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The path of an artist during COVID-19: Napa artist Nancy Willis gets even more creative

The path of an artist during COVID-19: Napa artist Nancy Willis gets even more creative

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Normally each summer, Napa-based artist Nancy Willis would be leading her Path of An Artist painting tours in France. Her group of artists would spend a few days on the streets of Paris, sketching and painting as many famous names have done before them. They would head south to the Dordogne region of France known for prehistoric cave paintings and stay at a 17th century chateau in a quaint village with a paper mill.

In her Napa studio, there are racks of paintings from various series that tell the story of Willis’ recurring trips to France. Large canvases portray the views from her favorite hotel room in the 6th arrondissement; street scenes from her perch at a sidewalk café; baroque ceilings lit by buoyant chandeliers dripping with crystals; and painted studies from life on the road in France.

Her chandelier series began as a metaphor for femininity – multifaceted and illuminating. But in recent times of political unrest, they’ve taken on new layers of meaning, offering hope and light in times of darkness. After the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris jolted the city, Willis reexamined her own sense of security and found inspiration from the resilience of Paris and its people. During the current pandemic, she has been painting entre deux, works of Paris and Napa that express where she physically and emotionally inhabits.

“By painting the verve and vital essence of Paris café culture, I am championing the courage to live our everyday lives and not to succumb to fear. During COVID-19, artistic expression is paramount to staying healthy,” Willis said.

While Willis won’t be returning to Paris this year due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions, she instead is sharing her joie de vivre through an exhibition of her paintings and prints of Paris. Currently her work is featured at the Chateau Sonoma store on the Sonoma Plaza, which is a haven for Francophiles. On Bastille Day (July 14), Willis painted in the store courtyard while masked shoppers nibbled macarons and reminisced about their own past trips to Paris.

The show, titled “Excursion à Paris,” includes a large canvas of an iconic Paris street at night, romantically lit by streetlamps. Whizzing through the scene is a fire truck responding to a call. It could be headed towards to a protest, an attack or a person sick from the virus. “N’attends pas!” (Don’t wait!) is the painting’s title as a declaration that life can irrevocably change at any moment.

We have all had to make adjustments, but for artists it has been essential to pivot and invent creative ways to connect with audiences and earn a living. In addition to her trip abroad, Willis lost her curriculum of classes at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and Napa Valley College. So, she quickly prepared her website, honed her video conferencing skills and started to offer classes online.

Instead of the usual demonstration-based structure, Willis has been especially innovative with class formats. Her “Postcards from the Edge” class in May allowed students to travel vicariously through the eyes of artists like Picasso, Gaudi, Hockney, Matisse, Freud and Corot and then complete paintings on postcards that they sent to one another. Her “Extended Family Portrait” class focuses on portraits of loved ones far and near. Mixed with their painted selfies, participants end up with a grid of faces similar to the now-familiar Zoom calls.

Her upcoming class “Bake Like an Artist” (part II) might be one of the most original artistic responses to stay-at-home orders. More people are baking these days. Trending sourdough recipes, shortages of flour in supermarkets, hashtags like #quarantinebaking and #stressbaking – all signs of the times. Willis has used her experience teaching art to culinary students to create an online class that combines two at-home activities that can relax and inspire anyone.

Pairing up with pastry chef Annie Yamamoto, Willis assigns art and baking assignments that highlight visual elements like pattern, color and composition. The class meets via Zoom to discuss the projects and compare masterpieces. The weekly art and baking assignments are about expanding one’s repertoire and finding adventure without leaving home.

“Students came from various backgrounds in art and baking,” Willis said. “I did the baking assignments with them so the meetings were filled with a lot of joking about how things can go wrong and still be delicious. For me, the best part was hearing students say they saw the world a bit differently week by week depending on what our featured element was. And most importantly, everyone had fun.”

As things begin to open up and people learn how to move around with caution and respect, artists and students can find new ways to learn from one another. Willis will continue to offer online classes and has also found a few alternatives to traveling abroad. Recently, she led a painting workshop at Chateau Sonoma Farm where students spread out among the gardens. In the fall, she will offer a three-day painting and glamping retreat at Mendocino Grove and a four-day artist weekend at Sundance Resort. In addition to painting, guests can hike, paint and commune with nature. Sounds like a quarantine dream!

This virus has taught us many lessons. The role of art in our lives becomes especially essential in times of crisis. We need painting, music, dance and expression in all forms to keep us sane, assuage our fears and unite community. Artists like Willis haven’t let the pandemic keep her from her crucial role of helping others experience the joy of painting and appreciating art.

More information on Willis’s work and class offerings can be found at

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