There is bound to be at least one entry in the Napa Valley Museum’s latest exhibition, “Discrepancy: Living Between War and Peace,” that stops viewers in their tracks, makes a wrenching connection or triggers a silent flow of tears.
Twenty-three artists and three writers, as well as veterans in the Pathway Home project, have created personal reflections on the impact of the catastrophic collapse of the World Trade Center’s twin towers nearly a decade ago and ongoing wars in the Middle East.
“Sept. 11 was a huge marker in our culture and it got swept up with the two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan,” said the show’s curator, St. Helena artist Nancy Willis. “You are compelled to watch the images over and over again ... trying to connect with the humanity of what was going on, not just the conflict but everyday life — everyday life there, everyday life here.”
Willis’ response was to take up her paintbrush and try to make sense of it on canvas. She also made a series of solar plate etchings of the twin towers. When the U.S. focus on Afghanistan shifted to include Iraq, Willis began collecting images of suicide bombings. Then came the chaos of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean (2004) and Hurricane Katrina (2005).
When she wasn’t in her studio committing her thoughts to canvas, Willis was talking with artist friends, who, she soon realized, were all trying to reconcile the world around them.
“It was impossible,” she said. “I knew I had to narrow the focus. The idea starts with an expansive investigation and it takes a lot of experimentation. I couldn’t identify what I was after, but I knew I’d know it when I saw it.”
When that happened, her next idea was to curate a show.
By now it was 2010, almost too late to mount an exhibition of the size and scope she had in mind in time for the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11.
Nevertheless, she presented her idea to the Napa Valley Museum. Buoyed by the positive response, Willis put together a list of artists “and really got started, talking to artists and to curator friends to get their feedback on how I was going to do this.”
“I took action to assuage my own helplessness,” she said. “I took action as an artist but also for my community because ... I don’t really see this dialogue taking place. I think we have to be very careful that we don’t become insulated. We live in a beautiful place, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be connected.”
To be honest, Willis said, she knew the amount of work that lay ahead. The art teacher and art tour producer is not only teaching principles of design to baking and pastry students at Greystone’s Culinary Institute of America, she is also a former curator of the Markham Winery gallery.
“There were times when I stopped and thought, ‘Do I really want to do this?’” Willis said. “But I felt compelled. ... It came from my heart. How would I feel if Sept. 11 came around and I hadn’t done this?”
Her initial list of artists was much too long, so she developed a set of criteria and looked closely at work that dealt with remembrance, with innocence. Paring it down was still difficult, but in the end she based her decision on her personal vision of what she hoped the show would be.
“I wasn’t as clear and specific then as I am now,” Willis admitted. “Now I can walk through and talk about everybody’s work and how it fits, but until that work actually got delivered, it was still sort of a mystery. I wasn’t sure exactly how they would all fit, but I believed. ... Everybody pulled through with really solid work.”
Not all are paintings. The exhibition includes Wendy Willis’ hand-colored photopolymer etching/collage, which reimagines the fate of the 200 who leapt to their deaths on Sept. 11.
Deborah Oropallo’s series of inkjet print photographs tacked along one wall creates a panorama of crosses she calls “Roadside America,” and Sue Bradford created swagged curtains and a chair in printed fabric depicting children playing war games.
There are also masks with accompanying poems and short essays, the work of veterans trying to refind their way in the Pathway Home project. Eleanor Coppola’s “Ghost Fence” comprises 22 white-tipped posts representing dead loved ones. Willis entered her three-part solar plate etching, “Smolder.” Rob Keller contributed his birth certificate dated Sept. 11, 1964. And large as life, parked on the gallery floor, is artist Lewis deSoto’s “Imperial America,” a customized 1956 Chrysler Imperial sedan fitted out with model of a 1956 Redstone ICBM, also manufactured by Chrysler.
Arminee Chahbazian’s two-part installation includes a bed of salt and feathers; Michael Hall’s piece at the museum’s entrance incorporates lumber, concrete and sod; Michelle Wilson cut out handmade denim to cast the shadow of an oil rig.
The meaning of some entries is self-evident; others are more elusive and depend on an accompanying statement to map out the artist’s intent. All are powerful.
What Willis envisions now is an ongoing conversation triggered by the images in “Discrepancy.”
The Pathway home vets, 23 artists, three writers and the Napa Valley Museum have taken the first step.