Farmworkers celebrated in new Sonoma State University art gallery exhibit
For Jennifer Bethke, interim director of the Sonoma State University Art Gallery, her newest exhibit started with art she already had on hand.
Some 200 photographs by Morrie Camhi (1928-1999), who taught at City College in San Francisco and was based for several decades in Petaluma, are part of the university’s permanent collection.
In 1970, Camhi turned his attention to the United Farm Workers union and their fight for the rights of agricultural workers, particularly migrant workers.
“For me, these photographs were the initial point of inspiration to do an exhibition,” said Behtke, who is also a lecturer in art history at Sonoma State University.
“Farmworkers: Photographs, Prints, Paintings,” including some of Camhi’s photos, opens Thursday and runs through Oct. 16 on campus in Rohnert Park.
The show also includes work by Santa Rosa photojournalist Erik Castro; painter and muralist Jay Mercado, who was based for many years in San Francisco and now lives in New Hampshire; and Christie Tirado, a printmaker based in Washington state’s Yakima Valley.
“Morrie Camhi was a young photographer in the ’20s and ’30s, when there were a lot of socially active artists in this country,” Bethke said.
That tradition stayed with him, and Camhi went on to document the United Farm Workers’ “Salad Bowl Strike” in 1970 and 1971. With its mass pickets and boycotts, it became the largest agricultural strike in U.S. history.
But Bethke wasn’t content to present an exhibit that dealt only with the distant past.
“I wanted to bring things up to date to the present day, so I looked for other socially active artists, and I knew of Erik Castro’s ‘Harvester’ series,” she said.
Castro started the series, subtitled “A Portrait of Immigrant Labor,” in 2015 when anti-immigrant rhetoric in the U.S. had increased. He chose to produce portraits closely focused on the faces of the workers.
Castro began his career by casting a spotlight on homeless issues and those struggling with drug and alcohol addictions in Seattle during the late 1990s.
As a photojournalist, Castro has taken photos for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Press Democrat, Sonoma Magazine and Seattle Weekly.
The “Farmworkers” exhibit also includes two paintings and four small studies from the “The Hands of Labor” series by Jay Mercado, who creates murals, large-scale paintings and smaller still-life studies.
Mercado’s works in this exhibition are part of his ongoing study of farm labor, specifically the labor-intensive, skilled work of harvesting crops by hand.
“I coincidentally had known of Jay Mercado’s work because when I lived in San Francisco, it was near his studio and I used to walk past his murals,” Bethke said.
The show also includes samples from Christie Tirado’s “America’s Essential Workers” series done during the COVID-19 pandemic and her “Hop” series, as well as depictions of apple pickers.
For Bethke, the new exhibit fulfills an a long-standing ambition to bring farmworker issues to the public’s attention.
“I’ve been interested in socially engaged art for a long time,” she said, “and the agricultural economy is a prominent part of our regional life.”
You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at email@example.com or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.
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