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Hitting the Trail

Get out those maps, it's ARTrails time again

By Gretchen Giles

To get to the studio of veteran ARTrails exhibitors Gerald and Kelly Hong, park on their suburban Petaluma street, come down the side yard, resist the urge to pick a ripening tomato, admire their 20-month-old son's colorful toys, step past the outdoor kilns, and at the end of the path, find their backyard workplace.

Certainly, it is no secret that the purpose of ARTrails, now in its 17th year, is to introduce the public directly to those who produce fine art and decorative pieces that enliven home, body, and spirit. But being able to walk around the spaces in which these items were created and ask all the questions that occur--both pertinent and idle--to the very people who made them does appeal very directly to the sweet, loving gawker within.

Sharing a home, a child, a career, and a studio might make some couples snarl. But ask longtime participating ARTrails ceramic artists Gerald and Kelly Hong about this and they just smile. "We're both really easy-going people and have a really easy relationship," Kelly says. "The cool thing about our collaborative work is that we're able to make things that neither of us would have been able to make alone.

"Often when you're a working artist and you know what sells and what you have to make to make a living, you tend to make the same stuff, but it's been really great to be giving birth to all of these new ideas together."

She uses porcelain; he does raku. She paints insects and flowers and animals onto their work; he airbrushes abstract shapes. Together they show nationally and expect to see some 300 people a weekend resisting their tomatoes during ARTrails. The number of high school art students forced by their instructors to seek extra credit through a quick tour particularly gratifies them. Kelly says, "It's nice because it helps them to see that you can actually make a living as an artist."

For sculptor and assemblagist Charles Churchill, this year's ARTrails, his third, is a culmination of a life as an artist. "This [exhibit] is a complete representation of everything that I've done for 30 years," he says. Working with glass, neon, wood scraps, and piano, motorcycle, and guitar parts, Churchill builds sculptures that play with the senses and with light, and are mesmerizingly beautiful. But in a sweet twist, Churchill's doing more than just creating art--he's become . . . a muse?

"Last summer I became a figure-drawing model and did so much that I lost my day job," he says. "It's given me a new appreciation for art in general. I'm a tubby, middle-aged guy--I'm not an Old Spice guy. All I can be is a good Charlie, and that's what I am with my spare tire and the pain and fatigue in my face, and all of that has turned into art. I turn everything I can get my hands on into art: I teach art, I make art, and now I am the art."

Alice Thibeau, who repaints salvaged furniture when she's not creating life-sized oil portraits, is preparing for her fifth year of ARTrails exhibition, fully dressed. "The people who are coming around are getting much more sophisticated," she assures. "They all used to ask the same question: 'How long did that take you?' It eventually got to be marvelously funny. But last year not a single person said it."

Generating over $500,000 in direct sales last year, ARTrails prompts some 5,000 visitors. This year 152 artists are scheduled to throw open their doors to the public.

Liz Meyerhoff, the interim executive director of the Cultural Arts Council of Sonoma County, which spearheads ARTrails, explains that while the money and visitor numbers have grown, so has artist interest. "We had a lot more new applicants this year than we've had in the past several years--60 new people applied. I assume it's because the program has become so well-known and well-regarded that people are more drawn to participate."

Marta Shannon is among the newbies attracted to this event for its distinction and the fact that artists must undergo a jury process for admittance. "I don't usually participate in anything that's not juried," she explains, standing among the colored threads and gold-wooded looms of her weaving studio. Four "secret" jurors, two of whom are participating ARTrails artists and two from outside the county, whose names Meyerhoff will presumably keep to the grave, decide who will participate. "We won't tell you who they are," she says firmly. "Jurors get very protective about their identities, especially when there's a lot of money involved."

That last phrase about money casts a certain spell, though the bottom line isn't the only reason that artists join. For Shannon, making the commitment to ARTrails, with its ancillary fees, preparations, and time, is tantamount to making a commitment to herself. With 25 years of weaving experience enlivened by child rearing, Shannon chose ARTrails as a way to push herself back out of the home and into the professional world she loves. "It's really a challenge to myself," she says simply.

Thibeau declares herself "repulsed" by the notion of creating art with the end aim of creating money. "Of course I desperately want the money, give me all your money!" she jokes. "But if you start making art just to make money . . ." She trails off with a comical sigh. "It shows how old I am. I still think that Andy Warhol is the Antichrist."

For photographer Rory McNamara, debuting with ARTrails is the end result of an unusual progression. "I had a show last year at [Santa Rosa's] A Street Gallery that I was really delighted about," he explains. "Then I was approached through the Cultural Arts Council to be one of the judges for 'Zone of Focus,' a high school photographic competition. Through that I got more familiar with the arts council. It seemed like a really good thing to support, and that led to ARTrails."

But to hear McNamara--who is also a Bohemian contributor--tell it, these kinds of serendipitous connections are just a way of life. Born in London, McNamara came to the States as a young man with the intention of playing bluegrass guitar at every honky-tonk on the way to the Alaskan pipeline, then under construction. He got as far as San Francisco and was snagged by the beauty of the Bay Area.

Naturally anxious to earn some dosh, McNamara took publicity shots for other bands. "I got away with it by the skin of my teeth," he laughs. "I had no training at all, but I thought it was a really cool way of earning a living so had the good sense to enroll in school at the San Francisco City College at a time when it had a really great photography department. I started working right away, and it almost never stopped."

As well as his work for the Bohemian, McNamara earns his keep as a photojournalist for the San Francisco Examiner, doing the weekly food shots for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and contributing to the Pacific Sun. McNamara works almost exclusively in black and white. "I'm interested in people's relationships with each other and their surroundings, and how none of us are really totally at ease," he says. "We're all kind of aliens here in our own way because everyone's approach to the world is so unique."

And so it is with painter Mario Uribe, a first-time exhibitor who was born in Mexico to parents who ran a Japanese import business in a house wholly filled with Japanese art and artifacts. With his wife Liz, he now operates the nonprofit American School of Japanese Arts, offering study in everything from calligraphy to raku pottery to flower arrangement to the tea ceremony. "We are the only place in the entire world where you can come and have such an intensive experience with the Japanese arts," he says.

The most basic of shapes--the circle--is the dominating symbol in Uribe's work; he's painted them almost exclusively for the last 12 years. This seemingly simple figure expresses exactly who he is at the moment that he's made it, and Uribe's been deconstructing them slowly, moving from ink to print making, as he's evolved.

"It's a discovery process," he says of his own work, though he could be speaking for all the ARTrails artists. "It's limitless. You're simply never done."

ARTrails runs throughout Sonoma County Saturday-Sunday, Oct. 12-13 and Oct. 19-20, 10am to 5pm at participating studios. Look for the distinctive ARTrails signs. All events free. To pick up a map or for more information, call 707.579.ARTS or visit

From the October 10-16, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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