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James Conaway: The painted Napa Valley

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If the artist Diego Rivera came to Napa Valley and painted a mural dedicated to agriculture? Better yet if he brought Frieda Kalho along and let her paint half of it. There’s a slight mortality problem here, but just imagine. Who would be in their mural? Native Americans, Spanish, Latin Americans, Germans, English, French, Italians, Swiss, eastern Europeans and others who participated in agriculture from the beginning.

The portrayed crop would be vines and the product wine as well as prunes, vegetables and livestock and the people those who did the work, all backed by gorgeous mountains, trees, streams and sky. Such a mural would reinforce the idea that growing things made this valley and are its only possible salvation.

I raise the subject because the search for sites, ideas, and donations is led by Julieanne Ballou, and I was invited to join the panel at Davis discussing this.

As I understand it this is not just an academic exercise, although students will be involved in some way yet to be determined. But community involvement is more important. Napa already has murals at the south end of the county, some controversial. Most are in view of the Wine Train where they have a captive audience, though not necessarily a sympathetic one. Train riders seem a lot more interested in partying than conservation, but even partiers can become believers.

The restaurant in Napa, Feast It Forward, is considering building a wall on its property to serve as a canvas. The exact subject and the artist’s identity are yet to be determined. There are a couple of murals already near Yountville, including one under the overpass that’s deprived of sufficient light but still a welcome surprise when you happen to pass.

North of Yountville the county is mostly mural-free, and most people are quite happy about that, preferring natural spectacle to artifice, including more architecture and signs. But is there another way of accommodating UC Davis’s good intentions?

I think there are. Any acceptable new mural should be painted by an accomplished artist, preferably but not necessarily local, who could closely supervise assistants to produce a professional and moving piece of art. In my opinion it should emphasize crops and those who work them, as does the St. Helena post office’s magnificent mural commissioned by the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, if not in that style. Slogans and didactic messaging should be avoided. Hammering global warming and climate change won’t sway anyone who at this late date still denies them for economic or political reasons.

Better to inspire with imagination and the quality in the art. Gentle viewers into a realization that this place is much more fragile than they may think, and that growing things its only hope of salvation.

I asked some people for suggestions. One recommended the old train station in Rutherford but that’s a historic building and shouldn’t be messed with. Except for a good sweeping, a few shingles, and maybe some arrangement of authentic old tools. How about it, Wine Train?

Another suggestion was the facade of the tasting room at Flora Springs Winery. Right now, it crudely suggests the geology in Arches National Park, a glorious place but far from Napa. The facade could instead support a stunning depiction of vines, grapes and workers with mountains and luminous high-pressure clouds. Imagine a redesign of Riviera’s mural the Flower Girl, for instance, with attribution that included field workers and substituted vines, wine and spring water for flowers.

My suggestion for a winning up-country mural would be the blinding chrome rabbit standing in front of the Hall Winery on Highway 29. I have tried for years to figure out what all that antic, in-your-face energy means and have decided it’s a celebration of procreativity, of not bunnies but of ranchettes. The statue seems to me a cry for help. “Who am and why am I out here in the glaring sun, causing a ceaseless cacophony of slammed-down sun visors and unsnapped sunglass cases?”

I have a modest suggestion: use a mural as a bunny blanket. Not another attempt to get attention, but the opposite. Blend bunny into his surroundings with a 360-degree natural panorama that excludes human structures and takes us back to the beginning. A known artist with sufficient talent could produce something stunning and truly original.

The Halls know something about art and, presumably, its healing power. We could all use more of that.

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated there is an arch on the Cappola-owned Inglenook property off Highway 29 that obscures a view of the mountains. In fact, there is no arch on the property.

James Conaway is the author of 13 books, including “Napa at Last Light” and the New York Times bestseller, “Napa: The Story of an American Eden.”

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I have been drinking alcohol since I was 15. That was a full lifetime ago, and I still have my starter liver. Most evenings I drink a cocktail and a glass of wine - okay, sometimes two - with dinner. I sleep eight hours a night, eat three meals a day, walk two miles, and go to the gym every other day. I don’t have a problem with alcohol.

James Conaway, best-selling author of "Napa: The Story of an American Eden," and "Napa At Last Light," is taking a hard look at Cal Fire's wildfire response and whether its unwritten policies are harming Napa County. 

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