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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."

"We are working with the county and attorneys to comply with California law," Kaechele said.

The legal fate of the Life Is Art foundation could lie in passage of Proposition 19 on the Nov. 2 ballot, although even that is not a certainty. The measure would legalize adult personal use and possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. It also would allow cultivation of a 5-foot-by-5-foot plot of marijuana per private residence or land parcel.

It would not automatically permit commercial sales of pot in the state. Rather, it would grant cities and counties the authority to approve, regulate and tax marijuana sales in their jurisdictions if they chose to.

It is that last provision that could be useful to a group such as Life Is Art, said Valerie Brown, chairwoman of the county board of supervisors.

"It's an interesting aspect for a nonprofit to be dependent upon the sale of marijuana, or the growth of marijuana as their source of revenue. I think that opens up a whole ballpark," Brown said. "I think what we're seeing is a lot of people going outside the box, thinking the box will be opened on Nov. 2. They may find that if Prop. 19 passes, that the county is going to work fairly hard to come up with rules, regulations and taxing authority."

Under such a scenario, there would be no need to organize as a medicinal cooperative.

Meanwhile, Kaechele and Orgon plan to hold the organization's inaugural arts event at the hilltop site this weekend, open by invitation only.

Most of the artwork is by artists who have worked with Life Is Art in New Orleans, including embroidery artist Louise Riley of London and assemblage artist Rya Kleinpeter from Los Angeles.

The event also will include work by Richmond artist Michelle Wilson, who recently moved to California from Philadelphia. She met Orgon and Kaechele when they toured the di Rosa Preserve museum and sculpture park near Napa, where Wilson's husband, Robert Wuilfe, is curator. Wilson and Wuilfe later visited the Life Is Art site.

"I think there's a lot of potential with what they're trying to do," Wuilfe said. "As somebody who has spent a lot of time trying to raise money for nonprofits, I'm a fan of anybody trying to break out of that mold and find a new way to fund art."

While Kaechele described herself as an "avid gardener," she said she never has tried to grow marijuana before.

"I trim the plants the same way I prune my roses," she said.

The remote location is not only conducive to cultivating marijuana, but an aesthetically pleasing setting for creating art, she said.

"We looked at more than 200 pieces of land — in Arizona, New Mexico, Washington, Oregon, Texas and California," Kaechele said. "This is the most beautiful piece of land that we could find in the whole country."

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. See his ARTS blog at arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

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