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A bit of Napa in every piece: Napa artists who use natural elements

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The Napa Valley is filled with artists who incorporate local flowers, berries, wood, and grapes into their work. Fall is a special time of year, as artists are able to gather materials that bring back memories of the summer. They are alsoo able to develop ideas based on their experiences outdoors.

John Bonick, an abstract painter, said several of his recent paintings and sculptural pieces are built on conduits of energy and flow.

“Over the past several years, I have developed a vocabulary of imagery that centers around ropey forms. I sometimes refer to (these) as ribbons or channels of energy. Sometimes they are stacked on top of each other, sometimes they crisscross the picture plane in seemingly random directions, layer upon layer. I also create three-dimensional pieces, 10-foot-tall wine bottles, using pruned grapevine to weave around an interior structure,” said Bonick.

One of Bonick’s wine bottles is by Gott’s Roadside in Oxbow Public Market. Another was recently featured on the Napa Art Walk.

Bonick said he has also been photographing daybreak every morning from different natural settings for approximately 11 years.

“I take photos every morning just before sunrise. It’s my long-term project, Daybreak Napa Valley. Mostly I take them just in front of my house. I also drive around in the area, down to the Napa River, or at other vineyards in the Carneros (region),” said Bonick.

Israel Valencia, who usually creates photographs, has been working on a series that involves printing members of Movimiento Cultural de la Union Indigena, a Vineburg-based nonprofit, onto grape leaves, pokeweed leaves and hydrangeas.

“I’m using a sustainable, natural process that involves exposing the leaves to sunlight. These pieces recognize the work that indigenous people originally from Mexico and Guatemala have done in Napa to pick grapes,” said Valencia.

Valencia said the leaves come from grapevines in a Napa vineyard, “a few at a time, taken from different varietals.” The other leaves and flowers came from his garden.

During the fall of 2020, Valencia also started collecting burned branches, trees, seeds, and other vegetation from locations affected by the Glass and LNU Fires.

“I have a number of photographs of these burned pieces, which show the resilience and beauty of local plants. Another project I’m working on is the Thorn Box series, a set of balsa wood sculptures that house items from the garden. I love how the color of pomegranate blossoms doesn’t fade as the flower dries. The blossoms stay red and the color deepens,” said Valencia.

Sahoko Yui, who completed an artist residency at the Blake Garden at the University of California, Berkeley, has begun creating natural dyes from pokeberries, privet berries, and elderberries gathered from neighbors and public spaces in Napa.

“The pokeberries make magenta, the privet berries a purplish color, and the elderberries a bluish-purple color. I also create a bright yellow dye from Oxalis flowers. If you add baking soda, the dye turns orange. I am experimenting with dying muslin fabric, silk, and wool. Eventually, I want to create clothing with these dyes that I will share with the community,” said Yui.

Yui studied food waste at the University of California, Davis while completing her Ph.D. in geography. She said her goal is to reuse and honor natural materials.

“The images and colors I create will eventually fade. That represents people giving back to the Earth,” said Yui.

A World of Wood

Napa’s wood artists spend their days slightly differently, dividing their time between collecting wood and determining how to shape pieces.

One of the most important tools for a wood artist is a lathe. This large piece of equipment fastens the wood between two rotating spindles. A lathe allows an artist to cut, sand, drill, and turn the wood. Gerda Shupe, who creates fancy cutting boards, turned bowls, salt and pepper shakers, and trays, said she is always looking for wood from Napa County trees.

“I belong to the Bay Area Woodturners Association (BAWA), a local chapter of the American Association of Woodturners. They send out a “Wood Alert” when a tree or thick branches are getting cut down. That lets wood artists know to be there at a certain time to get pieces from oak, beech, carob, elm, and buckeye,” said Shupe.

Shupe said she loves to take a tree stump and turn it on the lathe into a bowl.

“With that kind of wood, it is always a surprise how beautiful it turns out,” said Shupe.

Bob Zlomke, who makes furniture and cabinets, said wood tells the story of the tree from which it came.

“Recently I was able to get wood from a live oak cut down to plant a vineyard. There was a prominent growth area around the base of the tree, very dramatic and irregular. It made the most beautiful slabs. It also helped that the wood had little tunnels zig-zagging through it, created by wood-boring beetles,” said Zlomke.

Zlomke said he and his wife keep an eye out for odd pieces of wood with a story to tell.

“My wife Evelyn has a wonderful eye for an evocative shape or texture. Nowadays these character pieces work well in fine furniture. People like the things that we used to call defects,” said Zlomke.

Bob Saxby focuses on creating bowls, pepper mills, and wine bottle stoppers.

“Most of the wood I use is native to northern California and southern Oregon. I prefer madrone, maple, carob, and black walnut,” said Saxby.

Saxby said he gets scraps from a local arborist who cuts down trees along entire streets.

“The wood must be processed in a week. Otherwise, it begins to split and crack. I love working with wood that has swirls of alternating dark and light colors. Carob and camphor have sections with dark red and cream. Walnut has a chocolate brown interior offset by a milky white,” said Saxby.

Saxby, who also works with leather, said the key to woodworking is to pay attention to what the wood wants to do.

“Wood has a grain and fibers. You can make the wood work with you or fight you. It’s a constant dance when you work with wood. It has a mind of its own,” said Saxby.

Bonick said his philosophy toward working with natural elements is slightly different.

“When you spend time in nature, you try to replicate it in any way possible. This gives you a peaceful feeling. Yet it can take a lot of physical and mental work to do that,” said Bonick.

Bonick said his advice for artists who want to feature natural elements is to pay attention to what fascinates them.

“I ask myself, “Why am I drawn to the same objects or experiences or imagery over and over again?” The reason is I have an internal connection to them that I may not even understand. Artists who want to create work that reflects something they love should keep observing that object or thing. They should stay true to themselves and let that element help them find their path,” said Bonick.

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