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Location, Location, Location: Work from Barry Singer Gallery looks fine on most any wall. Shown: 'Horse Study 7--Other Series' by Juliet van Otteren.

Livin' la Vida Local

From fine art to fine guitars, fine food to fine crafts, gifts that come from local artisans are just plain fine

By Davina Baum, Gretchen Giles, David Templeton, and R. V. Scheide

Pretend for a moment that Christmas is an easy time of year, a subtle and calm moment in which the checkbook and the bank balance meet in sweet agreement, where money can and should just sort of flow in a chocolatey and reasonable way to those who best deserve it. Now consider where that river should both source and end. Luxuriating in the subtle and the calm, a sober gift-giver concludes that this cascading tributary of creamy largesse should naturally end with those best-beloveds, and that the cold hard cash of gift giving might begin not with crafts this year, but, rather, with art.

(This is not to say that crafts don't have a large barge to float upon the gift-giving stream. Indeed, they do. Those artifacts, for example, found and savagely purchased at the annual Dance Palace Holiday Crafts Fair--slated this year for Dec. 5-7 in Pt. Reyes Station--are recalled in awe-struck tones by those hoping to once again open a simple wrapping enclosing silk handmade handbags wrought entirely from antique kimonos.)

But this year we direct you to a few examples of art that you can buy for less than or just around (gulp) a grand. But borrowing from the haggard home remodeler in referring to a thousand dollars as "a unit," it magically becomes far less dollars, truly.

The Barry Singer Gallery (7 Western Ave., Petaluma. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-6pm. 707.781.3200) specializes in photography, a high art that many find to be an easier art. For its "Holiday Show IV," exhibiting through Jan. 17, the Singer goes crazy for color, mostly featuring hand-tinted and straightforward color photographs, though a few of the featured artists work solely in black and white.

A trained architect and painter who of necessity constantly had to photograph his work and found himself liking the result more than his other efforts, Jeffrey Becom's bold abstract shots of wildly pigmented Latin American walls and buildings ($550-$950) offer luscious licks of pure true hue. Forestville enologist Sondra Barrett captures the rigidly psychedelic structures of wine molecules in her vivid prints, and Albert Koetsier's elegant shots of fuschias and tulips ($300-$400), captured with a homemade X-ray machine hand-built by the artist, are starkly gorgeous.

Brigitte Carnochan hand-tints each black-and-white print she makes of creamy magnolias, earthy nudes, and other planetbound blooms ($1,500-$2,000). Juliet von Otteren's startling horse-head shots ($800) and a satisfying clutch of unframed Betti Page pinups ($550-$750), all curves and fleshy derriere, are also available.

A collective of some 32 artists now in its 25th year, Artisans Gallery (78 E. Blithedale Ave., Mill Valley; open Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-6pm, and Sunday, noon-5pm; 415.388.2044) exhibits its annual "Holiday Gifts Invitational" through Dec. 31. Casting a national call for artists, Artisans receives a reliable slate of excellence for its open shows.

Of the regular members, Sheila Tuffanelli's brass mesh covering for an unlikely head, Hard Hat 1 ($200), Cathy Coe's structural monoprints ($275), and Nini Linn's swift pastels and watercolors of drawing-class models ($125 unframed), are each uniquely qualified for the art of gift receipt.

Santa Rosa's A Street Gallery (312 S. A St.; open Wednesday-Saturday, noon-5pm; 707.578.9124) presents "House Show" through Jan. 24, exhibiting the work of those artists who maintain studios in the warren behind the gallery proper. Painter D. A. Bishop's eerily mannered still-lifes of buildings and cars are perhaps least expensively purchased when hung just steps from his easel. Other exhibitors include Dominic Egan's handsome, "what are they?" photographs and work by printmaker Max DuBois, sculptor Virginia Harrison, gallery owner Andrea Speer Hibbard, painter Brad Huck, and glass artisan Laurence.

Slightly younger than the Artisans Gallery, the Gallery Route One (11101 Hwy. 1, Pt. Reyes Station; open Wednesday-Monday, 11am-5pm; 415.663.1347) just celebrated its 20th anniversary as an artists' collective. Opening Dec. 5 with "Expect the Unexpected," showing through Jan. 4, the main gallery features work by GRO artists in all media, with a reception on Sunday, Dec. 7, from 3pm to 5pm.

The back gallery boasts an exploration of natural eroticism by recent juried show winner Virginia Shepley titled "Garden: Cut-Outs and Other Works on Paper." While Shepley's is largely an installation, some of her drawings of phallic grasses and malevolent biology will be for sale. Small works in the gallery foyer retail for around $75.

--Gretchen Giles

Holiday Burl-esque

Nothing says North Bay quite like redwood burl art. Scientifically known as lignotubers (Latin for "woody swelling"), burls are the knobby, gnarled growths found at the base of some redwood trees. Burls are removed during the harvesting process and fetch a high price from both artists and woodworkers, who prize burls for their irregular shapes and unique wood grain. Burls have been made into everything from refrigerator magnets to 8-foot-tall chain-saw sculptures of Bigfoot.

You won't find big pieces like Bigfoot at the Burl Shop (16780 Armstrong Woods Road, Guerneville; 707.869.1110), but just about everything else is there, from toothpick holders to wall clocks, ranging in price from $2 to $250.

"It's not as extensive as it used to be, because burl is getting harder to get," says Burl Shop owner Fred Waszak. "Burl occurs naturally only in one of every 1,000 redwood trees."

Big pieces such as Bigfoot and bear sculptures have become rarer--which is fine by Waszak, because he was tired of throwing his back out moving them around. Waszak says the nature of his clientele makes it hard to pin down which burl art pieces are the most popular nowadays.

"We've always prided ourselves on our distinctive gifts," he said. "People who like distinctive gifts don't follow the crowd."

Waszak says he deals with only reputable artists and craftspeople to avoid so-called bootleg burl--burl that is harvested illegally, sometimes from still-living trees.

"Everything has to be labeled and documented," adds Tom Vinci, owner of Santa Rosa's Bellevue Burl (628 Bellevue Ave.; 707.579.2009; open by appointment only). If a piece of burl's origin is in question or cannot be certified, he won't buy it, because it might be bootleg. His shop offers burl clocks, tables, and custom furniture ranging in price from $15 to $5,000.

Redwood burl gift items are also available at Aramark Muir Woods Gift Shop, Muir Woods National Monument, Mill Valley, 415.388.7059.

--R. V. Scheide

Local Luthiers Fretting

Why have so many professional luthiers settled in the North Bay? Could it be the close proximity to a steady supply of Humboldt County's finest agricultural product? No. That would be guitar players, not guitar makers, and even granting that many luthiers also play the instruments they make, that still wouldn't explain the dozens of professional guitar makers who've set up shop in the area.

But it does explain how holiday shoppers can purchase absolutely the best acoustic guitar money can buy for their favorite musician--as long as said favorite musician can wait six months, a year, or even longer for the new guitar to be made, since most of the local luthiers work well in advance of ordering deadlines.

The best bet to score a handmade guitar this Christmas may be Andrew McSpadden. He makes guitars on spec for local music stores, so occasionally he'll have a new one available for sale on short notice. Prices are around $2,000. Call him at 707.433.3004 to see what he's got in stock.

"There are basically three reasons why the area is so popular with guitar makers," McSpadden says. The first and arguably most important is the climate's predictable levels of humidity. The second is the Bay Area's reputation as a center for creativity. The third is Luthiers Mercantile International, the world renowned source for wood and other guitar-making supplies located in Healdsburg at 412 Moore Lane. It's the perfect place to pick up a gift for the hard-to-please luthier on your list. Call 707.433.1823 or visit www.lmii.com.

Probably the most well-known of the local luthiers is Sonoma's Steve Klein, who's made guitars for the likes of Steve Miller, Joni Mitchell, Joe Walsh, Bill Frisell, and Lou Reed. Acoustic guitars made by Klein start at around $9,000, so make sure your favorite musician has at least had some guitar lessons before placing your order. Klein Guitars, 521 Broadway, Sonoma. 707.996.2196. www.kleinguitars.

"The scene has changed so much in the last 20 years," says Taku Sakashta, another local luthier. "But there always seems to be a critical mass of good talent around here." To order one of Sakashta's creations, call 707.823.0284 or visit www.sakashtaguitars.com.

Other local luthiers (there literally are too many too list all of them) include Eric Monrad (707.838.7823; www.monradguitars.com), the famous Tom Ribbecke (707.433.3778; www.ribbecke.com), Michael Hemkin (707.963.8256), Bruce Sexauer (707.782.1044; www.sexauerluthier.com), and Harry Fleishman, who also conducts guitar-building classes (707.823.3537).


Lip-Smacking Sustainability

Thanksgiving Coffee is an example for all local businesses to follow, whether they're in the coffee business or not. Recently outfitted with a fleet of biodiesel trucks, the organic, fair-trade coffee company shuttles its goods here and there with an entirely clear conscience. Gift givers can take part in the goodness by giving a Thanksgiving Coffee Company gift basket. This isn't your typical gift basket--Thanksgiving fills each one to the gills with thematically appropriate goodies.

The Song Bird Mystery basket ($31.50) comes with two packages of coffee--Song Bird Nicaraguan and Song Bird French Roast--packed fresh when you order it. Your lucky recipient will also get a copy of Death of a Songbird, Christine Goff's murder mystery about shade-grown coffee and birdwatching; a Thanksgiving Coffee logo mug; and an Ecopapel calendar, handmade by a women's coop in Ecuador.

The Wyland basket ($47) comes with five varieties of certified organic coffee, packaged with Wyland's famous marine wildlife images, as well as the Ecopapel calendar. Other baskets celebrate chocolate lovers, Hanukkah, tea drinkers, and more. Unfortunately, they're not available at the Sebastopol outlet store but via the magic of the Internet (and the telephone). See www.thanksgivingcoffee.com or call 800.648.6491.

--Davina Baum

Sky with Diamonds

The days of asking an attractive, young person to come home with you from a party so they could see the stars on your ceiling are (hopefully) long gone. Those phosphorescent stickers are a great novelty, but a Windsor professional can do a much better job at approximating the night sky on your ceiling. StarMurals' "startist" Rip Read will come to your house and turn your bedroom--or living room or bathroom or any room--into a home planetarium. Using an entirely nontoxic acrylic paint infused with phosphorescent crystals, Read will paint an astronomically correct skyscape wherever you please. The paint absorbs light during the day and releases it at night, making the stars glow. The whole painting process usually takes about four hours and lasts until you paint over it. If you drink too much wine, maybe you'll see a shooting star. Read has opened a gallery in Windsor (930 Shiloh Road, Building 44, Ste. H) so that you can see the stars in action before you commit. Call 707.838.4846 or see www.starmurals.com for more information.


Clock Watching

There are cuckoo clocks and then there are cuckoo clocks (as in, you know, clocks that are kind of cuckoo). Mike Weller of Napa is the artistically demented mastermind behind a series of outrageous, whimsically whacked-out clocks, attractively and brightly painted creations that look like something Dr. Seuss would dream up as a thank-you gift for the Cat in the Hat. Oddly shaped, multicolored assemblages of wooden knobs and doodads, stars and moons, these one-of-a-kind accessories (which start at about $150) are cartoons brought to life. The most amusing feature is the cordlike pendulum--if you can call it that--which does not swing back and forth so much as it, well, wiggles and bobs and, uh, dances. There are wall-mounted and freestanding varieties, which can be seen and purchased at Gallery One stores in Petaluma and Sonoma. 209 Western Ave. in Petaluma (707.778.8277) and 115 E. Napa in Sonoma (707.938.9190).

--David Templeton

Seaweed! In Petaluma?

Benedetta Fresh Aromatheraputics, a small, pioneering company founded by "botanical intuitive" Julia Faller, produces a line of all-organic skin-care products that includes several alchemical delights with names like Crystal Radiance Hydrating Elixir and the mysterious Clearing Spray, which turns out to be an "organic-biodynamic hand sanitizer." The Petaluma company also offers slightly more mundane stuff, such as a skin-sensitive blemish treatment called Control Crème, and various nourishing facial oils, moisturizers, and face cleansers.

But when scanning Benedetta's product list, what really jumps out are the Seaweed Bath and the Anti-Wrinkle Seaweed Mask. The mask is a blending of spirulina, organic lavender, and nine different kinds of seaweed, all combined into a nonclay face-mask treatment that is rumored to leave your face feeling ready for prime time. The Seaweed Bath is a luxurious, therapeutic body treatment that, according to one Benedetta brochure, combines the arts of balneotherapy (which basically means taking a bath), thalassotherapy (therapy that comes from the sea), and aromatherapy, which probably needs no parenthetical interpretation. The seaweed bath is both relaxing and pampering, the perfect gift for all those stressed-out people on your shopping list.

Benedetta products can be ordered through the company's website (www.benedetta.com) or by calling them at 888.868.8331.


A Maze Man

Larry Evans is a Petaluma painter and architectural artist with a knack for intricacy and detail. Several years ago, he started combining his various skills in painting wonderfully elaborate mazes, amusing pieces of art that engaged the mind as well as the eye. It all began while vacationing with his family in Hawaii. When the kids began demanding mental stimulation beyond what they could see all around them, Evans sketched out a maze on a paper bath mat from the hotel they were staying in. It was a hit, and Evans ended up using a lot more bath mats before the vacation was over. The rest is maze history.

Though still in demand for his architectural work, Petaluma's favorite maze man is now known around the world for his brain-teasing treats. These have been published in various forms, from books (more than 30 of them so far) to jigsaw puzzles to calendars. Last year, Evans' mighty mazes were published in a daily calendar form by Accord Publishing, and it was so popular that a whole new Maze-a-Day Calendar has been brought back for 2004.

Perfect as a brain-warming gift to maze-minded friends and family, the calendar is pretty much what it sounds like: a daily parade of mazes which vary from day to day in how challenging they are. Solutions are shown on the reverse side of each maze, and at $11.99, they are extremely affordable. Available at local Copperfield's Bookstores.


State Bird Houses

It takes but a few short seconds to be charmed and enthralled by the eye-catching birdhouses of Bob Bally. Made out of license plates from all 50 of our country's states, these affordable avian domiciles look like the tiny homes of junkyard gnomes. The birdhouses feature roofs made of actual shingles, with chimneys fashioned out of old wine-bottle corks.

Bally has been selling the houses through select galleries from Cambria and Tahoe City and Redondo Beach to Eugene and Portland, Ore. Currently, the only place one can find the houses in this area is at the Gallery One shops in Petaluma and Sonoma. "They're more popular with people than with birds," Bally says, "though there are some little songbirds that will inhabit them. I like that."


Vinegar, Sweet Vinegar

Vinegar has a bad rap. It's that sour thing, and having that "piss and vinegar" phrase lurking around everywhere doesn't help. Vinegar is wine that has gone through a secondary fermentation; the alcohol is acted upon by bacteria, converting it to acid. The misconception that vinegar is just wine gone bad is perfectly righted by just one taste of artisan vinegar.

Located way out in Angwin, east of St. Helena, Sparrow Lane produces perfectly crafted vinegars in premium varietals--Champagne, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel. Their clean, bright tastes and relatively low acidity makes them perfect additions to just about any dish. The Golden Balsamic is smooth and rich, lighter than traditional balsamic. It brightens up salads and brings nuance to summer fruit. The Cabernet Sauvignon is delightfully smoky. The attractive 375 ml bottles make great gifts, selling for $9 each. An assorted case of 12 bottles is available at $100, for the vinegar enthusiast. The vinegars are available at Williams-Sonoma, Dean and Deluca, and online at www.katzandco.com.


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From the December 4-10, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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