Shortly after moving to San Francisco last year, just as I was starting to meet some of the interesting characters that define this city and its culture, Alexis Swanson, director of marketing at Swanson Vineyards, told me there was somebody I must meet. “Everyone in San Francisco has his work,” she said, describing painter Ira Yeager, who splits his time between San Francisco and Napa. “He’s an exceptional artist.” His name was new to me, but it quickly surfaced that Yeager was one of the most well-collected artists in the area, with patrons including the Schwabs, Wilkes Bashford, Dodie Rosekrans, Paul and Nancy Pelosi, and Robert Redford.
“I think one of the reasons there is excitement in my paintings is because of the joy and the freshness,” says Ira Yeager, 67, standing in his light-filled studio located on a lush and green, 17-acre property in the foothills of the Napa Valley. Large canvases of majestic American Indian heads, French peasants, dramatic landscapes and ornate still lives are stacked 10-deep against the wall. Stool tops-turned-palettes are caked thick with oil paint.
As a student at the California College of Arts and Crafts and later at the S.F. Art Institute, Yeager studied under Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff and was a part of the Bay Area Figurative Art movement that emerged out of Abstract Expressionism. Although his work explores a number of themes – many inspired by his travels and passion for history – his technique demonstrates a deep understanding and commitment to paint.
Elizabeth Swanson, owner (with her husband) of Swanson Vineyards and mother of Alexis, became a great friend and collector of Yeager’s after meeting him at a dinner party at John Traina and Danielle Steel’s house some 14 years ago. “When you buy a canvas of his, you fall in love with a creature, a person, an era,” says Swanson, the owner of, among other things, a permanent collection of 22 paintings from his 18th century Wine Vendor series, which resides in the couple’s wine salon. “In a lot of his paintings, he promises a simple joy, a happy ending. In his simplicity, there is such huge sophistication.”
The son of a hunting and fishing guide, Yeager was born and raised in Bellingham, Wa., an area he describes as “kind of culturally deprived.” He started painting at the age of eight and enjoyed decorating little plaster figures of Marie-Antoinette, a hobby that later fueled much of the imagery in his work as well as his remarkable collection of 18th century European furniture and decorative art objects.
After school in San Francisco, Yeager traveled to Europe in the early 1960’s, where he lived and worked, visiting Italy, Spain and France, meeting the likes of Cocteau and Dubuffet. While in Italy, he ran with an eccentric crowd that included a wild Countess who sculpted and enjoyed dressing in costume. “These were my dreams of bohemianism,” says Yeager, a bon vivant himself who loves to cook and entertain friends in the several homes he owns in Napa. “I grew a beard and [the Countess] had me wearing these old clothes, like a big cape made out of black goat hair. Everybody was really fun.” It wasn’t until the early ‘80s, after a decade of living in Greece, that Yeager permanently settled in Northern California.
Much of Yeager’s painting has been defined by his physical and emotional journeys into other cultures. A recent exhibition at his studio in San Francisco celebrated the impressive Indian chief portraits he started in 1965, close to the time he spent in Santa Fe. It’s a rich body of work spanning the 40 years for which he has gathered a serious following. “I think they’re almost like abstract paintings,” says Yeager. “I call them ‘psychological landscapes.’”
Less serious, but ever so popular, are Yeager’s still lives of old teapots and French period shoes, some fondly signed “von Yeager.” “I virtually designed my kitchen around these,” says Debbie Reynolds, co-owner of the children’s snack company Healthy Handfuls, pointing to two small canvases of teapots. “Once you buy one of his pieces, it’s almost addictive.” She has 12 of his paintings to prove it.
“It’s a constant high,” says Swanson of Yeager’s art. “You walk in and you say, ‘Thank God that cow has flowers around its neck!’ All is well in the world.”
(Left) Page excerpt from C Magazine.