FIRE, EARTH, AND MUD: LISA KAPLAN AND THE MIDDLETOWN ART CENTER

I met with Lisa Kaplan at her home in the Hidden Valley ranchos. Newly rebuilt, it stood like a piece of her art on the ridgeline.

“It’s so 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 water. 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 truly amazing,” I effused. Content with what I had seen, I 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 that let to the master bedroom. As I crested the last step I saw the two walls of windows that swept across the newly rebuilt home. Mountain peaks framed themselves in each one. Cobb, Harbin, Boggs, all ran across the panes of glass. Three years ago the Valley Fire roiled and seethed down those mountains and burned her home. It’s taken three years for her family to rebuild, and she is still working on rebuilding her studio. And in those past three years she has not only rebuilt her home, but also created a dynamic, thriving art scene in Middletown.

After the tour, she poured me a cup of tea, and once we had chatted a bit, we got down to business. I pulled out my recorder, checked my notes, and started asking questions.

Photo by The Dawson Studios

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 seventeen and a half 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 10 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 is deals primarily with socio-political and environmental issues.

Since the Valley Fire, I have been doing more 2-D work, as I don’t have a proper studio. Most pieces incorporate earth, charcoal and ash. My goal is to raise awareness, evoke an experience and elicit a visceral response in viewers, 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, of various time signatures and smells, mud immediately taps into our collective consciousness, to our relationship, our interconnectedness to one another and all living things in this diverse and marvelous natural world.


We Are Refugees, And The Birds Still Sing, by Lisa Kaplan.  Picture taken before the Valley Fire.



We Are Refugees, And The Birds Still Sing.  Picture taken after the Valley Fire.

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. Prior to that, the arts in the south county were focused on EcoArts of Lake County, a seasonal sculpture walk we had in Trailside Park for 13 years, which burned in the fire. In 2012, I took over leadership of EcoArts, from founder Karen Turcotte at her request to keep this marvelous local arts asset going.

BLOOM: So Why the MAC?

LK: From the 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 14 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 3 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 basket ball 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 huge 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.

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 to be in. Especially when you commit to rebuilding, you want to commit to a place that seems sustainable and has a pulse. With our volunteers we can support a new thematic group exhibits every 6-8 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 bring different people and their friends. With support from a California Arts Council Local Impact grant and individual and local organization and business donations we can offer affordable classes every weekend through our RESTORE project. And we offer school field trips, homeschool and after school classes.

We have provided a space to exhibit, perform, sell art work or teach for at least 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 wonderful.

LK: With beauty and with creativity. Re-framing things into beauty helps others find the beauty, too. That’s the way to continue. Fighting destruction with creativity feels good. Creativity is essentially a positive charge. It’s empowering. You don’t feel helpless. You don’t feel like you are victim to your circumstances. You’re doing your art to make the world a better place. That’s part of how I got through my own fire and rebuilding experience. 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.

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 fire. Creativity and art are a counterbalance to the destructive nature of the fires and the world around us. 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.

The other thing that is really important is for kids to grow up with art being part of their lives. The MAC offers visiting artists in schools and field trip opportunities. During the field trips, students spend time in the gallery looking at work, and learning words to describe and appreciate what they see, and then work on art projects in the studio. It’s a great experience! We talk about art and design, and we talk about careers in the arts and applied arts, which is really important. Whether you design interfaces for computers, cell phones or the web or work in the animation or film industry, whether you are a graphic designer, an architect, an industrial designer, ceramicist, jeweler, photographer, or work in the fashion design industry–all of these fields have their base in the principles of art and design. It’s important for kids to grow up knowing that it is possible to love being creative and engaging with artmaking and aesthetics and apply those skills and talents to something that can be a profession.

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 and seeing and connecting with the world, people and a creative problem to solve. 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 own personal voice sounds, looks and feels like. That’s why we want the arts to be part of children’s lives as they grow up.

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 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 really 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 RESTORE and other classes, which are appropriate for all levels of experience and skills. Join us as we collaborate on making a new art trail on Rabbit Hill, and revitalize the EcoArts sculpture walk at Trailside Park.

Support us by coming to dances, Art Talks, Spoken Word and musical performances or open mic. And, of course come appreciate and consider buying the artwork we show. When you buy art at the MAC, you support both local artists 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 art work and classes, a complimentary glass of wine at art and wine events, or low cost studio time ($10 for four hours on Friday and Sunday when there are no other events scheduled). There are so many ways to support our burgeoning local art scene and community organization.

And that’s it. I shut of 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.)

The Middletown Art Center is located at: 21456 Hwy 175, Middletown, CA 95461.

To see more of Lisa’s art, visit her website at lisakaplanart.com.

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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