The third annual North Bay arts awards
ART IS LIKE revolution–neither one happens by itself. Independent spirits have to be there, defying convention and leading the way. But the resemblance doesn’t stop there. In both cases, after the smoke clears, it’s easy to forget the people whose bold ideas lit the spark.
Not fair? Of course not. But it’s also darn unwise. If you ignore creativity long enough, it will go away–and with it the artistic innovation that keeps life here in the North Bay (or anywhere else) interesting.
With that rather selfish motive in mind, this publication tries every year to recognize the independent spirits at work in the arts through the Indy Awards, an annual award ceremony that shines a spotlight on individuals and institutions who make a unique contribution to the North Bay arts scene.
The recipients, selected by the newspaper’s editorial board, are always an eclectic group working in a variety of creative fields, from music to the visual arts to administration.
This year is no exception: whether they’re starting their own music magazine to highlight the accomplishments of local bands or mounting a world-class film festival that attracts the top names in independent film to the North Bay, these folks arc like lightning bolts across the local arts scene. Without them, our world would be a dimmer place.
For art’s sake: Gerry Simmel, Victor Conforti, and Jim Callahan realized their dream of creating a visual arts venue in Sonoma.
Visions in the Valley
Sonoma Valley Museum of Art
“It felt like we were responding to a need,” recalls Jim Callahan, one of a group of local art enthusiasts whose dream to establish a visual arts venue at a prominent site has recently borne fruit with the creation of the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.
The group transformed an eyesore–a former furniture shop at the entrance to Sonoma’s historic plaza that had sat vacant for a decade–into a stylish new facility that offers precious wall space to local artists, traveling exhibits, and private collections. The museum displays works by local, national, and international artists, including painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, ceramics, architecture, design, printmaking, film, video, and crafts.
“One aspect of our mission is that art has a place in every life and everybody has some sort of relationship to it: artists, appreciators, and collectors,” says Callahan, himself a Sonoma artist for 21 years.
Another of SVMA’s goals is to provide a cultural bridge among the diverse communities in Sonoma Valley, he says. The museum has recently featured works by Latino and Japanese artists. “There are elements of universal beauty, and we want to provide a showplace for that,” explains Callahan. He adds that part of the excitement of working with the SVMA is being able to provide additional educational programming for local schools.
Future SVMA exhibitions include a series showcasing original artwork used for wine labels; a spotlight on West Coast photographers; and “Art That Sings”–handmade guitars as art–which will run concurrently with the Healdsburg Guitar Festival.
As a member-supported nonprofit, SVMA is flourishing, having signed up 850 members since its inception last spring. Organizers have even raised enough cash to buy the building (which it now leases) in February.
The museum’s location in Sonoma Valley plays a vital role in its success, according to Callahan. “Part of the identity of this community is contained within the idea of aesthetic appreciation,” he explains. “Food and wine are aesthetic pursuits, and likewise we’re providing a another level of enhancement in the community.” Paula Harris
A Hand to the Bands
Back when Janis Joplin roamed the earth and the Beatles were still together, Frank Hayhurst was already rocking Sonoma County. For more than three decades now Hayhurst has been a tall drink of white light on the local music scene.
In the late ’60s his legendary band, the Bronze Hog, helped launch the Inn of the Beginning and a budding county music scene. In 1983 he opened Zone Music in Cotati, which quickly gained a reputation as a musician-friendly venue with a knowledgeable staff.
But Frank’s desire to help musicians goes far beyond giving advice on what new guitar to select. In 1994 he founded Musicians Helping Musicians to aid uninsured local music makers and their families. The program also encourages people to practice preventive medicine and promote general wellness.
“A lot of musicians aren’t part of the system,” Hayhurst says. “Generally, they don’t have any medical insurance. When friends got seriously ill, I discovered that the medical community and the insurance companies are in turmoil. We need to take care of each other.”
Musicians Helping Musicians is funded through musical benefits and contributions and adheres to the strictest nonprofit guidelines.
“When money comes into MHM, it goes directly to the people who need it,” Hayhurst says. “I consider my time and any form of overhead I incur as my personal donation. Hopefully, we can grow MHM into something that can be duplicated across the county.”
To date, Musicians Helping Musicians has raised more than $200,000. On Dec. 3 Hayhurst will present an all-out rock-and-roll event at the Tradewinds, the Inn of the Beginning, Spanky’s, and the Redwood Cafe to raise money for local keyboard artist Stu Blank, who is currently battling melanoma. The show will feature over 20 local bands, each playing for 15 minutes.
“Musicians are into the most juicy and interesting parts of life,” Hayhurst says. “The real value in music comes from the heart. It’s not about becoming a star. It’s about the love of the art form itself. I consider Zone Music a community resource to help my fellow musicians.” Bill English
Section M–the name is almost ominous. The lone consonant recalls Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder or the single-letter title of Fritz Lang’s child-killer flick M. It’s even the nom de guerre of 007’s exasperated boss. But for readers of the popular local publication, M stands for music.
“I really believe that the North Bay has some of the best bands in the world,” says Michael Houghton, 28, editor and co-founder of the 2-year-old bimonthly magazine.
“A bunch of us got together and just started throwing around the concept of a music magazine for the North Bay, and the idea just took on a life of its own,” he continues. “It grew faster than we ever expected, faster than we could keep up with sometimes.”
Overseen by a committee of staffers (including locals Sara Bir, Geoffrey Dawson, Michael Houghton, William “Wild Bill” Powell, Mike Schaus, and Felix Thursday), Section M has become the bulletin board, pulpit, and soapbox of Sonoma County’s music scene.
“This magazine has acted as sort of a magnet to draw in some of the most talented and amazing people I’ve ever met,” Houghton says of Section M’s contributors.
Among those people is photographer Wild Bill, 26, who wryly characterizes his involvement with Section M as “totally accidental from the beginning, but I figured that it would be a good way to get my photographs published.” Then he adds, “Section M would have never existed if it wasn’t for the hard work and dedication of all our volunteers.”
Indeed, the past 24 months have amounted to something of a crash course in publishing for the dedicated crew.
“We’re really proud of the creative end, but we’re still learning how to run Section M as a business,” says Houghton, who holds down a day job doing architectural drafting. “We’ve been doing this whole thing on a shoestring budget for two years, and sometimes that makes it hard to expand as fast as we would like.
“This is what we do in our free time,” he adds. “It’s been rough at times, a lot like being in a band. It’s hard work, we lose a lot of sleep, but this is our definition of following our dreams.” Daedalus Howell
The Film Institute of Northern California
When the historic Rafael Theater in downtown San Rafael was refurbished and reopened 18 months ago by the Film Institute of Northern California, expectations for the newly christened Rafael Film Center were optimistically high.
FINC director Mark Fishkin, together with longtime board member and Rafael project coordinator Ann Brebner, envisioned the new facility as being more than a mere annex site for the Mill Valley Film Festival, the stylish international movie event that till now has been FINC’s main claim to fame.
With first-rate projection and sound systems, and with three no-expense-spared theater spaces in a lovingly restored art decco building, the Rafael was expected to be hailed as the classiest place to catch small, independent films in the North Bay–if not the entire state. It was quite a dream.
Happily, the dream came true.
Since opening its doors, the Rafael has drawn steadily increasing numbers of cineastes from around the North Bay. The theater is also building a solid reputation–mirroring that of the highly influential MV Film Festival–as the place for struggling independent filmmakers to show their work.
Says Brebner, “I can’t count the number of times that visiting filmmakers have come up to me saying, ‘I can’t believe it! Not only am I actually showing my film to an audience that loves it, but just look at the theater it’s being shown in!’
“It’s easier to finance a film today than to find a place to show it,” she says. “You can’t imagine the number of remarkable films that have been made around the world that no one will ever see.
“It breaks my heart to think that these films will have to remain hidden simply because they cannot find a venue.”
There is hope for all such filmmakers as long as the Film Institute of Northern California continues to dream such magnificent dreams. David Templeton
Feeling like a million bucks: Telecom Valley tycoons–Keith Neuendorff, Paul Elliott, Chick Peterson, and David Scott–bailed out the Phoenix Theatre, a popular Petaluma punk emporium.
The Phoenix Theatre Four
December 1999 was about to deliver a holiday from hell to local music fans. The rumors had been circulating for months: the Phoenix Theatre was being sold to a developer who planned to turn the Petaluma all-ages music venue into an office building.
The rumors turned out to be true. The deal was in the works, and the North Bay was about to lose one of its most cherished concert halls, a youth hangout that had been a launching pad for hundreds of Bay Area bands, ranging from outfits that never played another live gig to the likes of Primus and Green Day. After 15 years of live music, the curtain was about to drop on the Phoenix for good.
But suddenly, at the last possible moment, everything changed. A group of mystery investors stepped in and purchased the Phoenix to preserve it as a music venue. Like a Texas kid waking up to a white Christmas, music fans of all ages were rubbing their eyes, wondering what the hell was going on.
The angels of musical mercy turned out to be a group of local telecom engineers who reaped a financial windfall from the stock market last year when their employer, Cerent Corp., was bought out by Cisco Systems. The four–Paul Elliott, Keith Neuendorff, Chick Peterson, and David Scott–pooled their newfound money to buy the Phoenix from the developer who had it in escrow.
“There’s no place like it in the Bay Area,” Peterson says, explaining the foursome’s decision to shell out $350,000 to save the venue. “Most clubs won’t even let a kid in to play music, and here’s a place where young musicians can not only play but can actually get encouragement to pick up an instrument in the first place or learn how to do sound or lighting. . . . I think that makes the Phoenix unique.”
Peterson and the other buyers are quick to say that the deal wouldn’t have happened without help from some local business people–including real estate agent Robert Ramirez and attorney Thom Knudson.
But the struggle isn’t over at the Phoenix, caution its new owners. The building, built in 1904 as an opera house, could use some serious renovation, and the law requires an expensive seismic retrofit that must be completed by 2002. None of this will be easy. But the Phoenix Four, who all are parents, are determined that the next generation will be able to enjoy the North Bay’s most unusual music venue.
Says Paul Elliott, “We’re trying to preserve the Phoenix so that when Dave and Keith’s kids are ready, it’ll be there for them.” Patrick Sullivan
The Petaluma Poetry Walk
Geri Digiorno loves poetry. She loves to read it, write it, and speak it aloud. And she knows a lot of other people who feel the same way. But about six years ago, Digiorno had to face the fact that in her home town of Petaluma there were not that many places (read: none) where poetry fans could gather to experience the electrifying magic of poetry being read by its author.
Beyond the random bookstore appearance by the rare visiting poet (and it’s usually only the most famous of them who ever receive such treatment), there were no venues for poets to present their work to an appreciative audience.
“It was very frustrating,” says Digiorno.
Out of that frustration was born the Petaluma Poetry Walk. The annual event–which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary–brings local poetry writers, known and unknown, together with a range of international poets.
The artists are assigned time slots at half a dozen live performance spaces set up throughout Petaluma’s downtown area. Beginning at noon, poetry fans, maps in hand, move from venue to venue, drinking up literally hundreds of poems.
Now co-sponsored by Poets & Writers, the quirky and appealing event draws scores of eager attendees every year. The Poetry Walk is now a fixture of the North Bay arts scene and has contributed to a kind of poetry renaissance.
“The North Bay,’ says Digiorno, “was starving for an event like this.”
Poet Ron Salsbury, a regular performer at the event, agrees.
“This is poetry heaven,” he says of the North Bay. “There’s so much good poetry being created around here, it’s just amazing. But where can you go to hear it? Where can a poet find an audience? Since Geri started organizing the Poetry Walk, local interest in live poetry has definitely increased.”
That’s what Digiorno likes to hear.
“Poetry is a vital part of being human,” she says. “The Poetry Walk isn’t just for the poets and the people who already love poetry. It’s for the people who never knew before how thrilling, how life-changing, a well-crafted poem can be.” David Templeton
Rene di Rosa di Rosa Preserve
Rene di Rosa sometimes describes himself as an artoholic, and visitors to the Rene and Veronica di Rosa Preserve–located in the hills of Napa County–will be unlikely to quibble with that description. In the preserve’s main gallery, art comes at visitors from every direction–walls, ceilings, and floors. In all, the collection houses more than 1,700 pieces of art.
But it’s not just any art that finds its way into di Rosa’s collection. The emphasis here is on California art–paintings, sculptures, and photographs by 600 artists, almost all from Northern California. “It’s a unique collection because it focuses on Bay Area art, especially Bay Area funk,” says Gay Shelton, director of the Sonoma Museum of Visual Art. “I don’t know anyone else who’s collecting like that.”
Indeed, this may be the best place in Northern California to find regional art. But that’s not the only thing that makes the di Rosa preserve unique.
The preserve may be the only world-class art collection whose owner frequently greets visitors at the door. The elderly di Rosa (born in Boston in 1919) brings that personal touch to many aspects of the gallery.
It’s a trick of the di Rosa gallery–which has only been open to visitors for three years now–not to name the artists with the customary plaques. Instead, small notebooks in every chamber of the preserve contain the names, titles, and dates. Di Rosa says he avoided title cards because it irked him to see visitors at a museum paying more attention to the text than to the image.
Perhaps nothing sums up the unique appeal of the di Rosa preserve and its art collection better than the big chiseled stone letters spelling out the museum’s mission: “divinely regional, superbly parochial, wondrously provincial . . . an absolutely native glory.” Patrick Sullivan and Richard von Busack
From the October 5-11, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.