The Psychological Landscape of Ira Yeager

By Gary Brday-Herndon, Napa Valley Museum

Form, medium, and stylistic disposition are only dim reflections of an artist’s worth, not the essence of his talent. The ability to give life to imagination, experiences and feelings sets the masters apart from mere seekers, lifting those with true genius far ablove the rabble. Their task is to interpret for the rest of us a language heard from within, blurring the boundaries between the medium of expression and the world where they abide. article_nvm1The artist in his Calistoga studio, surrounded by his most recent mixed media sculptures. For Calistoga resident artist Ira Yeager, art and life are bound in this symbiotic embrace. His journey began over 50 years ago at the age of 15. Today, his reputation spans the world as do patrons of his art. In a recent interview at his home and studio in the hills above Calistoga, Yeager related the highlights of his career, his art and his life in the Napa Valley. Born and raised in Bellingham, Washington, Yeager moved to the Bay Area in 1957 to attend the California College of Arts and Crafts, where he studied with Richard Diebenkorn, who encouraged him to adopt an independent style of his own. After a stint at what is now the San Francisco Art Institute in 1959, Yeager moved to Florence, Italy to continue his studies there at the Academy of Fine Arts – and to set in motion a lifestyle that would find him living and working around the world for the next 20 years. article_nvm2“San Miguel de Allende Landscape”, 48″ x 48″, mixed media, 1969. While continuing to hone his skills as an artist, Yeager collected artwork and friends from around the globe, who would be influential in his work and life. One stop found him living in Morocco where he became good friends with writers Paul and Mary Bowles. The couple were known thoughout literary and artistic circles around the world, holding court to some of the most influential artists of their time.Through them, Yeager met and became friends with the likes of Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Tennessee Williams. Returning to the Bay Area in the mid-1960s, he opened his first one-man show at the Pantechnicon Gallery in San Francisco and acquired a studio on Powell Street, which he would use as a base of operation for years. But still struck by wanderlust, Yeager moved first to Santa Fe, New Mexico where he developed a lifelong fascination for depicting the American Indians in his art. article_nvm3“Native American Indian Portrait”, 66″ x 66″, mixed media, 2002. After spending time in both Mexico and Guatemala, Yeager made two decisions that would prove instrumental in molding his perspective on art and life. First, he bought a home in the Napa Valley, laying the foundation for where he would eventually settle. Then, he moved to the Greek Island of Corfu, where he opened a studio. And, though he continued traveling around Europe over the next 10 years, he credited his ability to live at peace with his surroundings, in what some might see as Spartan circumstances, to his time in Greece. “Living in Greece made it possible for me to live here in the Napa Valley. They were country people, doing country things,” Yeager said. “Once you’ve learned the lessons and what’s available, you can go back in time and choose where you want to live,” Yeager said, inferring that through his experiences his work comes alive. “You live them to create.” Increasingly, during the latter part of the 1970s, he would return to the Napa Valley and the Bay Area to paint and display his work. But in 1978, Yeager also opened a studio in the Tribeca district of New York City. “In the art world, one is a provincial artist unless you live in New York City. (Now,) I’m not concerned about anything but my art and career,” he said. “Living in New York wasn’t living at all. I wanted to be in the country.” article_nvm4“Der Kampf ums Dasein”, 66″ x 66″, mixed media, 1999 . From his travels and the time he spent living in Greece, Yeager developed a love of the simple beauty of country living, drawing from the experience inspiration. “It’s like living with an empty canvas. You have to create your own life and career. A lot of people don’t get it right,” Yeager said, noting he too had to shift his experience of living in the city to playing farmer in the country. “The city no longer had its power over me.” In 1982, he left Greece for good. Returning to Northern California to work, he settled into a routine dividing his time between his Calistoga home and San Francisco studio. While creating his own distinctive body of work is the driving force in his life, Yeager’s passion for art spills over into his numerous pieces of artwork he has collected over the years. article_nvm5“The Last of the Vineyard, #5”, 20″ x 20 “, mixed media, 1983. Sitting in his huge remodeled red barn on the outskirts of Calistoga, Yeager sat and talked of his life and work. Preferring to live with his “collections” rather than hide them away, the large room is filled with works spanning a variety of genres from peasant rustic pieces to exquisite eighteenth century artifacts collected from around the world. Placed near the center of the open-air two-story building, a long antique “nun’s table” can be found with enough place settings to accommodate a small banquet. Yeager collects both antique tables and chairs, often arranging them together as mismatched groups in a matter he finds aesthetically pleasing. Around the room, intricately embroidered eighteenth century costumes and old world tapestries hang from the walls and screens with no apparent rhyme or reason, other than to allow visitors the opportunity to bask in their unique beauty. An antique mule cart shares part of the floor space with a German wicker carriage. Rare teapots and tea bowls sprout from table tops and shelves around the room, attesting to the artist’s affinity for both the drink and the vessels. Yeager appears to be at ease with both his career and his life. Down the drive and up a small rise from the barn, his studio sits behind a small hill, providing the artist the privacy and seclusion he desires. As visitors walk up the massive tree-trunk staircase to Yeager’s second-story studio, any question of whether his artistic drive is waning after a lifetime of creating is quickly dispelled. On every available surface – leaning against the walls, the upper staircase railing and work tables – are scored of paintings. Series after series, some three, six and eight pieces deep, sit waiting for Yeager’s attention. Working on a number of projects at once, he says he often abandons a series for a day, a week or a month to work on another, returning in time to them all, following his own internal artistic calendar. His prodigious body of work prompted the Napa Valley Museum, in November of 1999, to present a one-man show, “Ira Yeager: A Retrospective Exhibition,” to allow Valley residents to see firsthand Yeager’s genius – an experience, Yeager said, he found extremely gratifying. article_nvm6“Peasant Vendor” from the Wine Vendor Series, 60″ x 60″, mixed media, 2002. “The Museum’s retrospective of my work was a very beautiful experience. Randy [Murphy, the Museum’s senior curator] did a marvellous job. I didn’t see it until opening night. I was very impressed. It was so beautifully done – probably the best night of my life. It was such an extraordinary tribute,” Yeager said. Today, Yeager divides his time between Calistoga, San Francisco and a home and studio on the Northern California coast. Museums and galleries around the globe display his work, and in 1999, a premanent collection of his paintings, the “Wine Vendor Series,” went on display at the Swanson Vineyards Winery located in Rutherford, California and is open for public viewing.