A-mused by nature: Well-traveled painter finds himself at home in Napa Valley landscape
By Gary Brady-Herndon, Special To The Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle
Well-traveled painter finds himself at home in Napa Valley landscape
In the 1980s, two of artist Ira Yeager’s exhibitions changed his life.
The first, “Ira Yeager in the Country,” focused on Northern California and Napa Valley landscapes. The second, “Neo Veneto,” chronicled the lifestyle of wealthy Venetians of the 15th century. Of special interest to him was the Venetians’ passion for establishing country farms as rural getaways to escape the hectic life of the cities.
“They (the Venetian gentry) would go up the canals in their gondolas to their villas alongside the river, where they would play farmer,” Yeager said. “The ‘Neo Veneto’ series was really about me leaving the city.”
Both events pushed him to give up his city life and move permanently to Calistoga in 1990.
“I had forgotten (about nature) all the years I had studios in San Francisco and New York City. Since they were built for security, I didn’t have any windows. I had skylights,” Yeager said. “I was so involved in city life and my painting at the time, I wasn’t even aware there was a world out there. When I finally got up here in the country, I just had to have views.”
Yeager’s childhood home in Bellingham, Wash., had afforded a wonderful setting to enjoy nature. Inspired by the natural beauty of the region, he began painting in his teens, eventually falling under the influence of the work of American Abstract Expressionists Morris Graves and Mark Tobey.
In 1957, he moved to the Bay Area to attend the California College of Arts and Crafts. An interest in abstract and figurative drawing led Yeager to the San Francisco School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) to study with Elmer Bischoff and Nathan Oliveira. There he also studied with Richard Diebenkorn, who steered the young artist in the direction of more experimentation in his work.
In 1960, Yeager moved to Italy, where he continued his study in Abstract Expressionism with Primo Conti in Florence at the Academy of Fine Arts. The hectic pace of his lifestyle and the demands of his career kept him from experiencing nature every day.
For three decades, Yeager traveled the world. He established and lived in studios in England, Mexico, Greece, France, Italy and New York.
In New York, Yeager found himself drawn to Central Park, where he would spend hours walking the pathways, enjoying the park’s natural beauty. His growing uneasiness with city living, he now believes, was a wake-up call long overdue.
“I believe humans often unconsciously dream of what they would like to be doing. Having been closeted without any views of nature for years, I was ready for a change,” Yeager said.
Returning to San Francisco in 1982, Yeager began a series of paintings focused on Northern California landscapes, exposing him to the beauty of the region and the inspiration he gained from his visits.
Yeager moved north to Calistoga, where he purchased 17 acres at the base of Mount St. Helena. Disturbed by what he saw as the “South Hamptonization” of the Napa Valley, Yeager decided to keep the property as near to its natural state as possible.
To achieve his goal, he turned to one of his favorite authors, noted English horticultural writer Mirabel Osler. Using as a blueprint a passage in one of her books in which she lamented, “English gardens are polluting the world,” Yeager set out to retain what he calls the “integrity and scholarship” of the land.
Yeager’s three-story studio nestles into a hillside near Calistoga.
The narrow, twisting lane that leads from the blacktopped country road as it snakes up the property follows the lay of the land so as not to disrupt the natural, undulating flow of the gentle hillsides. To mask the few additions made to the site, Yeager said he chose to line the gravel roadway with 200 oleander bushes to form a screen to enhance the feeling of solitude.
On a trip up the extended drive, visitors pass a number of simple structures situated discreetly. Some are built out of fallen trees and limbs from the hillsides. One open-air structure, an impressive replica of a one-room Japanese farmhouse, was sent to him unassembled by a Berkeley friend. Tiki torches lie in one corner next to a box of spent fuel containers. A paint- splattered stool sits near the center of the room.
Each site is strategically situated so its location, while providing sweeping views of the hillsides and quiet places for meditation or an impromptu afternoon painting session, does not intrude on the others’ privacy.
At the top of the drive, Yeager’s three-story studio is built up the side of a hill that forms the back part of the property. Near the front of the house, a semicircular deck surrounds the lower half of a huge redwood. A ladder goes to a tree house that overlooks the rolling hills to the north and Mount St. Helena on the horizon. Douglas firs, towering redwoods, apple, walnut and elm trees cover the rolling hills of the property, offering sanctuary to wildlife and birds.
“My garden in the springtime is basically red clover, poppies and lupus that grow under the walnut trees. The real beauty comes when they die and the daffodils and narcissus bloom. What I really love is in the summer we rototill part of the land so it’s just the unearthed dirt showing,” Yeager said.
Ira Yeager’s Napa Valley home includes several buildings, among them a house with a wooden bridge behind it.
Art on the inside
Yeager renovated the original German farmhouse that came with the land, adding an upper floor that houses his studio proper. Nowhere are Yeager’s talent and passion for art more evident than in the confines of these four walls.
On one side of the room, surreal portraits of American Indian chiefs with chiseled features in full headdress stare at the viewer while, around the room, Greek peasant women adorn other canvases in various states of completion. Landscapes of places Yeager visited around the world share wall space with paintings featuring animals, farmers in wooden carts and scenes of provincial rural life.
Other work combines them all into abstract studies of the relationship between man and animal. Each one employs rustic, natural coloring for a the feel of the outdoors, joined by a sense of the whimsical.
On first inspection, one might think chaos is winning out over order. The colorful cans of paint in one corner are in a state of disarray, as are the rows of paintings leaning against the walls. Yeager, however, finds comfort in his artistic haven.
“The chaos produces a kind of excitement of the dance,” Yeager said. “I think that’s what makes a successful painting, when you have it all working together – the darkness and the light in balance – the thinking, feeling, sensate and intuition. (The dance is) like playing out a dangerous game of chaos versus order. It’s the process toward the final product – a finished painting. The dance is the real payoff – the fun.
“A studio is a place of excitement that provokes new and experimental ideas – a place where one can go to create. I’m a firm believer everyone should have a room of their own. A room where they can go and have all of their tools to be creative.”
A teahouse that sits behind a guest house the artist has dubbed the White house. The wooden buildings blend well into their surroundings.
Mostly a loner
Yeager prefers to live and work alone. With his workdays routinely spanning 10 to 12 hours, visitors are rare and by invitation only. The lack of outside disturbances and the access to nature close at hand, he said, help him reflect and concentrate on his work.
“I’m very protective of my creative time. I think a lot of people don’t have the inner resources to be alone and have to rely on external sources for stimulus,” Yeager said. “I think what happens if there are too many outside distractions – it’s hard to get to your creativity. Often, I feel the most creative things come out of boredom when you’re alone – that’s when something wonderful will happen.”
In his early 60s, Yeager divides his time between his houses, studios and galleries in San Francisco, Calistoga and his newest home on the Northern California coast. Yeager the naturalist and Yeager the artist have become one.