At the corner of Library Lane and Adams Street in St. Helena is a billboard of sorts, designed and built to hold public art and draw attention to its neighbor, the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum inside the St. Helena Library. It is the intersection of a man’s admiration for a great author and the author’s connection to this region, the man’s love of art and his vision of public art and community involvement.
“The purpose of that project has been to display works that blend serious artistic intent with themes from the works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Its success depends on artistic expression that appeals to all ages,” said Tom Thornton of Calistoga.
Art is a “central part of the human experience,” said Robert Sain, executive director of di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art in Napa, and it’s an important “ingredient for quality of life.” Public art means that it is available to the entire community for people of “all ages and walks of life.”
Thornton, who is on the board of directors for the RLS Museum, considers Stevenson “one of the world’s great authors with a special connection to the valley.”
“When I joined the board of the RLS Museum, I saw a collection and story rich in potential, but trapped in an old fashioned home. I wanted to refresh and modernize the appeal of Stevenson,” Thornton said. “My idea was to associate Stevenson with other subject matter in what I called exhibition ‘duets’, and by pairing and contrasting him with other authors, places, cultural phenomena, we could breathe new life into his legacy and bring more attention to his value.”
The most recent installation was an homage to both Thornton’s great great great great grandfather who was a signer of the Constitution of the United States and to Independence Day.
Painted in a flag theme, on the stripes of the flag Thornton wrote a passage from Stevenson’s book “Silverado Squatters” a story with significant connection to Calistoga, Mount St. Helena, and to Thornton himself.
The passage was written at the bottom of what Stevenson called “the grade,” which is where Thornton and his wife, Brenda Mixson, own a vineyard. That vineyard supplies grapes for their winery, “The GRADE Cellars” named for the location and a nod to the book and its author.
Matthew Thornton – Tom Thornton’s relative – “was the representative from New Hampshire to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776 and signed his name in the lower right corner” of the Constitution,” Thornton said. “He wasn’t the last guy though, because a couple of other late arrivals squeezed their names elsewhere.
“We call Matthew ‘the family traitor’ — traitor to King George III of Great Britain that is. So painting this Stevenson passage in the form of Old Glory had multiple meanings for me here on the Fourth of July. Stevenson wrote that passage at ‘the bottom of the grade,’ meaning on the Old Toll Road right next to our vineyard.”
The first installation was created for Arts in April and initially intended to be hung for just that month, but it was so well received that Tom Thornton approached the city council to ask for an extension. It was up for almost two years before it needed to be taken down to preserve it from any more weather-related damage.
It was a collection of 27 two-foot square portrait panels each with Stevenson’s likeness on them assembled into a grid format characteristic of Andy Warhol’s work.
“This grid assembly would be an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. In sharing the idea with my neighbor, Kendra Kelperis, who teaches art to the RLS Middle School students in St. Helena, we quickly realized that her students could paint the repetitive portrait panels and add their own variations through colorful interpretations of RLS poems,” he said.
“The resulting artwork had all the elements of success, including a refreshing new look at Stevenson, involvement by the community, and a new concept for public art display on St. Helena property for public enjoyment,” Thornton said adding that its popularity shows there “is an appetite for” public art.
Sain said Thornton’s first installation was “terrific” and “hit the nail on the head in terms of successful public art.”
Thornton, an architect, designed and built the structure, and he and Mixson paid for all the materials, including approval by a structural engineer for acceptance by the City of St. Helena. It sits on an undeveloped piece of property that Thornton hopes will be required to hold public art, whether it is this one or something new.
“The notion of public art can be expressed in a broad range of scales. It doesn’t have to be an independently made object inserted into an existing space – it can actually be integrated into a space from its inception. The public art can be the object itself inserted as a focal object into an existing space or the environment of the public space itself – the emotional texture of its surfaces,” he said.
“I’m a big fan of public art. I enjoy everything from heroic sculpture in public spaces throughout history all the way to the urban graffiti art of the ‘70s and ‘80s in New York City,” he said. In addition to master’s degree in architecture, he also has a bachelor’s in both visual arts and environmental studies.
His wife, Mixson, is an art lover as well and is on the board for di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art.
“As for public art, well, how else will so many in our communities participate if the art is only in places one goes to intentionally to see art? I think many people don’t think they have time or sufficient understanding to actually seek art out, but art that is out – exposed – available — just might open the door of curiosity and encourage someone to dig deeper,” Mixson said. “Art enriches our lives, and public art is almost stealth in its ability to provide a special experience when least expected.”
Public art “gets us to stop and look and see and think” and there’s a difference between looking and seeing, Sain said.
It provides an “ingredient of cultural tourism” and is an added attracter to the region.
Thornton said he hopes to have more community involvement in future installations.