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Art at the Source Open Studios

When: June 3-4, 10-11

Where: 160 participating artist studios. For a listing of all artists and studio addresses visit Artatthesource.org


Visitors to Maria Isabel Lopez’s “studio” will find that the art display begins not at the door but the back gate.

Almost completely concealed behind the 1850s farmhouse in Sebastopol where she works and lives with her partner, Jonathan Melrod, is a vast garden mansion of multiple rooms, each a distinctive surprise. Here a meadow of graceful grasses, there a waterfall spilling into a pond. Pathways wend gently among densely layered plantings of exploding perennials and walls of semi-formal hedges, past a 300-year-old oak and groves of almost every fruit-bearing tree imaginable.

Lopez is one of more than 160 artists who will welcome visitors and collectors to their homes and studios this weekend and next to view their “Art at the Source.”

But Lopez wants it known that the garden itself is not just a spectacular backdrop for her mosaics. It is, she says, a work of art itself, lovingly developed over 17 years as the slowly unfolding dream of Melrod, a human rights attorney who she met through a mutual friend on Facebook.

“There is a symbiosis between the garden and caring about people and the environment,” said Melrod of this lush place where he and Lopez connect quietly and in conversation over their shared love of natural beauty, eating clean out of the garden and being a voice for the poor and oppressed.

Visitors during the open studios weekends are welcome to explore the lavishly landscaped grounds designed by Gary Ratway of Albion, who has done many exceptional North Coast gardens, and tended by Melrod, with support from longtime Sebastopol gardener Lena Hahn-Schuman.

“It’s been my life’s project since I came up here,” said Melrod, a man of boundless enthusiasm for his ever-evolving three-dimensional artwork. “I can’t afford to do it all at once but I add a little bit more every year.”

His latest addition, still a work in progress, is a small rammed earth guest house by the pool with massive reclaimed wood doors under construction by John Richards of Ukiah that serves now as an open air gallery for Lopez’s work during Art at the Source.

Lopez leads a double life. In one life she lives in rural west Sonoma County, where she dresses down in jeans and work boots and devotes herself to her art and cooking out of the bounteous garden begun by Melrod. Her other life is in the Philippines. When she alights from the plane in Manila she assumes her other persona as a glamorous movie and TV star.

“When we first went to the Philippines together we went to a mall. I had to go to the bathroom. I come out and there are 50 people surrounding her taking selfies,” said Melrod, shaking his head. He had barely paid attention to her online profile when they began sharing comments on more serious issues.

The pair had instead, bonded over their mutual concern for human rights causes and have now been a couple for three years. In her home country Lopez has used her celebrity to draw attention to women’s rights. She works with Gabriela, the radical women’s movement and political party battling violence, human trafficking, censorship, environmental degradation and poverty.

Her passions are frequently reflected in her artwork, a love she has only recently returned to in a serious way after some 35 years in entertainment. Among the pieces on display in the garden for Art at the Source is a mixed media portrait of a real woman, a political prisoner, whose cause she and Melrod took up on one trip to the Philippines. They found her in an 18-foot cell where 32 women were crammed in 120-degree heat. Working with a human rights organization the couple gained access to the jail and brought food and books to the prisoners. With a smuggled cellphone Lopez snapped a photo of the woman with her baby. That image became the basis for her portrait. The pair ultimately were not successful in persuading the jail to allow the woman to keep her nursing baby past six months.

Art at the Source Open Studios

When: June 3-4, 10-11

Where: 160 participating artist studios. For a listing of all artists and studio addresses visit Artatthesource.org

They remain undeterred. Lopez is now working on a biographical drama about Bai Bibyaon, the first female chieftain of her Manobo tribe, who led a tribal war against logging and mining companies that threatened to destroy ancestral lands. At 92 she is still fighting for the rights of indigenous people. Lopez plays Bibyaon in middle age while her daughter, also an actress, portrays the chieftain as a young woman.

“She’s very brave,” said Lopez. “It involves a lot of issues from women’s rights to environmentalism.”

Lopez had little while growing up, an experience that informs her art, fuels her passion for good food and healthy living and fires her activism.

“We were so deprived. That made me creative. I created my own toys,” she remembered. “I would get scraps from notebooks and cut them into paper dolls and then design clothes for them. That was the beginning of my art.”

Many of her works are made with found materials, from natural stones and stained glass to marbles, shells rocks and corals.

Her father had started a second family with a mistress, leaving his first wife and children to struggle with “scraps.” But Lopez managed to get a degree in fine art from the University of the Philippines and then went to work in fashion design.

“In Philippines culture, when you come home, you give half of your salary to your mom to contribute to the household. I realized I cannot make both ends meet. I wanted an air conditioner in my room. I didn’t want to sleep in a hard bed anymore.”

She wound up moonlighting as a sexy lingerie model. That led to a celebrated public kerfuffle when Lopez was recruited for, and won her country’s crown in the Miss Universe competition. When her past came to light, public moralists called on her to step down. But she refused and became a celebrity overnight.

“I got the sympathy of the people and eventually, a producer in the film industry offered me a role,” she recalled. She became one of the biggest stars in Filipino cinema and television, while also working on the side for women’s rights.

That early deprivation makes her Sebastopol home a true garden of earthly delights. Apples were such an exotic treat when she was a child she would get one a year — on Christmas. Now she is awash in apples — six varieties no less — as well as pears, persimmons, pluots, cherries, tangerines, lemons pomegranates and other fruits. The couple also has an herb garden, a vegetable garden, a flower-cutting garden and rows of blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and marionberries, each tucked within the landscape.

“Because I grew up poor, nothing is wasted. I cook what I grow. That is one of my advocacies. It’s called Food Available at Home. I live in the big city in Manila so I’m encouraging people to plant and cook what they grow, even if they have just a planter or a garage,” said Lopez of her efforts to introduce urban gardening in her country. She dries fruit and makes preserves to bring back to the Philippines.

Melrod was living in San Francisco when he bought the historic 4-acre country property so his two now-grown sons would have a place to play in the outdoors. But it would also prove to be an important refuge for healing after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years later and given only six months to live.

Determining that he needed to live for his young sons, he pushed back at the disease with a combination of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation, alternative treatments, visualization and de-stressing by moving to Sebastopol permanently.

The property is what remains of an original land grant issued by Ulysses S. Grant. At one time it was a walnut orchard. The trees were eventually cut and sold for wood and the land subdivided.

“I fell in love with it. It was very much old Sebastopol, kind of hippie. There was no orchard. Just two llamas,” said Melrod, who immediately planted 40 fruit trees.

Almost from the beginning he began taming the unruly space into a garden, bit by bit, enlisting the design eye of Ratway, whose stamp is evident everywhere, from his signature hornbeam hedges that are creating a crowning canopy over the patio to his breathtaking sight lines that make you wonder what is beyond the curve ahead. A master with plants, Ratway is always coming up with intriguing additions, said Melrod, like the newest — big leaf hydrangeas with black stems near the guest house.

Within the garden is a large fountain Melrod commissioned from a stone carver in Oaxaca who he met on what he thought would be his last big trip with his boys in 2007 when his cancer reoccurred. He picked out the stone himself from a nearby mountain. But he lived not only to see the fountain arrive a year later, but he continues to draw from its majesty; it occupies a spot outside his bedroom, a serene space with a natural-looking waterfall splashing down into a fish pond.

The miracle of surviving his deadly disease not only once but twice, led to the name of the property — Ranchito Milagro or miracle. While much of the design is Ratway’s, Melrod is also a hands-on gardener. The Himalayan dogwoods are his babies and he restored a fallen gazebo enfolded within heavy canes of ivy

Back in a corner near a 300-year-old-oak, he finished a labyrinth that someone had begun before he bought the property. He has erected cairns of stones within it in honor of friends who have died. At the center is a statue of Quan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion and mercy.

Both Lopez and Melrod draw deeply from the garden, which represents the grace and healing power of nature and the continuity of life.

“The world has been kind to me even if in the past I went through so much. I’m grateful I went through that. It’s defined me and brought out the best in me,” said the actor, artist and activist, who is proud to be turning 60 in two months. “I wouldn’t be as driven if I did not go through those hardships in life.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or at 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.