The Art of Supporting Open Space
By Aleta George
Artist Tom Killion grew up above the Old Mill School in Mill Valley, where a short walk through the neighborhood delivered him to the trails of Mount Tamalpais. As a kid, teen, and adult, Killion explored them all, and his history and personal relationship with the land infuse his work with spirit and memory. “People tell me that they see the world through my prints,” said Killion.
He also watched as his “normal, middle-class town changed,” he said, explaining, “The suburban, wildlife interface was disappearing. A lot of people witnessed it, and out of that, the environmental movement was born. This had a big effect on my art.”
Killion has donated his work to countless campaigns to protect land, and is just one professional artist among many in the Bay Area who support land conservation in this way. On the flip side, many Bay Area organizations use art to raise money and connect supporters to the land they protect. For example, the nonprofit Save Mount Diablo auctions off the donated work of authors, photographers, and painters at its Moonlight on the Mountain fundraising dinner. Similarly, artists inspired by the open space and agricultural land in Solano County launched Seeing Solano, a project that helped raise funds for the Solano Land Trust. And every year, the BayWood Artists collective chooses a place to paint, and an organization to benefit from the sales of their paintings; for 2017, the group will contribute proceeds to the Tamalpais Lands Collaborative’s One Tam initiative.
The first land protection organization in the Bay Area to create an annual art show to inspire and raise money was the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT). The nonprofit protects working farms in Marin County, and is always looking for ways to create or strengthen the bond between the land and those who want to help conserve it, said MALT’s Denise Rocco-Zilber. “One of the ways we do that is through art,” she said.
On May 20 and 21, MALT’s Ranches & Rolling Hills landscape art show and sale will celebrate its 20th anniversary. It features a core group of artists who have participated since the beginning, including Arturo Tello, who founded the show with the late California painter Ray Strong. Tello and Strong also founded the Oak Group in 1985, one of the country’s first groups of artists to apply the plein air approach — carting their canvases and palates outside — in service of protecting endangered landscapes. “I see the role of the painter not as a dreamer, but as a defender of the land,” said Tello, adding, “Just as the farmer provides sustenance for the body, the landscape painter gathers food for the soul.”
Art is one way for an organization to make money, but it’s not necessarily an easy way. Since its start 20 years ago, Ranches & Rolling Hills has made $1 million for land conservation, but that gross sum doesn’t reflect staff or artists’ time. “It’s a heavy lift,” said Rocco-Zilber, who credits the artists with much of the lifting. She said they paint all year at the ranches, help to promote the event, and hang the show. The artists donate 50 percent of their sales to MALT.
The payoff beyond art sales is significant. First, there’s the relationship that develops between the artist, the landowner, and the land. Artists see changes on the property, learn about ranchers’ challenges, and gain an intimate feel for the land.
“That intimacy and respect show in the paintings,” said Rocco-Zilber, explaining, “They’re not just paintings of rolling hills; they embody a unique relationship between the artist, the landowners, and the work we do to protect these lands.”
Outreach to members is another big reason to invest in the show. Nearly a decade ago, a local man, who will remain anonymous at MALT’s request, attended a few shows and bought a painting. But he wasn’t even on MALT’s radar when he died several years later and left his entire estate to the organization. His legacy gift included over $6 million, a home in Mill Valley, and a truck that MALT still uses today as a work vehicle. The gift was the largest that they had ever received.
Perhaps the highest profile art that represents parks in our region is the array of graphic images that portray the Golden Gate National Parks. Today these images are iconic and earn money for the parks, but that wasn’t the goal when they were first created.
About 20 years ago, President and CEO of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy Greg Moore and his team sought to brand the National Parks of the Golden Gate into one family. “He wanted pictures that could be used in powerful and strategic ways, while still evoking the natural romance of these beautiful places,” said Michael Schwab, the graphic artist hired to create the images.
The campaign was a success, and the artwork so popular that people took posters from bus stops and streetlight poles. Moore realized that the images had greater potential and hired Robert Lieber, who had managed the museum store at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others, to explore that potential.
The job of the conservancy is to preserve and interpret the parks, and to generate income to support them. “It’s wonderful when it works both ways,” said Lieber, who has developed, designed, and published 900 different items, many of which utilize Schwab’s 18 images of the parks.
“We offer experiences here, and these iconic places give us vitality,” said Lieber, whose efforts preserve the memories from those invigorating experiences for millions of visitors.
Even at that scale, it comes back to the artist and the landscape.
“Paintings capture the artist’s love of the land,” said Tello. “The paintings are an embrace that remind you that the world is good, that there is peace, and that it’s good to be alive.”
That’s why we buy paintings and take them home, and that’s one reason why we protect open spaces. That “embrace” is priceless.
“Protecting open space is a purpose bigger than yourself,” said Tello, adding, “It’s not about you; it’s what the community needs.”
Aleta George covers open space for the Monitor.