Ira: Chronicler of the 18th Century
By Carolyn Younger, The St. Helena Star, Living Section, Front Page
Self Portrait: as the dreamt arrival of the Man in the White Suit.
In the world of artist Ira Yeager, dignity is defined by a Greek woman in a creamy yellow head scarf; grace by the faces of carved santos; abiding love by a Native American woman and her child; opulence by a beribboned shoe; and humor by a rosy-cheeked portrait of statesman-philosopher Sir Francis Bacon – whose nose is ever so slightly reminiscent of a hog snout.
In a vast green barn on the outskirts of Calistoga, Yeager, an unofficial chronicler of the 18th century, relaxes on a worn but comfortable couch covered with faded East Indian cotton. He encourages a visitor to sit in an armchair close to a small electric heater sending out gusts of warmth.
Yeager is a gracious host, resplendent in a Navy wool beret pulled over gray curls, a bright blue down vest, sage colored corduroy plus-fours with white cotton socks pulled up as a defense against the ticks that abound in the surrounding oak groves, and black leather loafers with silver buckles. The shoes are reminiscent of the 18th century footwear that appears in his wine vendor series of European peasants.
He talks about his childhood in the Pacific Northwest growing up near the Lummi Indian reservation, his penchant for living in small villages, his collections, and his enthusiasm for everything that piques his interest, be it teapots, shoes or people as animals. An impressive and varied selection of Yeager’s work, covering five decades and more than 20 separate themes, is currently on display through March at the Napa Valley Museum in Yountville. An adjunct show includes some of his extensive collection of carved santos figures.
“I have 100 years of unfinished paintings,” he confides with relish and a humorous tilt of an eyebrow.
Yeager is a tidy artist whose work space is packed with props arranged in comfortable groupings. The uninitiated might think they’ve walked into someone’s home, not an artist’s studio. In one of the several barns where Yeager paints, tables hold an array of tea bowls and pots, and an antique three-panel screen is draped with britches and a shirt – 18th century clothing that appears in another of his wine series paintings.
“I think one of the great things I’ve learned along the way is so many artists end their careers in formula” he said. “The exciting thing for me is always moving on; sometimes moving on so quickly that I really haven’t had time to work on the series. Then I go back later – maybe one year, five years, maybe 10 years later – and pick up that series.”
Yeager, 61, was born in Bellingham, Washington. His Irish father, now 100, was a hunting and fishing guide and his mother was the daughter of Russian farmers. Yeager was the only one in the family of five to exhibit artistic talent. “I think it must have been a surprise,” he said. “I don’t think they understood it, but they didn’t discourage it.”
He started painting at age 8 and recalls being influenced by Thomas Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy,” and Sir Thomas Lawrence’s “Pinky,” romantic paintings from the 1700s that later were standard fare for children’s calendars. He also recalls saving his money for a pair of plaster replicas of Louis XV and Marie Antoinette, which he proceeded to paint blue and gold. His interests then, as now, were eclectic. He learned from his grandmother how to braid and hook rugs, how to crochet, embroider, tat and knit socks, although, he laughs, he never completed two of anything. A tribute to his Russian grandmother appears in the painting, “My Grandma Kamerzell.”
After high school – his grades were indifferent, he admits, but he was ready to leave the Northwest – he attended the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, studied with figurative painter Richard Diebenkorn, enrolled in the San Francisco School of Fine Arts to study with Elmer Bischoff and Nathan Oliveira. There he worked with fellow students and friends Joan Brown and Manuel Neri. In the 1960s he went to Florence to study at the Academy of Fine Arts. In the next two decades he lived and painted in France, Morocco, Greece, New Mexico, England, Guatemala, Mexico, and New York.
“In my early years I lived in little villages in Europe, and I loved village life,” he said. “One of the greatest experiences was living in a Greek village of 300 people.”
He is as touched by the remembered praise of a Corfu village woman – who once told him, “You have hands of gold” – as he is by the support of well-heeled patrons in the United States and Europe.
“Study #2” from the Quadrille Series, 1999, is one painting for which Yeager drew inspiration from his collection of santos. It is part of the Yeager retrospective now at the Napa Valley Museum.
Yeager first came to the Napa’s upper valley in 1976, but divided his time between Greece and studios in New York and San Francisco. Early shows here included an exhibit, “Ira Yeager In The Country,” at the Robert Mondavi Winery; as well as shows of the Country Landscapes, Neo Veneto and Teapot series at Vanderbilt & Co., and of his Native American series at the LEF Foundation on Lodi Lane. This year a permanent collection opened in Rutherford at the Swanson Vineyards Winery.
Nine years ago Yeager consolidated his far-flung studios and moved permanently to Northern California. He now has four studios, “for storage and different environments, moods and mind sets.” Most of his current work is done in San Francisco’s Mission district, in the former lumber yard where he once bought stretcher bars for his canvases.
He is about to start on a new series, La Foire de Beauclaire, inspired by the hundreds-of-years-old market in the south of France. For Yeager, who has one foot and much of his imagination planted in the 18th century, it is a series rich in possibilities and one that he expects will take him well into the next millennium.
Very little escapes his brush: his figurative style has captured images of vineyards, of flat, halo-like straw hats from Chiapa, arrays of food, delicate tea bowls, elegant 18th century shoes, mysterious Venetian masks, volcanoes, flowers, English gardens, sculpted jade, lions, geese, roosters, dogs. There are portraits in the style of Vermeer and Velasquez. Studies of human bodies with animal faces, the People as Animals series. Paintings on the backs of canvases, the Quadrille series. Paintings on mesh, The Fly Screen Santos. Paintings embellished with Italian proverbs, the Wine Vendor series.
“It’s very interesting how something new happens,” he said. “I’m always curious what the next thing is going to be.”