Lisa Kaplan stands between the u-shape of the tables, sharing her vision. A diverse group of students sit around her, ranging from youth to elder, locals to internationals. “The Resilience project was about expressing and reframing personal loss,” she begins. “But the RESTORE project takes our creative artistic expression and moves it further out into the community.” Her arms spread wide and upward. “It’s meant to provide a forum for the community to come together to restore our shared community spaces, as artists, art appreciators, nature lovers, and visitors.”
I’m sitting at an edge of one of the tables, taking it all in. Since the Valley Fire of 2015, the Middletown Art Center (known as “the MAC”), has become a hub for arts and artists in Lake County. More than that, it has also become a place of healing for many people traumatized by the loss of their homes, studios, and livelihoods. The RESTORE project is funded in part by the California Arts Council, with additional support from local organizations, agencies, and individuals. The MAC uses that funding to provide low-cost art classes (usually $5) to the community. MAC member Artists teach most of the classes, each designed to replace the trauma and strain of loss with the beauty of the creative spirit. All are unique and high-quality.
Lisa paces up and down, her mind racing as she speaks. She continues, “When we come together, we can make something even more beautiful and inclusive. That’s what we’re doing on Rabbit Hill.”
The new Rabbit Hill Art Trail is a collaborative project that the MAC has begun to develop in partnership with the Lake County Land Trust, who are stewards of the property. The hill burned in the Valley Fire, leaving totems of charred trees poking against the sky and clumps of brush sticking out of the ground. Lisa scrolls through photographs, showing us different aspects of the hill. “We all have ideas,” she continues. “Our teaching artists have ideas. You have ideas. And our ideas fertilize each other.”
She walks over to the wall, where sketches of potential plans for Rabbit Hill hang, tacked up. “Here are some of the ideas,” she says, pointing at the drawings. “We’re looking for your insight into how we might counter the destruction of the fires.” She pauses. “We can counter it with creativity.” A few people pitch in, tossing out suggestions. Lisa replies to each one and asks new questions in return, creating an open dialogue with the twenty people in the room. After about fifteen minutes of brainstorming she sits down, handing over the class to Marcus Maria Jung.
Marcus steps forward, his lean, sinewy figure taut and strong like a manzanita branch. “Thank you for coming to our class,” he begins, a hint of his native German coming through his speech. “I’m very happy that Lisa invited me here to teach. Let’s begin by going around the room and sharing a bit about who we are and why we’re here.” He smiles, his strong jaw framed by dark, straight hair.
“I’ll begin. I’m Marcus Maria Jung. I’m currently based in L.A. but lived in Lake County for several years before I lost my studio in the Valley Fire. I love Lake County and am excited to teach this class because I believe that art comes from community. Here, artists teach other artists and budding artists.” He smiles again; then others begin to share as we move around the table. All have a reason to learn—they want to discover working in wood, they’re curious about art, they want to branch out into something new. Everyone’s eager to get to work; I can feel the excitement in the air. Several students have brought wood from home, and twisted pieces of manzanita and oak sit on the table.
Marcus clicks through slides, showing how nature brings beauty to everything. First, a picture of a leaf imprinted on a rock, then an oak tree reaching upward like a deer on its hind legs. The photos move towards some of Marcus’ personal work. It’s a seamless transition—Marcus’ art augments rather than displaces natural beauty. He passes around some of his pieces in various stages of completion to show us the process. Looking at the wood as it makes its way around the table, I can see how he pulls out a shape here, a contour there, accentuating a line of grain or knot in the wood and creating a seamless texture that weaves together nature and art.
“I see some of you have brought your own wood,” Marcus continues, “and that is wonderful. If you didn’t, I also have some wood I brought outside. “ Within minutes, the classroom transforms from people politely sitting and listening to a lecture to an active, dynamic workshop. Chisels and hammers suddenly appear, and the sound of tapping and scraping fills the air.
Marcus is a patient teacher. He moves around the classroom, taking time with each student, showing them how to bring out the beauty inherent in the wood. After cutting off a chunk of manzanita outside, I bring it in and begin sanding and chiseling.
Soon Marcus works his way up to where I’m sitting. After a few suggestions with the piece I’m working on, I set it down on the table.
“How are things going since you lost your studio in the fire?” I ask.
“I’m in L. A. now, but I still consider Lake County as a home base,” he begins.
“It’s nice to know you still have ties here.”
“At the same time,” Marcus continues, “I feel that both Los Angeles and Lake County inform each other. Especially when it comes to the natural catastrophes we are facing all over the planet and the challenge to restore our relationship with the natural world as being part of, and not separate from.”
Marcus looks back to the manzanita sitting on the table. “You see, we are co-creators with nature. Things carry potency in them, like your piece of wood,” he says, looking at the piece. “Art happens, but it’s knowing how to explain the process that makes it art.” He explains, showing me a piece of detail in the wood. “Otherwise it’s decoration.”
At that moment another student catches Marcus’ eye, so I thank him for his suggestions, then start poking at my piece again, trying to draw out the natural beauty in the wood.
The time passes quickly, far too fast to complete my little project, but the classes aren’t meant for that. They’re designed to give you a taste, an inkling, a touch of flavor on the tongue. As we wind up, people share what they’ve worked on and are working towards creating. It’s been an afternoon well spent, one that broadened my understanding of wood and the beauty inherent in nature.
It’s a collaborative process, the creation of art in a group. The RESTORE program’s classes are designed to do just that—to take us out of our ruts and open our minds to new things. Lake County has been through several years of fires and floods which have left many of us traumatized and a bit twitchy. Art acts directly counter to that, and collaborative art brings in another dimension. It shows us that even though we’ve suffered, beauty still lives within us, nascent and waiting to bud, bloom and grow. And when we share that beauty with others, it creates synergy, because shared creativity always grows bigger than the sum of its parts.
The RESTORE program will be running through May of 2019, and all classes are taught by skilled, knowledgeable artists. If you want to expand your horizons, discover a bit of your artistic self, brush up on some forgotten skills, or share some of your creativity with others, take a look at the list of classes. And be sure to register online ahead of time; many fill up quickly.
The Middletown Art Center is located at:
21456 Hwy 175, Middletown, CA 95461