller, the gallery's director and Yeager's representative for the last 25 years. The gallery, open since June 2018, represents Fuller's passion for bringing the painter's work to a larger audience.

Born in Bellingham, Wash., in 1938, Ira Yeager became interested in painting as a teenager. At 18, he moved to San Francisco. At the time, the Bay Area figurative movement rebelled against abstract expressionism (e.g., Jackson Pollock) by returning to more recognizable forms. A "starving artist" in his early years, Yeager studied at what was then called the California College of Arts and Crafts and the San Francisco Art Institute before, at the age of 21, traveling to Florence, Italy, to study at the city's famed Accademia d'Arte.

Although Yeager has made multiple trips to Europe to gain both inspiration and many of the artifacts on display in his gallery, his formative years studying under figurative movement artists continues to influence his style. "My continued seven-day-a-week painting schedule only excites me more for new fertile ventures on the canvas, daringly playing out that exhilarating game of chaos versus order," he writes on his website. In fact, one of Yeager's newest pieces currently hangs just right of the entrance. Next to it, just like the rest of the work on display, is a small plaque indicating the painting's name, date, and price.

As Fuller and I stood next to a larger canvas in the front room (it was $15,000), he explained that the plaques had just gone up the day I visited. He had struggled with the decision for months, trying to balance the needs of collectors who want to know prices against the sensitivities of others who visit the gallery solely for cultural enrichment. To the latter group, seeing prices could make them feel awkward and want to leave. At that moment, a couple and their four young children entered. Mr. Fuller greeted them warmly and invited them to stay as long as they wanted. The children were less interested in the art than whether the loaves of bread were real. "They are," gallery assistant Ren Ta explained, "but they're probably really stale by now."

The Yäger Galerie's backroom is a contrast to the front. Although many of the works inspire fantasies of the French countryside, a large portion of the room is dedicated to featuring works from Yeager's

Indian Summer: Portraits of Nobility series. These portraits, painted on canvas, rusty metal signs and even the door from an old Ford truck, depict Plains Indians with an emphasis on male chiefs and warriors. Beside them are many of the original tools Yeager used to create these works. They leave the impression that the artist will return at any moment and continue painting.

Yäger Galerie visitors can expect a new experience every time they walk inside. Not only does new work take the place of sold pieces, but Fuller is also continually experimenting with new themes and arrangements. The back room has hosted more than Yeager's art. A Boston quartet recently played there, to patrons' delight. Fuller also hopes to one day use the space as a teaching environment for children interested in the arts.

I left the Yäger Galerie with a deep respect for the man and his art. I can heartily recommend that those planning trips to Calistoga add modern art to their itineraries alongside delectable food, fantastic wine and stunning nature.

The Yäger Galerie is open daily from 11am-5pm. Walk-ins are welcome, and prospective buyers can set up viewing appointments by calling 707. 341.3141.

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