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'Kindred' Souls

Exhibit brings out artists' animal sides

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NATURAL HABITAT Alchemia Artistic Director Liz Jahren admires painted representations of artists' animal sides. - DAVID TEMPLETON
  • David Templeton
  • NATURAL HABITAT Alchemia Artistic Director Liz Jahren admires painted representations of artists' animal sides.

Artistic Director Liz Jahren halts in front of a cluster of paintings on the wall at the Petaluma location of Alchemia Gallery and Studios, a visual-and-performing-arts nonprofit serving adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the North Bay. "Oh, wait, look at these. Aren't these beautiful?" she asks.

All of the images are boldly rendered expressions of animals—cats, pigs, wolves, sheep dogs, polar bears and penguins, whales, fish, turtles and, um, a centaur. Some paintings are detailed to an astonishing degree, others simplistic to the point of minimalism; many are fancifully abstract, all of them vivid, colorful and instantly captivating.

"We often mistake animals as other," Jahren says. It's one of two opening receptions for the "Kindred IV" exhibit running simultaneously in Petaluma and Novato. It's the fourth annual Kindred exhibit in Petaluma, but the first in Marin, where Alchemia has had a facility for 10 years but opened the downtown Grant Street gallery just one year ago.

"As a culture, we sometimes forget that animals have feelings, they have thoughts, they have ideas of their own, in a way, right?" Jahren says, when asked why they dubbed the show "Kindred."

"I think that's also true of a lot of people in our community, this community right here," she says, gesturing at the works on the wall. Alchemia artists created them all. "There's a special sense of 'kindred' that exists between our artists and the animal world, and there's something really beautiful about that relationship. When they choose an animal that speaks to them and then create a piece of art around that animal, those pieces often turn out to be very powerful and just deeply, viscerally appealing."

In addition to the galleries and the Novato teaching space, Alchemia operates a Santa Rosa location focusing primarily on performing arts: dance, theater, puppetry, media, music and singing. The Santa Rosa location also has its own, robust visual-arts program.

Elizabeth Clary, the Executive Director of Alchemia, arrives fresh from Novato's opening day to join the festivities. Clary says it was a packed show, a testament to Alchemia's growing visibility in Novato.

"The bottom line is that Alchemia has served Marin County for over 10 years, but we've been mostly under the radar," Clary says. "A downtown storefront is a great way to promote the work of the artists we support."

And those artists, notes Jahren, face more obstacles than one would assume when they identify as creative.

"Basically, people act as if you're not allowed to be an artist," she says. "It's assumed you'll participate in work programs where you can clean parking lots or assemble things in factories. That's great for a lot of people—but for those who have an artistic streak, we offer an alternative. These studios and galleries are places our clients come to be supported as artists, with mentorship, facilitation and curatorship, to help them create and share their artwork with the world."

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