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Sister Art

Napa Valley natives form collective of likeminded artisans

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Tucked among vineyards and palatial estates in Napa Valley lies the Ehlers Society, a collective of artists, filmmakers and performers led by sisters Melissa and Mercedes Baker.

Through their paintings and event installations and productions—and with the help of their friends—the Baker sisters are transforming their little corner of wine country into an artistic oasis.

This weekend, the Ehlers Society hosts a holiday open house in St. Helena, where the Bakers will show and sell their oil paintings and welcome other artisans, like jeweler Sonia Lub and filmmaker and photographer Ryan McGuire, to share in some holiday cheer.

Oakville natives, the sisters grew up on a cattle ranch with their other sister, Anna, also an artist and writer. "We were really the only kids out there, and we had a lot of time on our hands, so we started doing art and performing plays really young," Melissa says.

After high school, the sisters studied art at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh before transferring to San Francisco State University.

Melissa's paintings are decidedly abstract, with color and atmosphere emphasized over form. Mercedes' works are a mixture of representational and expressionist that layer semitransparent figures and architectural structures of every era to reflect a passage of time.

"All of time and history can be seen in the present day," Mercedes says, "and I explore the idea that our heritage forms who we become."

"My paintings feel more celestial," Melissa says, "Like they're scenes from another world. It's funny when you look at our work together, because Mercedes' paintings will be representative of something and mine will feel like the subconscious element of that representation, what's going on under the surface."

After a decade of traveling and living in various locations around the country, the sisters moved back to the Napa Valley together in 2008 to be closer to family. They rented a house on Ehlers Lane in St. Helena that came with a 1920s hay barn littered with old appliances and farm equipment, which the sisters transformed into an art studio.

Since their return to the North Bay, the sisters have shown their oil paintings at wineries and alternative art spaces, yet their imaginations quickly propelled them beyond the canvas. They formed the Ehlers Society in 2010 to produce large-format installations at events like Nimbus Arts' annual Nimbash gala, and recently at SOMO Village. Today, the Ehlers Society is made up of filmmakers, fashion designers, welders and everything in between.

"Artists tend to gravitate toward each other," says Melissa. "And we all fuel each other creatively."

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