Artists have long been drawn to the beauty of rural western Yolo County, but sometimes capturing that beauty meant risking life and limb.
Yolo County Supervisor Duane Chamberlain, who represents the sweeping, largely rural 5th District, recalls frequently seeing painters set up on the side of the road bordering his alfalfa fields.
“The dust and gravel would be flying everywhere and I’d go over to them and say, ‘You can go on the land,’ but they were always afraid of being chased off,” Chamberlain said.
Annie Main, who with her husband, Jeff, farms in the Capay Valley, said she, too, often heard about painters — usually women — working alone on the side of the road.
“It seemed so unsafe,” she noted.
That concern for artists bent on capturing the beauty of their land is what led to the Art and Agriculture Project, a YoloArts program through which farmers open their land monthly to artists.
The artists get regular — and safe — access to the landscapes they wish to paint or photograph, and farmers, in turn, benefit as well, with often publicly displayed art showcasing their land.
“This program has reminded people that the countryside is beautiful and the farmland is beautiful and if we don’t pay attention, it could be gone,” said Esparto resident Claire Haag, whose marriage is an art and ag project in itself — she’s a painter and her husband, James, is a walnut grower.
The program also has drawn national attention, receiving a $63,000 grant last year from ArtPlace, a public-private partnership working in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Arts to encourage art that helps create vibrant, livable communities.
On Tuesday, the chairman of the NEA himself, Rocco Landesman, paid a visit to Yolo County to learn more about the project, meeting in Woodland with representatives of the Art and Ag Project, YoloArts, the Yolo Land Trust and the county.
Landesman, a former Broadway producer, has served as NEA chair since 2009. In that time, he said, “The NEA has become increasingly interested in art in rural areas.”
“It’s a logical step to not just be focused on New York or Los Angeles or Chicago,” he said. “We’re increasingly interested in how art can transform places and engage people and play a role in revitalization.”
Locally, he was told on Tuesday, art is seen as another tool in the fight to preserve agricultural land, simultaneously raising awareness about protecting working landscapes, while promoting sustainable agriculture and the visual arts in Yolo County.
“It’s about art as a form of preservation,” Main said.
Added Chamberlain: “I’m not an artist, but I love the outdoors … and keeping it from being developed is a big goal of mine.”
Word of local efforts apparently has spread.
“From what I’ve heard,” Landesman said, “Yolo County is a poster child for how this can happen. So I’m not here by accident.”
Landesman is on an Art Works tour that also will include a stop in Los Angeles later this week to visit with two other recipients of ArtPlace grants. A total of 34 such grants were provided by ArtPlace last year, funding projects from Honolulu to Miami.
The money, Landesman noted, is not NEA funding, “but our attempt to leverage resources for the arts. These are not NEA funds, they are NEA-inspired funds. We need a big private sector commitment for this.”
Locally, the Art and Ag Project is celebrated every fall with an Art Farm Exhibition Gala that features an Art Harvest and Taste of Yolo. There farmers can often be found bidding on the artwork depicting their own land and homes.
“It’s been a remarkable experience watching farmers connect with artists,” said Michele Clark, executive director of the Yolo Land Trust, which is a partner, along with YoloArts and the Davis Farmers Market Foundation, in operating the art and ag project.
Artists interested in participating in an “Artist-to-Farm” visit can do so by emailing [email protected]. The next visit is scheduled for this weekend.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or (530) 747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy