How Sonoma County artists transform their work, themselves after isolation

“Change is consistent,” Chris Beards, a Santa Rosa mixed media sculptor said. “It’s the only thing you can count on.”|

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed down our world, Melissa Jones followed her first instinct, to roll out of bed before sunrise each day and paint quietly in her Occidental art studio.

The Windsor High School art teacher, once busy teaching daily classes of 35 students, suddenly had time to reflect on her life as a 52-year-old single mom and cat owner.

Her self-realizations were mirrored in her paintings, which once mostly featured whimsical artwork parodying social and political matters. Now, her artwork dives deeper.

“My work changed. ... I changed,” said Jones, a folk artist. “I had time to go inward.”

Her shift reflects an evolution among many Sonoma County artists that stemmed from the pandemic, which disrupted our daily routines.

People were stuck inside and isolated from the rest of the world. Long to-do lists shrunk. Physical connections faded.

As the pandemic has substantially subsided, artists say their work has transformed since early 2020, when COVID-19 first spread. Each artist changed, too, along the way. Some found self-acceptance; others have reset and re-energized their artistic ambitions and some feel uncertain about the future.

“For several years, I denied myself of being truly honest in my work,” said Rachel Sager, an oil painter in Petaluma. “The isolation forced me to get intimate with myself, people and my own existence.”

Melissa Jones, folk artist

Jones is embracing aging as time passes.

In spring 2020, she created “The Spinsters and Their Pussies,” a 10-piece collection of black-and-white paintings of single older women with their cats.

The series examines single-hood, aging and solitude, plus the value of wisdom and experience that emerges when physical beauty fades.

“Many older women feel invisible,” Jones said. “When physical things that are tied to our identities fade, other valuable things emerge that go unseen.”

An artist for more than 20 years, Jones once created pieces that were sarcastic and witty. She explored capitalism, the housing crisis and mass shootings, among other topics.

For example, she and her son once lived in a basement in Sonoma County, so she created art in 2016 that conveyed being trapped in a cage.

“My work was only poking at those topics but not truly examining the spiritual part or root of those issues,” Jones said.

Free of distractions of everyday life during the pandemic, she could reflect.

“I asked myself, ‘Why am I unable to stay in a long-term relationship?’” she said. But she drew a profound conclusion: Her longest relationship had been with art.

“I wasn’t distracted by the noise in my life; it was like a meditation,” Jones said. “I’m finding my natural power as a woman. How can you stop the clock? We can’t stop aging.”

For the series’ final piece, she depicted herself and her cat, Moon.

“I’m owning my aging; I’m embracing myself now,” Jones said. “These spinsters changed me.”

To see more of Jones’ art, go to

Chris Beards, mixed media sculptor

Chris Beards reached his tipping point.

As uncertainty from the pandemic loomed, the Santa Rosa artist became prolific. In his studio, he hammered, twisted and formed metals, plastics and other materials into abstract pieces.

He created 15 or so pieces swiftly, pouring into them all he had to express about the rising social and personal ramifications of the pandemic.

“I thought, ‘What’s going on in the world? What happened? What’s going to happen next?’” said Beards, 58. “I wanted to say so much.”

Beards felt out of control. This is reflected even in the materials he used — plastic, translucent pieces and other materials that are hard to control.

Among Beards’ flurry of artwork is a pedestal piece, “Tipping point,” made of bronze, a modified tree branch and pages from a science book. The piece is 52 inches tall, its height symbolizing that its topic is beyond us.

“As a nation, we’re kind of at a tipping point,” Beards said. “We are at the edge of things.”

The piece, created in 2022, is covered in “unspecified information” — text and random numbers. The branch balances on a bronze bowl painted to look like it’s going to overflow.

“Sometimes events cause you to rethink things in life,” Beards said. “You have a bucket list for your life, then you think, ‘I’m going to do this.’ It’s about changing things you don’t want to admit about yourself.”

Beards is hopeful, yet uncertain about the future.

“The work is not only personal but it’s universal,” Beards said. “I think we can all understand that idea (that) we have suffered a moral injury from the pandemic.

“I don’t know how we’ll come back from this,” he added. “We’ll be different.”

To see more of Beards’ artwork, go to

Rachel Sager, oil painter

Rachel Sager befriended intimacy.

The world froze five days after the Petaluma oil painter and her family sold their Oakland home and temporally moved to San Francisco.

“I couldn’t go to my studio, couldn’t paint or show my work, and no one was buying art. Everything stopped,” said Sager, 44, who moved to Petaluma last year. “It was like a reset.”

During the early period of the pandemic, the bustling artist stayed home with her two daughters, husband, dog and cat.

Her daily responsibilities were reduced to feeding and playing with her kids, sketching and journaling and letting time pass. This allowed Sager to develop a new relationship with her family and become closer to those she loved when everything felt like “life or death” during the pandemic.

“I surrendered and let go of control,” Sager said. “To accept and receive that much love and intimacy was a huge lesson for me.”

This newfound intimacy translated into her paintings, including the one called “Bycatch.”

Named after the fisherman term that means to incidentally catch non-target species, the painting explores the human condition and human rights.

The concept for the piece was vague when Sager created an outline in early 2020. She finally developed a message this year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, a decision that had been in place for nearly 50 years and provided a constitutional right to abortion.

“The subject of the piece manifested itself,” Sager said. “The female body is being used as pawns in this political battle. Women’s rights should never be debated over.”

The piece, monochromatic with accent colors, features fragmented images like slices of memories, steel and water. In the image, two uniformed men hold back a woman, whose mouth and body are masked with pink flowers.

Historically, Sager’s work is atmospheric, introspective and open for interpretation. Now her work is more intimate and urgent as she expresses her political views in her work. She said she never did that before.

“I’m taking control of my narrative and being more unapologetic in my work,” Sager said.

To see Sager’s art, go to

Alicia Silva, acrylic painter

During the pandemic, Alicia Silva has fallen more deeply in love with her culture.

The Santa Rosa native, who’s of Pomo culture, spent evenings losing track of time in her apartment as she painted until dawn.

The full-time artist realized a few things in those quiet hours alone.

“Isolation made me appreciate my family, human connection, my roots and how that all translates into my art,” said Silva, 29.

Being apart from her family impacted her. She longed to spend time with them and missed cultural traditions like blessing strawberries, a sacred fruit in Pomo culture, every year in March.

Silva often thought of her grandmother, Anita, who died in 2015 before Silva could learn more about her cultural roots. Her curiosity emerged in a painting she made in 2021, “The Waterfall Girl.” In it, a Native American woman leans on a mountain and her long blue hair shapes into a waterfall. The painting explores having respect for the land and Mother Nature.

Looking ahead, she plans to include cultural elements in her work like traditional Native American head wear and her family’s round-house skirts, which her grandmother made.

“At first, I wanted to paint celebrities. Now I want to have a message behind the work I create,” Silva said. “As an artist, I realized it’s my job to bring light to my Native culture.”

Because she couldn’t join in-person markets at the beginning of 2020, Silva was inspired to finally show her work at public events once the world slowly reopened.

“I asked myself a lot of questions: ‘Why do I do the things that I do? How does that connect to my art? Who am I? Where am I from?’” she said. To see Silva’s art, go to @kittypainted on Instagram.

Eki’Shola, musical artist

Eki’Shola thought she was finished with “Essential,” the final album in a mainly instrumental trilogy called “Pieces.”

It was slated for release in February 2020, just before COVID-19 hit. But the global rise of Black Lives Matter protests shifted her direction.

“Essential” became more lyrical in nature after the Santa Rosa musician and physician saw how healthcare workers described hardships they faced because of the pandemic.

“Lyrics were just flowing,” Eki’Shola, 44, said. “Seeing others speak up gave me the courage to speak up in my songs. ... There was so much to say,” she added.

“Change the System,” one of 19 songs on the album, explores the difficulty healthcare workers faced when personal protective equipment such as masks and gowns were in short supply as they tried to care for COVID-19 patients. During surges in cases, they were often short staffed, overworked and emotionally drained.

Eki’Shola faced her own challenges after her clinic closed, but she was able to dedicate her time to music while isolating at home.

While at home with her family, finding quiet in the chaos was difficult. A couple songs on the album were recorded inside a crawl space and laundry room.

“The album became bigger than me,” Eki’Shola said.

To hear Eki’Shola’s music, go to

You can reach Staff Writer Mya Constantino at @searchingformya on Twitter.

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