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The Art of Calistoga

Of mud, merlot and muses

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Typecast One of several of Guy Pederson's surreal typewriter sculptures. - DAEDALUS HOWELL
  • Daedalus Howell
  • Typecast One of several of Guy Pederson's surreal typewriter sculptures.

Some might consider Calistoga a kind of Napa County backwater—literally, since the town has long been known for its natural hot springs and mineral waters (not to mention mud baths). In recent decades, the city of 5,155 has staked a meaningful claim in Wine Country with its own American Viticultural Area (AVA) producing a half-dozen or more varietals in upper Napa Valley. Beyond water and wine, Calistoga has quietly nurtured a thriving visual arts community, the efforts of which can be experienced along a veritable gallery row of the town's main drag.

At Contemporary Arts, at the base of Lincoln Avenue, artist Guy Pederson speaks animatedly with a new fan who's fallen hard for his latest series—typewriters encrusted with crystalline minerals that appear at once ancient and like a sneak peak into the future. These aren't your hipster variety of writing machines but rather totemic sculptures to forgotten promise. One such sculpture is called My Father's Dream and is an ode of sorts to a novel that went unwritten by its creator's newspaperman father.

"He never got really to pursue his dream and so that piece for me is really—it's about the sacrifices that our parents make so that we can have the lives that we have," says Pederson. "That's why it sort of universally appeals to everybody."

Describing the process behind the work is less about surrealism and more like a science project, demurs Pederson when asked. He's more interested in the emotional underpinnings that inform the work. Near one of his works is an epigram attributed to Andre Breton, one of surrealism's founders, that aptly contextualizes Pederson's project: "The Art of the Object / It is something spiritual / That appears to be material."

"I've tried various ways of talking about it and none of them have worked in terms of the process," he says, smiling. "For me it's a piece of gratitude because I've been fortunate to live my dream."

Long before social media mavens appropriated the concept of "curation" for their own evil ends, it was the practice of organizing exhibits in a manner that underscored the relationship of art works to each other as well as the viewer. Studio Kokomo maintains the tradition in an eclectic collection that represents the work of dozens of local artists, including its single-monikered namesake.

"I think experience plays the biggest part in creating a gallery such as this and with this many artists," says Kokomo, an artist who's location features the work of about 60 different artists in a variety of media, including ceramics, bronzes, coppers and metals, custom jewelry and exotic woods. "Some of them I've had a relationship with since as far back as 1997."

Kokomo's process is simple: "You just learn from the different people, from the different things that you like, from the different things that your customers like—what sells, what doesn't," laughs the artist, who's own "abstract realist" works also feature prominently. "Thankfully, there's so much out there in terms of artisan works. Northern California is an artist Mecca and I'm able to bring in things that I like and my customers like too."

Longtime juggernauts in the Calistoga gallery scene, Lee Youngman Galleries and Sofie Contemporary Arts offer works by an array of artists and disciplines.

Lee Youngman Galleries specializes in important national and regional artists with a specialty in paintings in oils, watercolors and pastels, as well as plein air paintings of vineyards and other landscapes. Likewise with contemporary artworks and design objects with specific connections to California. The gallery is known for its regionally-focused group and solo exhibitions. Interestingly, the gallery also puts an emphasis on presenting artists at diverse stages of their careers—from emerging artists to mature practitioners, from unknowns to national names.

Strolling into Ca' toga Galleria D'Arte, just off Lincoln on Cedar Street, is akin to stepping into the atelier of a Renaissance-era painter with a welcome need to decorate every inch of the place. Chance a glance to the ceiling and you'll see Calistoga's own version of the Sistine Chapel, albeit more fanciful and less Catholic.

"This is all the creation of the owner," says gallerist Tony Banthutham. "And he built this building 22 years ago to be his gallery." He adds that there is 10 times more art at the artist's nearby residence.

The artist in question is Italian-born Carlo Marchiori, who studied classic art and academic design in Padua and Venice before departing for Canada where he worked as illustrator and film animator for CBC Television and the National Film Board of Canada. Despite being nominated for an Academy Award for an animated short, Machiori opted instead to invest his estimable talents in mural painting. Now 82, he is still active and travels the world, creating commissioned murals in his period-style for hotels and casinos.

Another space off Lincoln that shares some cinematic history is the Sharpsteen Museum on Washington Street. Founded by Walt Disney animator and producer Ben Sharpsteen, the museum is largely dedicated to the history of Calistoga by way of dioramas, artifacts, antiques and exhibits, including a coin-operated model train. However, fans of early Disney history will be impressed by the assorted original pencil sketches and studies of favorite characters, not to mention the Oscar statuette (one of 11 Sharpsteen won throughout his career).

"He is unique and well-celebrated," says gallery associate Ren Ta of artist Ira Yeager, whose work is the sole focal point of Yäger Galerie on Lincoln Avenue.

Yeager was part of the fabled Bay Area figurative movement in the 1950s and spent his college years cavorting with other superstar students, such as Richard Diebenkorn, at the California College of Arts and Crafts and the San Francisco Art Institute. He later became known for his whimsical depictions of flora and fauna, a variety of 18th-century figures (he will often date paintings "1820"), and most recently, portraits of Native Americans.

After San Francisco, Yeager eventually studied in Italy, traveled throughout the world with prolonged stops in Morocco and France, and spent a decade in Corfu, Greece. He settled in Calistoga 32 years ago and maintains a studio in San Francisco. The gallery that bears his name is curated by gallery director Brian Fuller who has represented Yeager's work for almost three decades.

"He's got a great eye—he knows the artist's work intimately," says Ta, who points to Fuller's ability to "pull it all together so it has this great fluidity and gives the paintings context."

Indeed, the gallery is an experience unto itself and reflective of the artist's guiding philosophy.

"Painting is my life blood and life force—for me an everlasting quest in exploration of the various levels of my consciousness and creativity," Yeager writes in his artist statement. "I return time and time again to the same themes. On each occasion, I bring new thoughts, techniques, and fresh ideas, seeking a greater perfection of subjects that are centuries old."

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