EARTH, FIRE, AND SOUL – ARTIST LISA KAPLAN

The Middletown Art Center’s reach stretches beyond the art hanging on its walls. In the past four years of its existence, it has served as a resource, events, and art center.  It’s been a place for those affected by the fires to come, talk with others, work through their stresses and fears and heal. It’s the hub of the Middletown community and a lifeline to many. “I don’t know what I would have done without it after the fires,” people say, their eyes tearing up.

Much of that success is due to the work of Lisa Kaplan and the MAC’s growing team of volunteers.  In the four years since the Middletown Art Center’s (MAC) creation, Lisa has worked tirelessly on its behalf. It’s not uncommon to receive emails from her at one or two in the morning, then see her working the next day sunup to sundown. It’s a herculean effort, and one that has begun to show fruit. 

In the past two months, Lisa and the MAC Team have not just opened two art exhibits at the MAC; she has also received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, collaborated with the Lake County Land Trust to open an art installation on Rabbit Hill, and worked with the Lake County Public Services  Department to re-open the EcoArts Sculpture Walk at Trailside Park. Oh yeah, and she just finished teaching two college-level classes for Woodland Community College.

I took some time to meet with Lisa Kaplan at her home in the Hidden Valley Ranchos.  Newly rebuilt, it stood like artwork on the ridgeline. 

“It’s beautiful,” I exclaimed as I stepped through the door and took off my shoes in the concrete-floored entryway.

She pointed to a small section of the rough light red-brown walls that had been replaced with glass, showing the packed straw behind. “We rebuilt out of straw bale covered in a mix of concrete and earth called “PISE (Pneumatically Impacted Stabilized Earth), which is a mixture of earth, cement, and sand. When we rebuilt, we tried to make everything as fire-resistant as possible.”  I looked at the earth-toned concrete floors crossing the wide living room.  Large glass doors stood below the windows that ran up to the twenty-foot ceiling.

“This is amazing,” I said, and began to set my stuff down. 

“No, come on,” Lisa urged me further into her house.  “Take a look.”

We walked up the half-flight of cork-floored stairs to the master bedroom. As I crested the last step, I saw two walls of windows sweeping across the newly rebuilt home, mountain peaks framed in each one.  Cobb, Harbin, Boggs, all ran across the panes of glass. Nearly four years ago, the Valley Fire roiled and seethed down those mountains and burned her home, studio and artwork. Lisa and her family moved into their home last July after nearly three years of displacement. This past May her studio was finally completed, just in time for her to create “Are We Safe” for the reopening of the EcoArts Sculpture Walk. 

“Are We Safe?”

After the tour, she poured me a cup of tea and we chatted. I pulled out my recorder, checked my notes, and started asking questions.

BLOOM:  How long have you been in Lake County?

LISA KAPLAN (LK): My partner and I moved here in 2001, so we’ve been here eighteen years.  We were living in Oakland when our son was born, and soon decided we needed a place of our own.  We found a place in the Ranchos and went with that.

BLOOM:  Tell me a little bit about your art and your artistic style.

LK: During the past twelve years, I have been sculpting and painting with the many colors of earth harvested from the valleys and mountains of Lake County.  Before the Valley Fire, I primarily made life-sized sculptural figures from cob–a mix of earth clay and straw sometimes known as adobe. The work deals mainly with socio-political and environmental issues

In the period after the Valley Fire, I did more 2-D work, as I did not have a proper studio. Most of those pieces incorporate earth, charcoal, and ash.  I am thrilled to have my studio back, to return to sculpting life-size figures and painting, and to get into a regular, sustained work process. My goal is to raise awareness, evoke an experience, and elicit a visceral response in viewers through my artwork, in hopes of triggering a shift or change in their perspectives.  The materials I choose are an intrinsic part of the message.  Earth or mud is a primordial medium that has been used by peoples and cultures throughout time and around the globe to make things of both beauty and utility. And let’s not forget children’s mud pies! Full of composting organic stuff and various time signatures and smells, mud immediately taps into our collective unconscious, and to our relationship and interconnectedness to one another and all living things in this diverse and marvelous natural world.

BLOOM:  How did you end up running the Middletown Art Center (MAC)?

LK: The MAC has been around only since March of 2015.  We opened a little bit less than six months before the Valley Fire, which was a defining moment for MAC.  Before that, the arts in the south county were focused on the EcoArts Sculpture Walk, a seasonal exhibit we had in Trailside Park for thirteen years, which burned in the fire. In 2012, I took over leadership of EcoArts, from founder Karen Turcotte at her request to keep this vital local arts asset going.

BLOOM:  So Why the MAC?

LK: From an artist’s perspective, which is what I am, making one piece for a show a year is not enough.  What about the rest of the year?  EcoArts also focused on sculpture, and we needed a place for 2D art, indoor art, mixed media, and performance art. Having lived here fourteen years at the time, it was clear to myself and several artists connected to EcoArts and beyond, that we needed a space where we could teach, learn, exhibit, create, hold cultural events and share work.  I was doing summer camps, teaching after school, and teaching adults on weekends in my studio. Mud is my medium, and it’s very messy.  Every time I was going to teach, I had to clean up. I was spending three hours taking my studio apart and another three putting it back together. So the best thing I could do for myself was to create a space where I, and others, could teach and exhibit, which became the MAC.  

BLOOM: You ended up in a great location.

LK: That building is a historical building.  It was called the Main St. Pavilion, and in its past life was a kind of community center.  It was the town gymnasium, and they had basketball games, fundraisers and auctions there.  I have been told there were also silent movies. We have transformed a former community space, that had many other identities in the interim into a community space once again, only this time it is through the arts and culture.

BLOOM:  The MAC has played a large role in Middletown since the Valley Fire.

LK: Immediately after the fire, we had free classes for two months so people could process their trauma. Folks could use our wi-fi, we had clothes and other items for people who had lost everything, and we provided space for community meetings.  There were about sixty MAC members at the time of the Valley Fire.  Half of them lost their home, studios, or place of work.  Between the MAC and EcoArts, there were ten board members. Nine of us lost our homes.  That’s a huge impact.

“We Are Refugees, And The Birds Still Sing” before and after the Valley Fire

A lot of people have told me that if it weren’t for the MAC, they wouldn’t be here.  If it weren’t for the MAC, I don’t know if I, would still be here. It has become a cultural center where things are happening, and people come together and have a strong sense of community, even though many friends and neighbors have moved away. And it brings us together and grows the arts community in Lake County.

MAC has grown in response to the community, but also out of a need to make Middletown a viable place.  Especially when you commit to rebuilding, you want to commit to a place that seems sustainable and has a pulse.  With our mostly volunteer staff, we support a new thematic group exhibit every six to ten weeks that features Lake County artists. We host musical performances, poetry readings, dances, film screenings, open mic, art and wine pairings, and other cultural events. Each of these brings different people and their friends. Over the past two years with support from the California Arts Council’s Local Impact grants, individual’s and local organization and business donations we were able to offer affordable classes every weekend through our RESTORE project, and before that, the Resilience project. And, we offer school field trips, homeschool, and after-school classes.  Plus, I started teaching accredited art classes for Woodland Community College Lake County Campus at MAC last Spring Semester and am scheduled to teach in the fall and again.  I love being able to offer the community affordable access to the arts!

All in all, we have provided a space to exhibit, perform, sell artwork, or teach for over 80 visual artists, 120 musicians, and 35 poets.  And that’s just since the Valley Fire.

BLOOM:  You add that up, and it’s a lot of stuff.

LK: It’s a lot. All of our events are essentially fundraisers that help pay our rent and utilities. Membership, donations, and money left over after paying the teachers all go towards that.  A portion of art sales also supports our ongoing costs. Grants go to programs and projects. It’s a ton of work, but it comes from a need to make Middletown viable. Part of my own healing since the fire has been being really busy making this happen and being part of community recovery and economic development. It is a way to participate in mending the world, in making the world a little bit better right here in our “backyard.”  Bringing the arts into community life motivates and drives me, and gives me a deep sense of purpose.

We are witnessing all kinds of intense stuff happening, whether its political, or environmental, whether its the fires and other disasters, the fear of fires, whatever it is. And what can we do?  We can be creative and put all this energy into balancing the destructive forces that we see around us. That’s a healthy thing, that’s an empowering thing, that’s a vital thing. That’s why we do this. We’re taking purposeful creative action.

BLOOM: That makes perfect sense.  We daily are bombarded by the hard parts of the world.  Fighting it with beauty is powerful.

LK: With beauty and creativity.  Re-framing things into beauty helps others find the beauty, too. That’s the way to continue.  You can look at these hills and say, “Oh my God! Look at these burnt trees!” Or you can look at them and say, “Wow! Look at the contrast of these scraggly trees and the resilient green coming up. Look at all of the different colors of earth and how the landscape keeps changing!”  It’s a whole different experience.  It’s much more optimistic, actually.

Which brings us to the reopening of the EcoArts Sculpture Walk at Trailside. What a wonderful moment and milestone it is for us to reopen that Lake County gem at the Trailside Park, which was so harmed by the Valley Fire. But I will tell you; the park is coming back in such a vibrant way! And the art installed this year is channeling the energy of all the young blue oak shrubs, manzanitas, grasses, and wildflowers. It’s quite magnificent, especially from our fire-impacted community’s perspective. And that is why we called this years’ exhibit LOCUS, a Sense of Place. Because our sense of place, of home, of Middletown, is coming back! This whole experience of resilience, form nature to our inner selves, to our neighbors and community is very powerful.

“Thirsty”

BLOOM:  Tell me about what you see for the future of the MAC.

LK: It’s not just about the MAC. It’s about Middletown and how Middletown will develop.  It’s about Lake County being a place where cultural creatives come.  The MAC believes in weaving the arts into the fabric of our community as we rebuild, recover, and learn to live with the possibility of fire. The arts are enriching, meaningful, and pleasurable. I hope to see a thriving and growing creative community and visitor-supported art scene, and perhaps a maker space affiliated with the MAC where people can use shared tools and machines to make things.

Also, we don’t know what kind of world our kids are going to be living in the coming decades. The parameters are always changing. But the arts refine creative problem-solving skills. It’s a journey of both self-discovery, seeing and connecting with the world and people, and finding constructive creative solutions. The arts fire up all kinds of neurons and support self-esteem, self-confidence, and academic achievement. When you practice being creative, you learn what your voice sounds, looks, and feels like. That’s why we want the arts to be part of children’s lives as they grow up.

We need our youth to want to live in the County as well. To possibly go out and learn, in schools or from life and work experience, and to return to contribute their new knowledge and skills. There are so many ways to work remotely now, and many jobs that do not negatively impact the environment. We need our young adults to come back and to preserve our mostly pristine and bio-diverse local environment.

BLOOM: Here’s my last question for you:  How can people help the MAC become all of those things you envision?

LK: First of all, we know there are a lot of talented people here, and some may be retired or have extra time.  If you have experience in non-profits, businesses, fundraising, marketing, grant writing, or just have some time and want to help – we need you.  We have a highly visible garden and building to maintain too.  We’ve grown more than our current volunteer staff can handle, and we would appreciate more volunteers. 

There are also probably local artists out there who don’t know about us yet. Come see the gallery or check us out online. Find out what our next shows are on our website, and consider submitting work. Participate in classes, which are appropriate for all levels of experience and skills. Join us as we collaborate on phase two of the Rabbit Hill art trail. Visit the EcoArts sculpture walk at Trailside Park and consider participating in 2020, calls for work will go out in January.

Support us by coming to dances, Art Talks, Spoken Word and musical performances or open mic. And, of course, appreciate and consider buying the artwork we show.  When you buy art at the MAC, you support local artists, our local economy and our organization.

Donate money because you feel like supporting a great local asset and a growing local economy. Become a MAC member and provide ongoing support; benefit from discounts on select artwork and classes, a complimentary glass of wine at art and wine events, or low-cost studio time ($10 for four hours when we are open and there are no other events scheduled) and discounted space rental fees. There are so many ways to support our burgeoning local art scene, community organization and by extension, Lake County’s economic and community development!

I shut off my recorder, grabbed my notebook, and thanked her for her time.  Then I turned my car down the winding driveway, past the massive views with the blackened trees against the green, then headed across those burned mountains towards home.

To learn more about the Middletown Art Center, visit their website at middletownartcenter.org, or visit during one of their many events and classes. It’s easy to find at the corner of Hwy 175 and Hwy 29.  (Here’s a hint. It’s at one of the two stoplights in town.)

David Wakefield

David and Trudy Wakefield started The Bloom in 2018 to showcase the best parts of Lake County and to provide a local outlet for community events, arts, music, and writing.

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