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When Margrit Mondavi approached Layla Fanucci about doing a show at the Mondavi Winery, the local artist asked if she could share the show with an another artist, Wafaa Mezouar.

That’s how the current exhibit at Robert Mondavi Winery became a story of the friendship between two women from different worlds, one from St. Helena and the other from Casablanca, Morocco.

Both women are acclaimed artists whose paintings can be found in collections around the globe. Both have won numerous awards. Both have courage and warmth of spirit that is contagious.

“Mrs. Mondavi asked why I’d want to share the exhibit,” Fanucci said. “I explained the friendship with Wafaa. There are very few people you can connect with that strong. We have a wonderful friendship together.”

“When Mrs. Mondavi saw Mezouar’s work — the mixing of colors, how beautiful her art was and that it would go well with mine, she said, ‘Of course, you can exhibit together.’” Fanucci said.

What some might see as a language barrier only seems to enhance the rapport between Mezouar, who speaks French, and Fanucci, who speaks only English. The two artists have little trouble communicating with the help of Mezouar’s relatives who translate for them.

Mezouar’s nephew, Jade Bouhmouch, acted as interpreter during an interview last week in his mother’s American Canyon home.

“The connection Layla and Wafaa have, has always been sisterly,” Bouhmouch explained. “Their friendship originated with my mom, Amina Mezouar. She brought them together.”

Bouhmouch explained that his mother, a client manager for the St. Helena branch of a local bank, met Fanucci’s husband, Robert, an attorney, winemaker and owner of Charter Oak Winery. When his mother learned that Fanucci’s wife was an artist, she told him about her artist sister. During Mezouar’s next visit to this country, Fanucci welcomed the sisters to her Scott Street studio, and the friendship began.

Two years ago, when Fanucci had a solo, three-month show of 30 of her cityscapes in Le Musee de Marrakech in Medina, Morocco, Mezouar, who had exhibited there the year before, helped every step of the way.

“Fanucci’s paintings were wonderful in the space,” Mezouar said, as Bouhmouch translated for his aunt. “The colors and forms of her intricate paintings blended with the Moorish design of the restored 19th century palace. The goal is to get her back.”

“I was lucky enough to go to Morocco to see Wafaa’s way of life — absolutely beautiful and different,” Fanucci said.

“Moroccans have a love and appreciation of what an artist brings — people are very loving and gracious. They just want to make you happy. I’d have dinner with Wafaa’s brothers and sisters and the food — oh, the color of the food — it was spicy, delicious!” Fanucci said.

Mezouar said she felt just as accepted and as captivated with Northern California as Fanucci was by Morocco. She has a temporary art studio in her sister’s garage where she created the paintings for the Mondavi exhibit. Her daughter Lina has been living here, with Fanucci’s family, for five years

“I’m getting inspired here by the light and by the people. It is almost like a blending of the two worlds,” Mezouar said.

Mezouar traveled to California with her mother, Fatima Naciri. “My mother is my inspiration,” she said. “Look at her. She has had 11 children. Look at her smile. We think she is 86 but the records aren’t clear. She has amazing memories.”

Her mother helped Mezouar get through a dark period of her life, the artist said. After the death of her husband 10 years ago, she discovered that she had breast cancer.

Mezouar did art therapy at the time and served as an example for other Moroccan women “to defy the taboo of losing a breast.” Because art is her way of expressing herself, she said, the cancer’s impressions were revealed in her paintings. “Initially, there were a lot of darker tones in my art.”

After her treatment, Mezouar worked with other women, like her, who had cancer and recovered.

“Wafaa has a very outgoing personality,” Bouhmouch said. “You see it in her character, her work, her joie de vivre. Layla is the same way. She expresses her style, everything she has within. Layla has such an amazing way of reflecting the world by painting cities. They both give so much to their art.”

The artists are hoping to do more exhibits together. “My dream is for us to do a really big exhibit in Morocco,” Mezouar said.

A artist known around the world

Mezouar is the only artist in her family. Her ancestors were writers and scholars, and there was never any question about her obtaining a college degree. A graduate of the Casablanca Institute of Fine Arts, she initially gained recognition for her work in the fiber arts, winning a gold medal at the Festival of Mahres, Tunisia in 1993 before switching to painting in acrylics and oils using historic natural pigments.

Mezourar’s “The Everlasting Love of this Beautiful World” won the gold medal at the Olympic Fine Arts event, which took place at the Barbicon Center during the 2012 Olympic Games in London. This piece will be permanently exhibited at the Shanghai China Museum.

She won a bronze medal at the Dauphine Art, Science et Lettres in Paris in 2011.

In prior years, Mezouar has won numerous other awards in Washington, D.C., Alabama and Tunisia. Her 2008 calendar included five exhibitions throughout the world, including Berlin and Frankfort in Germany, two in Morocco and one in London

Mezouar’s paintings have been described as organic, textural, dimensional and spiritual. She said she is influenced by historic walls that have been worn down by time with cracks going through them and the women of South Morocco.

From music to art

Until 13 years ago, Fanucci’s artistic expression was in music. For 25 years, the wife and mother taugh choir, voice, and guitar in schools, church and at St. Helena Catholic School.

Then, when looking for a painting to fill a bare wall in the family’s home, Fanucci discovered her artistic talents. Unable to find what she wanted, she painted it herself. The story of how she never stopped painting is chronicled in the recently book, “Layla Fanucci City of Dreams Unabridged 1999-2011” by Valerie Gladstone.

After visiting an art consultant who advised her to paint every day for five months to discover her individual style, Fanucci followed the advice and developed her signature cityscapes. These multilayered architectural visions might be partially inspired by her Turkish architect father, Fanucci muses. Growing up around architecture, she absorbed its nuances. Her city images are often inspired by friends’ travel photos from all over the world, she said.

“Cities tell a lot of stories about people, about buildings. Sometimes they are claustrophobic, sometimes they are quiet,” Fanucci said. “My father and grandfather were architects so I like the architectural design, the life of the city, the noises, but sometimes I find it too much. Sometimes I like quiet.”

Fanucci has exhibited in more than 200 shows throughout America and Canada. She has been interviewed on radio and television including CNN, “The Today Show,” WBGO Radio, Martha Stewart Living Radio, Channel 11, NBC Headline News, Channel 4 KRON and written about in San Francisco State Magazine.

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