On a hillside just east of Santa Rosa, a small band of artists cultivates marijuana plants and assembles artwork side by side. They claim the pot is grown legitimately for medicinal purposes and the proceeds are used to underwrite their nonprofit art organization.
The 120-acre site near Hood Mountain is home to twin registered nonprofit organizations, American Medicinals and the Life Is Art Foundation. The property owners say they created American Medicinals, which grows medical marijuana for member patients, to support the nonprofit foundation Life Is Art and provide artists a place to create artwork.
"Our mission is to share art with the public," said Life Is Art founder Kirsha Kaechele. "The whole reason behind the farm is to support the art."
Kaechele, 34, says she and her partner, former real estate developer Jaohn Orgon, 41, have a list of member patients for whom they grow marijuana. The patients have recommendations from doctors and all are members of the American Medicinals co-op.
Kaechele and Orgon bought the property six years ago but only started work there in earnest earlier this year. They moved to Sonoma County from New Orleans, relocating the nearly decade-old Life Is Art foundation as well.
Their site is just one of several marijuana farms in the vicinity, neighbors said, but the others haven't sought public attention, as Kaechele has. There's been coverage in the New York Times and requests for interviews from radio shows in Ireland and Sweden, Kaechele said.
"The publicity is good for them, but us neighbors don't want that," said Catherine Mutuszak, who owns 40 acres adjacent to the Art Is Life property.
While most marijuana growers, even those raising it legally for medical purposes, seek a low profile, the founders of Life Is Art want people to visit and see the artwork, and that complicates the situation.
The property is accessible only by a long, steep, narrow and winding road, privately co-owned by about 20 property owners along the heavily wooded route. Neighbors report that traffic to the Life Is Art barn headquarters already has caused problems.
Kaechele and Orgon own a home in the Russian River area, where they say they live full time and host their guest artists. During the day, artists work outside at the Hood Mountain property or in the barn, they said. But neighbors maintain the Hood Mountain property is occupied full time.
"I moved up here for privacy," said Lauretta Hayes, who has owned property nearby since 1983 and lived there since 1993. "We've had all sorts of trespassers up here. They have an ad in Craigslist about how they're doing an artists' commune up there."
To Kaechele, reaching out to the public is a natural part of what Life Is Art was created to do.
"We've chosen very public sites in the past, like the Botanical Gardens or City Park in New Orleans," she said, conceding those sites hadn't involved marijuana growing. "Our headquarters was a block of abandoned buildings in New Orleans."
Whether Life Is Art is in compliance with medical marijuana laws remains to be seen, said Capt. Matt McCaffrey of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office.
"I don't know all the facts of their operation." he said. "We are looking at it."
"Generally speaking, there's no legal excuse or justification for growing marijuana to benefit the arts or anything else. There's no legal exception for that reason," he added. "There are caregivers who can grow marijuana for people. There are cooperatives growing it for people who have a medicinal use for marijuana."