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The Joy of Yountville’s Art Walk

If it were made of wood, people might worry that Jedd Novatt’s sculpture Chaos Pamplona could be blown apart by a strong wind. Fortunately for the artwork’s home in Yountville, it is made from bronze and anchored to the ground.

Installed in July of 2011, following an intense effort to permanently procure the most recent addition to Yountville’s Art Walk – beating out three major cities for the honor – Chaos Pamplona now sits on a platform next to the Community Center.

Reaching 26 feet into the pristine Napa sky, Chaos Pamplona speaks to the Tao of enjoying art, with the ambition of human creativity meeting the serenity of nature at its best. Looking through the heart of the artwork’s negative space filled with blue sky, there is no doubt that Yountville is where Chaos Pamplona was meant to live.

Most art museums are deliberately cool and minimalist. The paragon scenery of Napa Valley Wine Country in the Town of Yountville offers a different element to the presentation of art.

Certainly, the 30 works that comprise the collection showcased in Yountville’s Art Walk were designed to be displayed in the elements. It is hard not to appreciate the manipulation of materials the artist chooses for his medium set against a bright blue backdrop most of the year. The changing of the seasons of course adds another element to the appreciation of the various constructs that occupy Yountville.

Local artists, like Gordon Huether and his emotive sculptures (four of which are prominently featured across the town), know what the valley’s natural beauty would do to their art.

The Art Walk is made of twelve pieces sponsored by the Yountville Arts Committee, donated by generous patrons and the supportive artists themselves. The artworks held by the town are mostly on display temporarily (1 year) before being replaced by a new piece or sold outright. Upwards of twenty additional works are owned privately and displayed amongst the most prominent properties in Yountville.

The displays run from Domaine Chandon up to Yountville Park, peppering the town with color and artistic brevity. “The Art Walk has a unique variety,” say Rhonda Shayer, member of the Yountville Arts Council Steering Committee and owner of RAS Galleries in Yountville. “Their locations heighten people’s awareness to the whole collection.”

The whole of the art walk is sustainable in that a percentage of the potential sale of each piece goes back to the arts council and the town. “The Art Walk brings a refreshing spirit to the town as well,” Shayer adds.

Several of the works in the Art Walk collection are deliberately playful in the postmodern sense. “Some are serious in tone, but some are whimsical,” Shayer affirms.

Stone mushrooms occupy space next to the sheriff’s office that could have been filled with natural gardens. Such cynicism disappears at one look as Rich Botto’s stone fungi bring cheer to observers year round. “Rich Botto is a gifted artist,” Shayer adds.

Botto has supplied the Art Walk with three of the most innovative and amusing exhibits.

His Mushroom Garden is an assemblage of river stones that sit under a tree in a bed of mulch in a scene that might not normally inhibit the natural growth of real mushrooms.

Continuing the stone theme, Botto’s Rock Flowers rise atop steel stems from concrete in front of the Yountville Visitors Center, offering a humorous and welcome gift to those who come to the Napa Valley for a day or for the rest of their lives.

Botto’s Floating Ovals hover across from Hotel Luca on Washington Street. Made from river stones suspended by painted steel rungs, the sculptures draw the eye up like a staircase.

Among the highlights of the collection are four works by Napa artist Gordon Huether. “Gordon Huether is an artist of international recognition,” Shayer affirms. “We are happy and proud to have his art in Yountville.”

Each piece is different from one another in striking ways, even though they are all made primarily from steel. Red Keller is a bright red bundle of jagged planks of steel, which reside just south of Bouchon Bakery on Washington Street. 10 feet high, 6 feet wide and 4 feet deep, the sculpture is lit from inside by an orb of clear glass.

Silver Twist is in the center of Yountville, in front of the Community Center, not far from Chaos Pamplona. While it was supposed to be inspired by a falling leaf, turning and twisting in the wind, the 4 foot tall sculpture shines the sun off a stainless steel fabrication and an inset of several panes of dichroic glass.

Reflections near the Tuscan-influenced luxury hotel and spa, Villagio, flickers with brightly hued panes of dichroic glass, seemingly floating from a tripod of steel poles.

Orange Squares resembles a stack of papers falling from a table; only the pages are 4 feet large and weigh almost 50 pounds each. It is constructed from steel and stands 10 feet high, placed on the large cement pedestal between the Community Center and Bardessono Inn and Spa.

Looking at Huether’s art, and all of the pieces in the Art Walk, the question arises: What sort of thoughts should a person have when looking up at massive constructions of steel, glass and/or stone? Every personal response reveals a little of the mind and soul of anyone who appreciates art. “Recently people’s spirits haven’t been very high with the recession and all that is happening in this country,” Shayer says. “But when I watch someone come up to one of the artworks, they always smile.”

It is common among all the pieces in the Art Walk that they are to be built of durable materials to survive in elements. But it does not matter what materials or medium the artist chooses to utilize, be it steel,  stone or charcoal mixed with linseed oil on canvas, what is important is what the artist transforms his materials into and how the finished object makes people feel. “Art is supposed to move you,” Shayer says. “Spiritually it should fill you.”

Great art should envelope people with emotion – whether it be bliss or anger – torpor is never the result an artist strives to attain.

Another local artist, Jack Chandler, has loaned the most minimalist examples to the Art Walk, the most static of which are his Marble Series. Slabs of marble and granite sit on rusted steel in all three of the sculptures which are spread across Yountville (No. 1 sits between the French Laundry Garden and the Vintage Inn, No. 2 is at the corner of Washington and California, and No. 4 welcomes visitors to the Yountville Town Hall). “Jack Chandler is an interesting artist,” Shayer says. “He has two different styles that you see in the collection.”

The “other” mode that Chandler’s work exhibits can be found at the Community Center and over by the French Laundry Gardens.

Spirit Boat is a 35 foot long sculpture of steel that is seemingly deceptive, with its color resembling a natural wood that the Wappo Indian tribes, who once resided in the valley, might have dropped into the currents of the Napa River.

A horse made of recycled steel, titled Rex, stands in a rustic pen and invites passersby to pet the docile looking sculpture. The steel was salvaged from old vineyard posts, making the sculpture a multi-leveled method by which the artist uses to tie Napa locality to his art.

Some of the most traditional sculptures are from an artist whose work is featured prominently all across the Napa Valley. Miles Metzger has two works in the Art Walk collection, Deer and Rain, both of which reside at the Yountville Inn near Washington Street and Oak Street. Sleek in casted bronze, the man under his umbrella looks out of place in Rain for most of the year, but his Deer appear to be comfortable with their surroundings.

Inevitably there will be more works to join the Art Walk. Whether future installations are in the spirit of a progressive, avant-garde manner of creativity or follow in the history of making real life beautiful or a hybrid somewhere in between is anyone’s guess.

Throughout the year, the Yountville Arts Committee actively searches for new artworks. “The public wants to see something new all the time,” Shayer says. “The sentiment of the community seems to favor the rotation.”

The year-long rotation of exhibits also adds to the pressure to find replacement exhibits. “It’s not easy to convince an artist to give their work over to us for a year,” Shayer says. “So that adds to the difficulty.”

The Arts Committee finds the next exhibit through a variety of methods. “We depend on word of mouth, artists’ websites, we travel to see collections, and sometimes we trust the artist in his vision,” Shayer says.

There is plenty of art available in the world, but what Yountville has in the boundaries of this small but refined town continues to make a statement. Which is what art is supposed to do all along. Right?

Editor Note: Thanks to Brett Fallows, Sommelier for Bardessono, for his wine suggestions on our tour of Yountville to see the “Festival of the Lights”.


James Hritz grew up in the Wine Country, but has written for various publications across the country. He is happy to be writing and working in his home again.