The Artist as Collector: Ira Yeager

By Sasha Paulsen, The Napa Valley Register, Arts, People & Entertainment, 1C-2C

Chronicler2“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. ‘Metaphors of Joy’ highlights the Ira Yeager retrospective at the Napa Valley Museum Ira Yeager describes a plaque he received from a friend which reads, “They marveled at the beauty of the voyage that took them to the end of their life.” The quote, the artist says, is from an anonymous French gravestone, but it captures his feelings as the Napa Valley Museum brought to the public a collection of his paintings, which span four decades, from the 1950s to the present. “Ira Yeager: A Retrospective Exhibition” opened in November and will continue until March 26, 2000. This week the museum adds to this exceptional show, presenting a “mini-exhibit” from Yeager’s private collection of santos, hand-carved objects, which, Yeager says, have often served as inspiration for his paintings. “I use them in my work all the time,” says Yeager. “The beautiful faces on my paintings of 18th century heads come from the santos.” The santos show is called “Metaphors of Joy,” but that title might serve as well for the collection of more than 60 paintings now at the museum. The subjects range from portraits of Native Americans to Greek statue studies, abstract landscapes to teapots; whimsical, bold, witty and moving, they provide a fascinating study of the work of a major artist who has made his home in Calistoga since 1990. The santos collection provides a bit of illumination for the basis of Yeager’s many-faceted work. Yeager is a collector of beautiful and intriguing things. He says he has been collecting them since he was a boy in Washington, and some of these things can be seen in the renovated green barn where he works in Calistoga. He began collecting santos in the 1960s when he worked as a guide for art collectors in Italy. In those days, he says, you could be certain the things you found in basements were the real thing. His collection is mostly of 17th and 18th century objects, but also includes a 15th century santos. “Though it rarely happens, art and the artist are one in the person of Ira Yeager,” Robert Flynn Johnson writes in the catalogue of the works in the Yeager retrospective. Johnson is the curator in charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. ArtistCollector2“Shoe: One of a Pair,” from the collection of the Viscount and Viscountess Windsor, 1996. To talk with Yeager is to perceive a glimpse of this vision, where art and life are interchangeable terms: The artist sees a painting in a fish, as easily as in a landscape or the imagined face of a citizen of the 18th century. But if Yeager’s works seems, in turn, joyful irreverent, fantastic and far-reaching, it’s also the product of a long and disciplined study of the craft. Born in Bellingham, Wash., in 1938, he moved to San Francisco in 1957 to study art at the California College of Arts and Crafts and the San Francisco School of Fine Arts, later the San Francisco Art Institute. His early teachers included Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff. Yeager went on to live and study and work in Italy, France, England, Greece, Morocco, Mexico, Guatemala, New York City and Santa Fe. The man who says he flunked high school Spanish, learned it on location from locals, and even now polishes it by eating lunch with farm workers in Calistoga. He has studied, he explains, at the university of the world, and taken inspiration from each place for his art. Nor is time a particular restraint in Yeager’s work. He is an unabashed fan of the 18th century, and some of his best known works, including his paintings of European peasants and wine vendors are drawn from that time. “You never know how sweet life is unless you lived in the 18th century,” Yeager says, quoting the French philosopher, Tallyrand. Painters at this time were masters of their craft, Yeager says. “Their techniques were extraordinary.” Today, in contrast, he says, the artist is often “bigger than the art…they have ideas, but they don’t have the tools.” No one can paint 18th century faces like Yeager, says his European patron, Lillian Williams. Williams owns one of the most extensive collections of 18th century costumes – some of which she has given to Yeager – another of his collections. Napa Valley Museum curator Randolph Murphy calls the Yeager exhibition a “revelation of the breadth and depth of his work. “We hope this exhibit will serve to introduce the work of Ira Yeager to a whole new audience of admirers,” he says. The Yeager retrospective is sponsored by Mr. and Mrs. Fritz Maytag and Mr. and Mrs. W. Clarke Swanson, Jr. Collectors who have loaned paintings to the exhibit include Robert Redford and Jennifer and Joe Montana. Although the Napa Valley Museum has garnered praise for putting together a world-class collection of Yeager’s work, the artist says if one thing can emerge from the retrospective, he hopes it might be to remind people of a simpler time, a return to joy. “As one grows older,” he says, “if one is smart and follows the instincts, one makes everything simpler.”