Saturday, August 16, 2014

Art is Life, A Roadtrip: Napa, Petaluma & The Hess Collection

Surrounded by rolling green hills, vineyards, old barns and spacious green fields blooming in yellow - we could be in Southern France in July. But we’ve taken highway 121 to Di Rosa Gallery, across the road from an estate winery whose graceful outdoor patio overflows into the afternoon with wine-tasting guests. It couldn’t be more picturesque. At Di Rosa, the Gatehouse Gallery features highlights of the larger collection with beautiful views of Winery Lake.

We arrive at closing time. The grandchildren create their own ephemeral installations

in response to the sculptures on the grounds.

At the Hess Gallery and Winery in Sonoma, it’s almost evening. We're in a stately brick building with thick walls and ivy snaking up. The museum on two floors, seems empty. But really, everywhere we turn, we step into space, wonderfully interrupted by art.

Even I find an exhibit, a flaming typewriter by Leopoldo Mahler! This is the omen I am looking for: now I know: my novel will be published this year!

We are beside ourselves with the quality and skill and sheer creative genius of this collection. Here is a Franz Gertsch. Over there are four or five other portraits stretching the room the size of a barn.

We see work by Anselm Kiefer. Oh! There’s Robert Motherwell! Morris Lewis! Minjin Yue. Andy Goldsworthy! Gord and Patrick have the most fun with somber pieces by Magdalena Abakanowicz.

Hess collects the work of 20 living artists over decades in order to support their evolving work over a longer duration. His collection reflects some of the best known contemporary artists.

I reserve my last experience of found art for the sleepy town of Petaluma, a stroll-able hamlet with houses from the late1800s, a cinema, second-hand stores and houses with porches, a variety of high caliber restaurants and hip coffee shops. Most Friday nights, Petaluma Pete plays the piano in the balmy outside air. I was so enthralled, I kissed him on the cheek. He wasn't surprised.

We stayed at Hilltop Wine Country Inn, a B & B whose d├ęcor is down-to-the-detail Early American (Maurice is an antique dealer) without being ‘overly-overly’. They have two bedrooms in their spacious spic-and-span home, with a back deck, a cat and a clutch of chickens. The art here is their graciousness and hospitality, something so personal and unique that we return, if only for the sound of Maurice’s voice.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Meeting Robin Williams

It's so strange living in today's world, and so sad. That Robin Williams, a person who is so loved and admired should suffer such private hell that he felt he had to kill himself to stop the pain.

I met him,  twelve years ago at the Mill Valley Film Festival. We were filmmakers - Gord and I, and our film Singing the Bones featured at the festival, gave us a place at the table. It was the dinner-time aftermath of a tribute to Jonathan Winters, an inspiration of Robin's -- and Robin was there to pay him homage.

Whenever we're in public spaces, like restaurants, Gord always tells me to go up and order the half refill of coffee, or protest the loud music - or the lukewarm soup. He knows I 'm not afraid of talking to people to get what I want. After all, I am a Yank by birth.  I learned this 'not afraid of talking to complete strangers' from my Dad, but that's another story. So it wasn't unusual that Gord said, "You go talk to Robin."  Gord's brother, Mark Halloran knew Robin and Williams had helped Mark to acquire a green card so he could perform stand-up at The Comedy Club in Los Angeles. Gord wanted a word with Robin. To thank him for his brother. I was sent in to warm him up.

I'm an actress and have lots of courage when I'm in character, so I picked my most vivacious accented persona, my French-Canadian Nicole. I launched into her accent right away and addressed Robin directly. Luckily I speak French, because Robin immediately launched into French to answer me.

Je lui ai repondu en francais -- and then someone snapped our pic. Robin seemed uneasy to be speaking to me, but it must have been a familiar scenario -- he's famous after all. Fans have got to be introducing themselves to him all the time. I introduced Gord to Robin Williams and stepped away from the table. Robin's wife, whose hand was on his arm, stopped glaring. The whole thing took less than five minutes.

Now I have pictures of three people on my refrigerator who are dead. This is one of them.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Swaying in the gorgeous moment


Yoga on a stand up paddle board? In Tuwanek? I had to try it. Sunshine,  gorgeous scenery, balance and breathing. I’m an on-again/off-again yogi wanabee. Child’s Pose, Downward Dog and Tree are my favorite poses and I’m flexible so it mostly comes easy, but I don’t relax enough. Just breathe enough. Just be.

The first surprise was, I was terrified. We wore what everyone used to call ‘life jackets’ and tied our boards to our feet, at first. But the water was luscious, the sun still hot, the sky my favorite bright blue and Marnie told us we had to jump in and get wet. It was the right thing to dare us to do; after that we all relaxed.

What I discovered was: I love SUP. Tuwanek is a sweet destination.

And the swaying of the board over the moving water requires balance and mindfulness. 

Photos by Vern Minard:

Stand Up Paddle Board Yoga is offered here:

Caitlin Hicks is a writer.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Art Is Life, A Road Trip, Part 4

Ashland to Sonoma

Our mission: To combine an experience of art and hospitality with a trip by car. Our trip: Vancouver to Sonoma.

It's 22 degrees over the hill from Ashland into California, into a valley surrounded by hills. On the horizon a huge, snow-capped Mt. Shasta, looking much cooler than we feel. 

Everything seems to have recently sprouted green, and there is a vast open feeling, as we tool past open meadows in the squinty, bright sunshine. We’re practically alone out here on the curving highway, the flat valley, the empty hills dotted with scrubby brush. We’ll be on the road six hours, past small towns, rudimentary cafes, necessary gas stations. But this wide, flatland stretching to sky, with both of us cozy inside the cab of our vehicle, is why we drive instead of fly. We listen to Beethoven and Mendelssohn on NPR in a show called “Played in Oregon”. Purple bushes on the road side in glorious bloom near Redding. 

Finally, Napa, then Sonoma emerge, hills and vineyards on both sides of the car.


At Cornerstone, Sonoma, Brigette Mickmacker, owner of the The New Leaf gallery and curator of the outdoor collection at Sculpturesite, put our experience seeing her curated collection of artwork into words: “Here in the wine country, it’s so unexpected. I literally see jaws drop when people see the work here, I hear them say, ‘I travel a lot, this is a world-class place, what is it doing here?’ At Sculpturesite, we present seventy five sculptors from North and South America and Europe, emerging and well-established artists.”

And the artwork is truly world-class. Every piece has a sophistication and link to an idea – on par with its talent and craftsmanship. No gimmicky conceptual pieces here. 

Mickmacker and her partner, John Denham an accomplished Bay Area figurative artist known for abstracted watercolors (, both began their careers in the arts as landscape designers; Sculpturesite reflects the best of both worlds.

What stands out is the sculpture garden, meandering paths of exhibits by accomplished and award-winning artists who each have created an exhibit designed for the garden. Each presentation of work incorporates an idea that is realized in the artwork and the design of the land around it. It’s a great place to let the kids experience art in an outdoor setting, as many of the pieces are interactive.

Sculpturesite exhibits four to five shows a year. “It’s my passion,” Brigitte says, “meeting the artists, going to artist’s studios, discovering their work, curating, being a matchmaker in that way. Their website ( has over 1,500 pages.

Our accommodation, MacArthur Place, is a heritage estate completely refurbished from a 6-bedroom manor house built in the 1850s, to a 64-room historic inn, designed by developer Suzanne Brangham.  What attracted us was the collection of art and sculpture in the hotel and on the grounds. The inn partners with Maisonry of Napa Valley, a gallery cum wine purveyor. Maisonry sources all the sculpture and some of the artwork displayed at MacArthur Place. Much of the artwork is for sale and every now and then, a piece sells. When we arrived, we witnessed the installation of a huge new iron sculpture on the lawn. 

With this model, art is again in the public domain, accessible for the price of a room. But this is not a place for your average traveler. It’s a luxury resort with a pool, spa and graceful gardens in a region that can only be considered paradise – perfect weather, beautiful flowers and trees, state-of-the-art luxury for the leisure traveler. Rooms begin at $349 in shoulder season and for their best suite top out at $725.

What is interesting about the artwork is that it is displayed to an upscale viewer/hotel guest in a rustic/luxury setting, and that it is curated by the developer, Suzanne Brangham. Brangham’s interest in art first manifested itself professionally when she taught art in elementary school, but she made her personal fortune buying fixer-uppers, renovating and flipping them. 

She brings her skills with interior design to her role as hotelier, and the result is a graceful experience of her artistic capabilities combined with the latest trends in hotel design. It’s a pleasure to see so many large scale paintings, many of which were commissioned by Suzanne with such simple directives as “I need a chicken”, or “how about a ranch painting?”

Brangham had her cache of favorite artists and, as the hotel was being made, put them to work. The works are skillfully painted, reflecting the history, the countryside, the animals of the region in a romantic, decorative way. The walls of one room in the restaurant, Saddles, is painted with life size horses as if the viewer were standing in the middle of a barn. Left is a statue of a favorite dog that hung around the hotel as it was being refurbished. Now, it's sculpture with story contributing to the lore of this comfortable, peaceful hotel.

Ten to twelve suites are updated every year, and the result is that no two are alike. The grounds are graceful and idyllic, with large sculptures here and there. 

Driving Highway 121, surrounded by rolling green hills, vineyards, old barns and spacious green fields blooming in yellow - we could be in Southern France in July.  But we're at Di Rosa Gallery, across the highway from an estate winery whose graceful outdoor patio overflows into the  afternoon with wine tasting guests. 

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Chestnut Street at lunchtime, 27 years later

We were almost there - from the west coast of Canada to San Francisco - the city which had captured both our hearts and fused them together a generation ago - time which has passed as quickly as a snap of the fingers. He had been an illustrator from Canada. I, a Southern Californian who had recently switched from PR to acting. We'd met in an Improv class.

Usually I'm on orange alert when I travel, but seven years post 911 in the first week of September, I was holding the city close to my heart like an old friend, and I let my guard down.

Change was in the air, as it usually is come fall. With recession warning bells ringing, the price of gas in the ozone, banks collapsing, I wanted to cherish every detail, from the fog unexpectedly rolling up over the hills to the mini gardens planted around the bases of the small sidewalk trees.

Because maybe we are on the brink of big social change. Who knows how long this kind of easy, affordable travel will be available to the middle class? In Canada, the Prime Minister had just put the word out on a fall election; in the U.S. Sarah Palin had just created a small fortune for the designer of her specs, and my step daughter and son-in-law scrambled daily to flick on the television and hear the latest political gossip. Although the reason for the trip -- my husband's first grandchild - was less than 2 years old, I wanted the city -impermeable to age - to speak to me, to suggest something transcendent and meaningful as my eyesight blurs, my skin thins and the days melt at the horizon in what seems to be the time it takes to blink.

As we sped up 280 in the back of a cab, one of my San Francisco incarnations flashed back at me - six years of city living when I was in my twenties, young, supple skinned and probably beautiful, like they all are at that age.

A billboard to our right and I recalled my days as Ad & Promo Manager for NBC's KYUU radio. The phone call from San Francisco Magazine; I had been chosen as one of the city's most eligible bachelorettes to be featured in an upcoming issue, and all I could reply was, "I'm married." There it was: I had been giving off ‘single’ signals. It was my wake up call, a first step towards my big love, who now shared the cabbie with me as we took the circuitous route to the apartment where we were staying some twenty seven years later.

Looking back, it's reasonable that I was swindled, as our visit held other attractions which made me feel at home here:

I have three nephews in the Bay Area, a few good friends, and the granddaughter has laid claim to my heart.

We have history here. During Jimmy Carter's presidency, I met my sister and her firstborn moments after she gave birth to him at Moffet Hospital. At KCBS News Radio in the Embarcadero where I worked in the Promotions Department, I stood in my office looking out on the bay when George Moscone and Harvey Milk were assassinated. I lifted my shirt to reveal bare breasts on a tipsy dare in a restaurant in the Outer Richmond with my sister and her husband. I kissed my big love under a noon sun on Union Street, plotted a pie-in-the face surprise for him with his preteen daughter in an apartment on the corner of Broderick and Hayes (whose walls were pocked with bullet holes). After quitting my job in radio, I performed improvisation and dramatic theater at Fort Mason. After moving out of my marriage, I lived in a studio apartment above a grocery store in Pacific Heights. In a flat just off Clement an earthquake woke me, and again one morning during the six months we lived on Lombard when our son was two. When our film had its U.S. debut at the Mill Valley Film Festival, we attended a screening at The Roxy Theatre in The Mission.

This time, we both flew in from our home in Canada to celebrate my fifty-something birthday before hunkering down with our next creative project: a huge art installation for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

So I wasn't paying attention when I accidentally handed the cabbie two fifty dollar bills for a $36.50 airport cab fare. This isn't a story about honesty, and our Bay Cab driver (#37485, car #1098) didn't miss a beat, stepping out of his automobile on the corner of the hill at 21st and Dolores, as a warm wind blew some relief from the 80 degree heat. Coming from The Great White North where the bills are different colors, and sitting in the back seat without my glasses, I contemplated the tip he took for himself from what I assumed were two $20 bills, as Gord unloaded the bags from the trunk.

Then the question, after the cab sped away, after I counted my change and tallied the loss: should I try to get retribution? I'd noted the cab number because he was speeding wildly on the 280 (75-80 mph), but I knew I risked annoying myself with the predictable frustrations.

It's funny how this kind of thing stands out. I've forgotten a lot of things over the years but was suddenly reminded of a similar sting up Seventh Avenue from 42nd Street in New York City coming home from a show on Thanksgiving night, called A Bonzo Christmas Carol ( a satire in which I played Nancy Reagan, and was reviewed favorably in the New York Daily News). It was near 11:30 PM; the cabbie had just driven us past the billboards of naked women in the porn theatre district; the car idled in front of my apartment building on 54th street (later to be used in Broadway Danny Rose), as I handed the cabbie a $20 bill. He had the audacity to ask for more when I expected change. At first I was puzzled. But outside the cab, I realized I'd been had. Those were my single woman rube days when I spoke openly to anyone and everyone I encountered traveling, as if each person sitting next to me on a train or handing over a baguette had been sent to me as my personal tour guide.

So, I decided to let it go. In an Sensitive New Age kind of situation, we were staying at my husband's ex-wife's house while she mixed business with pleasure in some other city. Hers is a fabulous urban apartment exquisitely designed, with one little wrinkle: we, non-dog owners, had to dog-sit, which to me, meant we'd have to grab doggie do-do with a bare hand encased in plastic at least once per day. This is the one reason I don't own a dog.

Of course Muffin turned out to be a sweet rescue mutt, contributing 'small jewels' on her daily outings, a bit insecure but not as needy as most, although she looks like a cross between a bullfrog, a bulldog, and a gremlin from a Stephen Spielberg movie.

Our excursions allowed me to observe the life of a typical San Franciscan on the end of a leash.

Daily the city spoke to me.

Where we live silence is palpable, broken now and again by ferry traffic or at this time of year, birds getting drunk on the fermented orange berries of the mountain ash. An eagle's cry, the occasional bark of a dog, the wind through the trees, rain pelting the skylight. Here, city sounds echoed loudly: banging garbage trucks, splashing street cleaners, slamming doors reverberating on attached walls, sirens, neighbors voices.

Every morning we ventured down the big grassy hill of Dolores Park to Dolores Park Cafe or further down Guerrero to Tartine, a fabulous feast of the breakfast senses. Where croissants have a month's worth of butter, where even low fat lattes fill the palate with a creamy taste and texture. The place doesn't even have a sign with it's name on it, but there is always a line stretching out the door.

Inside - blasting cacophony which passes for music that young people can't get enough of, churning coffee grinder, voices shouting from the kitchen over the din. The weather was hot enough to sit at one of the sidewalk tables in shirt sleeves, but the decibel levels weren't much better there - as gear grinding trucks make Guerrero their thoroughfare.

But the unquenchable vibrancy and diversity of the city's inhabitants passed us daily in Dolores Park. The sweep of green is a destination unto itself -- where you get a stunning view of the San Francisco skyline and people watching is both a sport and an art.

The baking hot weekend featured the neighborhood Party on Block 18: a pig on a stick, preschool performers singing nursery rhymes into a microphone with a back-up band -- and bare skin, tattoos, skimpy frocks, bare chested men, skateboards and frisbees.

A homeless man pushing a stuffed grocery cart sat relaxed in its shade under the open sun as families picnicked on all sides. We watched lean youngsters walk a tightrope strung between two palm trees, small barbecues feed extended families. Dogs of every size and breed shared grass on the earth underfoot with babies, guitars and bicycles. At an impromptu sidewalk display - the urban garage sale - I bought a blue plate and bowl for one dollar and was as grateful as the seller.

In a place where so many live in sight of each other, much is visible and contradictory in the human daily march: consumption, need, greed, attitude, wealth, mental illness, poverty, and grace: just a short list. Art has its expression in San Francisco on almost every person - the color of their skin, the individual expression through hairstyle and clothing - while not always fashion, is fabulously diverse.

The Mission is proud of its brightly colored murals and rightly so, we only saw a few;

Recycling and composting is definitely advanced (you can eat with disposable forks and knives which are fully compostable) but I was surprised that when Dolores Park is watered, a lot of that precious liquid is wasted on cement.

On a commercial strip in Noe Valley, a troop of workers arrived one morning to clean the sidewalk in that uniquely California way - spraying it clean with water.

As they hooked up to the fire hydrant (!) and I remembered my southern California childhood summers when we hosed the driveway clean of leaves; also the drought years in the Bay Area. On the plus side, a cement truck outside Tartine actually turned off its engine to wait for the light and the whole churning thing shut down for a couple minutes.

Every day after the coffee, we hit the ball around on one of the five tennis courts at the bottom of the park until it became too hot.

Then, since the trip was all about bonding, we'd shower and head up over the Golden Gate bridge to San Rafael and just hang out with the girl and her mom. And I was ready for that - just hanging out.

Of course, in San Francisco, once you drive there is always the business with the car. The ex graciously offered her stick shift Audi, but the parking space is only slightly wider than the car and on a steep incline which ends abruptly at the garage door. So we took our chances on the street. Which means circling the block, gazing longingly at curb spaces too small for a grocery cart, and sitting up abruptly in the midst of anything with,

"The car! It's Wednesday! What time is it? Have they towed?" And then running out after it. When I lived here a quarter of a century ago, someone shot his neighbor over a parking space. This time, a sign in their front window said it all: "The last car parked here is still missing."

Where we live, salmon swim back to their place of birth to spawn at this time of year. So it seemed right that although my sister raised her family in Southern California, the nephew born in Moffet Hospital in August 1977 made San Francisco his home. Josh excels in Sales; previously he was a chef; every time we visit he takes us to a different local restaurant where he's on a first name basis with the owner.

This time I asked him to cook for my birthday celebration. One hour before the guests were to arrive, I called him, "I have no idea what I'm going to make," he said, "but don't worry, I'll go shopping now." He was picking up his cousin, Jesus, who is in 2nd year at SFU.

Later, during the chopping and wine drinking and supping on Josh's delicious impromptu feast, we pondered the world we live in with Jesus, Lori and Patrick.

When the time came to ante up for the groceries, Josh offered to pay. The amount? $60. So the cab robbery ended up being neutralized by a gift from a beloved nephew. Down to the penny.

Ten days is enough time for a lot in San Francisco, but we only made it to The Legion for the Impressionist exhibit, the french Le Zinc and Delphina's Pizza.

And a kite outing with our little grand-family.

A few days later, we strolled the streets of Cow Hollow and The Marina looking for, and not finding, Chestnut Street Bar & Grill, the cafe across whose table we kissed so many years ago; for Cartoons, a restaurant where we lunched often with Gord's daughter, and with crayons made drawings on tables covered with butcher paper. And yet there we were, at lunchtime twenty seven years later in this city which had brought us together, this iconic city which had only changed in the way a garden evolves from year to year.

This September, we came to her in an altered state, the sum of our lives standing with us on Chestnut Street at lunchtime. To someone whose dreams have not faded, been realized or changed, who has never divorced, whose parents are both alive, who has not seen friends die -- the world is a circus and you can be a star.

That's who we were when we fell in love in San Francisco more than quarter of a century ago - we were young, and the world was a spring flower, waiting only for the sun to warm it open.

The day before we left, Gord had his meeting with the Exploratorium to present Paintings Below Zero in a science-friendly context for a potential future installation. We came early, to watch the next generation thrill to the unexpected, the mysteries of the universe.

We could only watch, smiling.

And love her. Because through all the moments which have passed in between, love doesn't age, it is still as fresh and glorious as a new morning in San Francisco.