Master of her own universe: California Museum of Art director Gay Shelton has created a world of wonder in our own backyard, with offerings that range from experimental film to Tibetan sand paintings.
Celebrating the independent spirit of Sonoma County’s arts and entertainment community
Edited by Greg Cahill
ONLY THROUGH ART can we get outside of ourselves and know another’s view of the universe that is not the same as ours,” said writer Marcel Proust, “and see landscapes that would otherwise have remained unknown to us like the landscapes of the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing a single world, our own, we see it multiply until we have before us as many worlds as there are original artists.”
In Sonoma County, we are blessed with an array of artists who unselfishly welcome us into their creative worlds. Yet most of them receive little or no material reward, their labor of love often known to but a small circle of friends.
This year, the Sonoma County Independent has chosen to celebrate the independent spirit of those artists. The first annual Indy Awards pays homage to outstanding contributions in the local arts and entertainment community. The recipients–selected by the newspaper’s editorial board, including editors, staff writers, and contributors–range from the mainstream to the underground, from acclaimed painter Jack Stuppin and his philanthropic work to impresario Tom Gaffey, whose Petaluma punk emporium the Phoenix Theatre offers a safe haven for local teens while showcasing alternative music.
So, savor this guide to these masters of their own universes.
The man behind the curtain: Tom Gaffey of the Phoenix Theatre
Booking by Anarchy
Manager, Phoenix Theatre
THERE IS A CERTAIN undeniable magic that exists, pounding and churning away within the 90-year-old brick walls of Petaluma’s enigmatic Phoenix Theatre. It’s not so much the power of the music that emanates from the bare bones stage, though the many big-name bands that have played early gigs there–Green Day, Lungbutter, Mr. Bungle, and Primus, to name a few–have certainly benefited from the Phoenix’s peculiar charm. It’s not the building’s history, first as a traditional theater, then as a vaudeville house, and for many years as a single-screen movie theater.
The true magic of the Phoenix can be summed up in two words: Tom Gaffey.
As the dynamic manager of the vital downtown hangout–he’s run the show there for 15 years–Gaffey has developed and defended his vision of the Phoenix as a rare all-ages performance house, one of the few such venues in the state. There is no bar at Gaffey’s establishment (though you can buy cold apple juice), the liquor license being the one element that bans under-21 patrons from most other clubs. Not only that, but Gaffey–who makes ends meet by driving a cab–has fought to establish the Phoenix as a safe, friendly hangout during daytime hours as well: During those times when no bands are performing, the cavernous theater houses a number of skateboard ramps; artistic visitors are invited to practice their craft in various art projects; kids are allowed to just, you know, sit around listening to CDs and talk.
Which hasn’t always made Gaffey popular with certain nearby merchants and the like, fearful of so many pierced and tattooed young people hanging around; he’s gone to the mat more than once to keep the doors open.
So why does Gaffey go to such effort? “I don’t know why,” he laughs. “No, I do know why. There’s more to my history with the Phoenix than just the last 15 years. I grew up in this building. I had my first job here (when it was a movie house), I learned the theater business here. I hear fond stories about the Phoenix all the time, some from people who used to hang out years ago when the place was called the Showcase.
“I think it’s been a beloved hangout as long as its been a building.”
As for the music, the Phoenix has played a pivotal role in the lives of countless local musicians who might not have started playing were it not for the Phoenix, with its reputation for encouraging new bands.
“Not only is our audience generally kids,” Gaffey says, “but on any given night you’ll find that most of the bands are made up of 17- and 18-year-olds. I call it ‘booking by anarchy.’ If you’ve got an idea and it will fit in the Phoenix, we’ll give it a shot.”
“Here’s how I look at it. This is Everyman’s Building. The first performance in this building, on December 5, 1904, was of the play Everyman. That set the tone, I think, for what would come. I love that the place is used by so many kids,” he adds. “The Phoenix belongs to everyone.”
The World’s a Stage
Founder, Cinnabar Theater
IT’S TOUGH TO TALK of local theater without the name Marvin Klebe coming up early in the conversation. In fact, he’s often featured in the very first sentence. As the visionary founding father of the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma, Klebe has shaped the direction of drama in Sonoma County for almost three decades. Musical theater and opera in particular have grown into a proud tradition at the Cinnabar–a rustic, converted schoolhouse on the outskirts of Petaluma–under the guiding hand of Klebe, who is himself a classically trained baritone.
Not a bad list of accomplishments for a man who got his start as a farm boy singing on the back of a tractor. One of Klebe’s greatest strengths, say those who know him best, is the relentless work ethic he developed during his childhood on the family farm in North Dakota. Memories of those days bring out a special warmth in Klebe’s voice as he recalls practicing while he worked.
“In the summertime, you’d go around and around the field on the tractor,” Klebe says with a deep chuckle. “So there I was, with the muffler blazing, just singing away.”
Fame found Klebe soon enough. He went off to study in Germany and then became a successful opera singer. He was featured at the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds and sang with both the San Francisco Opera and the San Diego Opera. But the rigid routine and traveling lifestyle began to wear thin.
So, in 1970, Klebe moved to Petaluma with his wife, Jan, and sons and purchased an old schoolhouse. The building didn’t look like much, but Klebe thought it would be the perfect place to bring his ideas about musical theater to life. The singer had become enchanted with chamber opera, intrigued by the intimacy and popular appeal of opera on a human scale.
First, however, Klebe put his formidable carpentry skills to work, and with the help of his sons turned the old building into a working performance space. Before long, the Cinnabar Opera Theater was born, along with the experimental Quicksilver Theater Company. Tale for a Deaf Ear, by American composer Mark Buchie, was the first opera on the new stage.
“It went very well,” Klebe says. “Of course, we’ve had to develop an audience: There were few people here back then who had been to operas. When we first started, we thought, god, if we got 20 people we had a good-sized audience.”
Those days are long gone. Cinnabar Theater now is a flourishing concern, in the middle of a critically acclaimed presentation of the works of Beaumarchais. Klebe’s interest in new projects has grown along with his audiences. The Cinnabar Arts Corp. now has a hefty list of programs, including the Petaluma Summer Music Festival and Cinnabar Young Rep.
So what are the rewards of all this hard work? Klebe is modest to the point of shyness, but it’s clear that he derives satisfaction from his social contributions. “Music and art and theater are the quality of life,” Klebe says. “We’re in a place in our civilization where we have far too much stuff. I think the performing arts are a little more biodegradable.”
Now showing: Sonoma Film Institute director Eleanor Nichols
Director, Sonoma Film Institute
WHEN ELEANOR NICHOLS graduated from Sonoma State University in the early 1970s–a degree in anthropology under her belt and a fresh, gradually blossoming passion for films–no one could have predicted the importance that movies would take in her future, that movies would, in fact, one day be at the center of Nichols’ life and career.
In those days, Peter Scarlett–then an SSU faculty member and now the artistic director of the San Francisco Film Festival–had just launched a little operation called the Sonoma Film Institute, an on-campus showcase for foreign, classic, and little-seen films. Shortly after attending her first screening at the institute’s tiny theater in Darwin Hall, Nichols became hooked.
“All of a sudden I started seeing more foreign films than I ever had,” she recalls. “I must have spent three quarters of the ’70s either in San Francisco watching movies or at the Pacific Film Archive down in Berkeley, and regularly at the shows on campus. I saw all kinds of unusual, esoteric stuff, and really became fascinated with non-Hollywood, independent films.”
When Scarlett resigned from the institute in the fall of 1981, Nichols–who’d faithfully continued volunteering in various capacities since the beginning–was the logical choice to replace him.
“It was never anything I’d thought of in terms of a career path,” she laughs. “It was more of a passion.”
For nearly 17 years now, that passion has been the driving force that has made the Sonoma Film Institute one of the state’s leading grassroots presenters of extraordinary cinematic art–and, as Sonoma County’s longest-running venue for independent films, a haven for local film buffs. Tirelessly seeking out quality films that have escaped the notice of mainstream audiences, Nichols has masterminded numerous North Bay movie premieres, championing the work of then-unknown indie talents such as John Sayles, Mike Leigh, Wim Wenders, and Krzysztof Kieslowski, singing the praises of each new film–in 100 words or less–in SFI’s monthly newsletter.
Under Nichols’ care, the once-Lilliputian operation has expanded in scope and ambition, with a mailing list of over 3,200 film fans in several counties and a reputation for excellence that is so unshakable that patrons routinely arrive at Darwin Hall on Friday or Saturday nights–the only two days per week that the institute exhibits Nichols’ cinematic finds–without having bothered to check and see what’s playing. They know it will be something good.
“It’s a very brave and adventurous audience here,” Nichols affirms. “It takes a lot of faith to be willing to come out and try something you know almost nothing about.”
And since Nichols does all the booking herself, patrons have come to expect that what they see on the screen is reflective, not of some arbitrary demographic chart suggesting what films would appeal to the widest array of viewers, but of Nichols’ own tastes and predilections. “True,” she laughs. “Like it or not, what you see on screen here is the stuff I like. But if you come up to me after the show, at least I can always say why I showed it, or why I liked it, or what it was that excited me about it.
“There aren’t too many theaters around where the movie booker hangs out afterwards to talk with the audience.”
As for the oft-heard complaint that, unlike much of Hollywood’s glittery, mind-numbing fluff, most art films are difficult, obscure, complicated, and sometimes depressing, Nichols will have none of it.
“It does seem that independent cinema has a little bit more substance to it than a lot of Hollywood product, has a little bit more to say about what we’re sometimes dealing with in our real life,” she says. “Cinema is emotion. One of the things it does best is to create or demonstrate some kind of emotional reality that an audience can connect with. That’s the driving force, that’s why we go see films in the first place–to experience some sort of vicarious connection with something that touches us.
“The film institute is here for people who want films they can connect with and relate to,” she adds. “Some films offer an escape from reality. Most of the work we show offers a way to understand and appreciate reality. That, more than anything, is what a good film should do.”
Join us as we celebrate these unsung heroes.
Director, California Museum of Art
“IT’S A WHOLE LOT OF FUN to makes things happen,” Gay Shelton admits happily, “especially when you’re an artist. It feels really good to be a decision-maker.”
Having decided to have world-renowned artists display in pairings with local artists; having decided to up the revenues and visibility of the California Museum of Art (located at the Luther Burbank Center), where she is the director; having decided to begin an outdoor film cafe series this summer; having decided to utilize the foyer space as a gallery; having decided to host Salon nights (with discussions on all topics germane to the arts, from paying the rent to wooing dealers to the latest urban exhibitions); and having decided that the CMA is not destined to languish in any way–Shelton knows when to enunciate the words yes and no.
Armed with a professional mandate as a painter to work only on those hodgepodge jobs that make parents sigh sadly over college tuition bills–but that give real-life training and allow enough time to mark the canvas–Shelton, 37, came to the museum in 1993 as the assistant to then-director Duane Jones. When Jones retired, Shelton stepped up. “Duane had brought the museum to where it was,” she says, “which was no small task. I was just at the right place at the right time.”
While the CMA was previously one of the best places to see the work of local artists, it has evolved into one of the best places in the North Bay–other than the University Gallery at Sonoma State–to see work by internationally known artists. “I’m trying to create interesting contexts,” says Shelton of her inspiration to exhibit such nationally known names as Sol Le Witt with the locally known.
When asked about her vision for the future, Shelton doesn’t hesitate. “I want the museum to grow. Period. I want it to be a lively venue. I want it to be of interest to those who live here and of interest to the world at large.
“I want,” says the sweet-spoken Shelton intently, “for us to get bigger and better.”
Sonoma One: Acclaimed landscape artist Jack Stuppin
Artist and philanthropist
IN 1966, artist Jack Stuppin–then a young banker who specialized in science and technology commodities–was smart enough to recognize that a small, odd- looking piece of workmanship called the microchip might make quite a good future for a young banker. He couldn’t have foreseen all the post-adolescent millionaires who would later lord over an area known as Silicon Valley.
The microchip has been very good to Jack Stuppin. And in turn, Stuppin has striven to be very good to everyone. Living with his wife, Jane, and their children for the past 13 years on Charles Schulz’s former Sebastopol estate, the Coffee Grounds, he has done what few other successful businessmen before him have done: fold up the tie and paint.
“Art is what separates man from the other animals; it’s very humanizing,” he says, wearing a paint-smeared shirt in his airy living room. “Anyone who engages in art has to feel humble because it’s such a challenge.”
A devotee of the great outdoor pastime of plein-air painting–in which the world is one’s studio–Stuppin documents the Sonoma County landscape and beyond. With colleagues William Wheeler, Tony King, and the late William Morehouse–known familiarly as the Sonoma Four–Stuppin traveled the West, documenting views from a camp stool, views that are now known to collectors all over the country.
“We live in an area of great natural beauty,” he acknowledges, “and most of my life has been that of an urban person. I think of the urban environment as being a facade that artificially separates man from where we all live, but we’re part of nature. I think that painting the landscape is an individual way of relating back to nature. Sonoma County is a great place to do that, and I paint a unique landscape for a unique audience.”
But it is for his investment in the community that Stuppin is honored with an Indy Award. “I’ve been very fortunate in life, and I feel that my good fortune is something that carries with it a responsibility. I have to give of myself to my community,” says Stuppin, who serves on the board of the Cultural Arts Council of Sonoma County and of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and whose past commitments include serving on the board of the San Francisco Art Institute and devoting himself to the work of the Sonoma Community Foundation (where he maintains a trust for local artists), the Sebastopol Center for the Arts, and the California Museum of Art.
Another recent project involved painting the avian life of the Farallon Islands in a benefit exhibit for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory held at San Francisco’s Academy of Sciences.
“I don’t think of myself as being a terribly unique person; I’ve just been an extremely fortunate person, and I have a great sense of human responsibility,” he says. “I try to engage with other people and bring my education and my resources to a community good.”
Conductor and music director, Orchestra Sonoma
ASK NAN WASHBURN if she’s a woman on a mission, and the conductor and music director of the newly named Orchestra Sonoma (formerly the Rohnert Park Chamber Orchestra) makes a strong case for blending the old and the new, the familiar and the unfamiliar. “I love the standard repertoire and believe that anything sounds better when it’s put into a new context,” says Washburn, 42.
“So it is out of a love of that repertoire and a sense of wanting even more that I always make it a point to program works by contemporary women and minority composers. I’m just not content to listen to the same Beethoven year after year, no matter how much I love it.
“If it’s put into a new context and perhaps alternated with a lot of other different kinds of things, I think that’s a fresher approach.”
But it hasn’t been an easy task. During the past two years, the orchestra has struggled to make ends meet, and in recent weeks Washburn has taken hits from critics who say that her penchant for performing works by obscure modern composers is just too demanding on the ears of local classical music buffs.
It’s a complaint that has dogged the orchestra almost since its inception. In 1995, board members selected Washburn from a field of 29 applicants to replace conductor and founder J. Karla Lemon, also the target of complaints about her eclectic tastes. As the conductor and music director of the Camellia Orchestra in Sacramento and co-founder in 1980 of the Women’s Philharmonic in San Francisco, Washburn was hired to conduct the RPCO primarily because board members felt she was a good match.
True to form, her tenure as permanent musical director and conductor began with a flourish at a weekend of concerts appropriately entitled “New Beginnings,” featuring work by Haydn, Gershwin, Stravinsky, and local contemporary composer Lou Harrison, whose “Suite for Violin, Piano, and Small Orchestra” was highlighted.
“Everybody has different musical tastes,” Washburn says, “and I do stress a multicultural presentation. Lou Harrison is a very fine example of that. Here is this California composer whose piece is heavily influenced by Balinese gamelan music.”
Washburn’s commitment to contemporary composers, and especially women composers, came “out of necessity,” she explains, when the then-budding flutist found herself running out of repertoire as a junior in college.
Meanwhile, she is committed to providing local audiences with a good sense of what she likes about music and performance. “Oh, it’s not only that you have artistic challenges,” she says, “but it’s the emotional impact and the shared experience with the orchestra and the audience as you surmount those challenges.
“It’s a wonderful feeling.”
The poet’s game: Andrew and Lilla Weinberger
The Write Stuff
Andrew and Lilla Weinberger
Co-founders, Sonoma Valley Poetry Festival
POETRY IS POLITE. It gets scribbled in secret journals, analyzed in quiet classrooms, recited shyly in the back of dark coffeehouses. Except on the nights when it seizes Main Street.
Of course, that kind of assertiveness is rare. Indeed, the Sonoma Valley Poetry Festival may well be a unique event. For three years now, the festival has shattered the chains and set verse free to roam the streets of Sonoma. This annual display of verbal fireworks owes much to the work of two of the festival’s founders, husband-and-wife team Andrew and Lilla Weinberger.
Begun as the winning entry in a contest to bring PBS journalist Bill Moyers to town, the festival quickly blossomed beyond the expectations of its creators. Andrew still sounds a bit surprised when he describes the events of the first year. “There were people reading poetry at the intermissions in movie theaters, and grocery clerks stuffing poems into bags,” Andrew Weinberger recalls. “It all culminated in this Writers’ Block Party, for which we sealed off the street and set up stages for people to read their poems. People were performing Shakespeare off the balcony.”
Unfortunately, the festival will not be happening this summer. That is owing in part to big changes at the Weinbergers’ other going concern, Readers’ Books, a bookstore in downtown Sonoma. The couple is opening another store–featuring used and remaindered books–across the street from their current establishment. They say it just didn’t make sense to try to run a poetry festival in the middle of that hefty project.
The good news is that the poetry festival will return next year with a new format. The Weinbergers are working with the Sonoma Community Center to bring in greater financial resources and some fresh faces to make next year’s event a success.
Andrew is quick to credit Lilla and former collaborator Susanne de Rosa as the driving force behind previous years of the festival. He concentrates his own efforts on Readers’ Books, which is a cultural project in its own right and the fruit of the couple’s long-held ambition to be in the independent book-selling business.
From behind the counter of their store, Weinberger has noticed a growing interest in poetry, which he credits in part to the festival. Free-range poetry seems to be catching on. That’s no mean accomplishment in a world that is accustomed to keeping such things locked in the closet.
“What’s surprising to me is that everybody has written this stuff–maybe when they were in the sixth grade or the first time they fall in love,” Weinberger says. “I think poetry is a way for people to stay sensitive, and in a world that’s increasingly coarse, it’s interesting to see how that works.”
A Rich Life
dancer, choreographer, educator
ASK ANN WOODHEAD why she does what she does and the acclaimed dancer, choreographer, and educator doesn’t miss a beat. “The reason I do what I do is because I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says with a laugh. “What I tell students is, if you can do something else and like it, then you should go do that.
“But I just didn’t like anything else as well as I liked dance.”
As a ballroom dancer in high school and later as a mother with two children, Woodhead put practicality aside and pursued her passion with a single-minded intensity. “I just never quit,” she says.
For the past 37 years, Woodhead has danced “seriously,” working as a dance instructor at Sonoma State University, where she imparts her love for the art in a job that has provided the time to nurture her own creativity as well.
Over the years, Woodhead has reshaped the dances to match her changing physical condition. “I used to be interested in very elaborate choreography, highly specified choreography, though I always did improvisation onstage as well. Now I find it tedious to spend hours in the studio working out steps,” she says. “That used to entertain me. I’m 58 years old–very old for a performing dancer–so I need to adapt.
“There is a whole generation of dancers who aren’t quitting. We haven’t been quite as hard on our bodies, unlike earlier generations of dancers, and thanks to all the developments in sports medicine we’re a lot smarter. So we’re able to go on dancing longer.
“I’m interested in exploring what I can do better than I used to do, what I need to let go of.”
Known as an adventurous dancer and choreographer who often has blended the classical and the modern, Woodhead has never been afraid to test her limitations while reaching for her dreams. A few years ago, for example, Woodhead created an as-yet-unfinished trilogy
These days, Woodhead performs with LVP–a collective of dancers and musicians whose work is based in contact improvisation, a very athletic form of dancing–and she continues to choreograph for SSU students. However, she no longer likes producing her own shows, which had won critical acclaim for their innovative qualities.
“The main reward is the process itself–I happen to really love performing and have been grateful that I’ve been able to do that. It’s only in performance that the work comes fully alive. I’ve had a rich life of association with other artists as well–even if you dance solo it involves designers and musicians and other people.
“As for my role as an educator,” she adds, “I’ve had access to an endless parade of talented young students and had a chance to influence people, even though most of the dance students won’t end up as professional dancers. So I treat dance truly as an art form, but also as a means of exploring what kind of person you are. And I hope people get to take something away from that experience that has implications for more than just dancing.”
From the June 25-July 1, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
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