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Santa Rosa artist’s new book pays tribute to the Russian River

“The Russian River and its Watershed”

Author: Artist Richard McDaniel

What: 41 oil paintings, in addition to pastels and drawings, with essays by Greg Sarris, Gaye LeBaron and others. Supported and funded by Sonoma Water and Sonoma Land Trust.

To order: 220 books available in a limited printing. $60; order at sonomawater.org/book

Over the course of three years, artist Richard McDaniel hiked up and down the Russian River with an easel, painting the free-flowing landscapes that come to life in his new coffee-table book. Along the way, he encountered dozens of people, from fishermen and farmers to environmentalists and monks.

“Almost everybody I would talk to, whether they were complaining about the encroachment of society or enjoying the river, they would all talk about how it was ‘back in the day,’” says McDaniel, 72, who lives in west Santa Rosa, near Oakmont. “That was a common thing. They would say, ‘I used to come here when I was a kid and in those days...’ There was always this nostalgia for the river.”

Released this month, “The Russian River and its Watershed” captures a unique, almost timeless, sense of place in the spirit of classic Sierra Club publications or Ansel Adams photography books on Yosemite. A joint venture with Sonoma Water and Sonoma Land Trust, the 126-page book is not only a paean to the meandering 110-mile river that provides drinking water to 600,000 people but also an oil-and-pastel tribute to the surrounding waters that feed it and keep it safe: Laguna de Santa Rosa, Dry Creek, Fife Creek, Austin Creek, Mark West Creek and Spring Lake, among others.

Starting at the headwaters in the Laughlin Mountain Range north of Ukiah, McDaniel paints his way down the river to its mouth, in Jenner. With each page, a slow momentum builds, a poetic anticipation of rounding the next bend in the river or hiking down a trail to the water’s edge and peering through a veil of brush to realize you have the river to yourself.

Along the way, we see a windswept, stormy Laguna, first sketched through a car windshield. There’s the promise of a fish habitat restoration project at Truett Hurst winery on Dry Creek. Another page shows a rare glimpse of the Cedars, the remote and unusual geological formation at the headwaters of Austin Creek. And Penny Island plays a solitary gatekeeper at the river’s mouth, barely visible beneath a shroud of fog.

‘One river, many voices’

Over the past three years, multiple wildfires, massive flooding and the pandemic presented many challenges for McDaniel’s painting project. But there also were occasional glimmers of hope and renewal. One magical moment took shape in “New Grass After Fire Hopped the River,” painted along Tomki Road near the headwaters after the 2017 fires.

“Just one week after it rained and the fire had ended, all these bright green grasses had already popped up,” McDaniel says. “And the bright spring green next to the deep charred black, that contrast was just fabulous.”

The series of 41 oil paintings is elevated with a collection of evocative essays, adding up to an overall effect of “one river, many voices.” Historian Gaye LeBaron writes with one foot in the past and one in the future: “The native people, the Spanish explorers, Russian colonists, Mexican grantees, American settlers and government agencies have named it and used it, each in their own way, but only The River knows where it is meant to go from here.”

Greg Sarris, author and chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, picks a memory of the river near Wohler Bridge, from when he was 20, to jump into stories of Pomo basket makers and medicine women, waters so thick with salmon you could walk across them and the days when his grandmother and grandfather would go to cockfights not far from the same bridge.

A frequent kayaker, Caryl Hart writes about recreation on the river and the need for more public access.

“Once you see the book, then you want to see the river,” says the interim general manager at Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space and former director of Sonoma County Regional Parks. “That’s what’s great about having paintings versus pictures; they just draw you in and then you want to go to that place and experience it.”

One of the paintings in the book, “Bohemian Prospect,” captures all the radiant beauty of the Bohemia Ecological Preserve that Hart helped save back in the ’90s when her husband, drummer Mickey Hart, and other members of the Grateful Dead united for a benefit concert to raise money to preserve the property.

Russian Riverkeeper Executive Director Don McEnhill writes about summers growing up on the river near Fitch Mountain, where he learned to swim and splash paddlers passing by in rented canoes. “I still run into people who were born and raised in Santa Rosa and have never spent time on the river,” he says. “I think this book helps us remember why the river is so important and that we all play a role in its health.”

“The Russian River and its Watershed”

Author: Artist Richard McDaniel

What: 41 oil paintings, in addition to pastels and drawings, with essays by Greg Sarris, Gaye LeBaron and others. Supported and funded by Sonoma Water and Sonoma Land Trust.

To order: 220 books available in a limited printing. $60; order at sonomawater.org/book

Vicarious views

The way McDaniel tells it, the project started with an old refrigerator and a beer.

A fifth-generation Californian, McDaniel was born in Berkeley and raised in San Diego. He bought his first easel at the age of 15 and focused mostly on abstract expressionism in the early years of his artistic life. After college, he moved to the East Coast and taught at the Woodstock School of Art in upstate New York, where he fell in love with the natural landscape and published books of drawings of the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River.

“I’m in this new environment and I’m looking around and here are trees that don’t have any leaves on them,” he remembers. “How do I paint that? And then there’s frozen water. How do you paint ice? How do you paint snow?”

While traveling around the country teaching art workshops, McDaniel also painted a series on the Sacramento River. When he moved back to California in 1997 and settled in Sonoma County, his wife at the time noticed that the Bay Institute had issued a call for donations. The couple had an extra fridge to donate, and when Institute Director Grant Davis showed up to load it into his pickup truck, he realized McDaniel was the same artist responsible for the Sacramento River exhibition poster on the wall above his desk.

“Of course, we became friends right away,” McDaniel says. “But one of the conditions I put in there was, ‘We’ll give you this nice refrigerator with the condition that there’s always a beer in it, so I can come down and visit and we can have a beer.’”

Davis agreed and they struck up a lifelong bond. After horseback riding adventures along the San Joaquin River, where they tried to make a similar book that was dashed by the Great Recession, they regrouped years later when Davis became general manager of Sonoma Water.

The obvious draw for a new book about the Russian River would be to raise awareness about a river that faces pollution threats, low summer water flows, erosion issues and the need for fish habitat restoration. But instead of striking an activist or academic chord, McDaniel’s lyrical paintings would allow readers to live vicariously through his travels along a largely inaccessible body of water.

“The Russian River is our main drinking water supply, and yet the majority of the river is unknown to many because it’s privately owned in 90% of its stretches,” Davis says. “So most people don’t get anywhere near where Richard McDaniel got, to be able to get into points of access to see the river unlike it’s ever been seen before.”

When they approached the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, it helped that Supervisor Shirlee Zane had been a student in McDaniel’s art class. And when Sonoma Land Trust came on board, the project expanded to include the surrounding watershed.

“The Russian River isn’t just the banks of the river,” says Eamon O’Byrne, Sonoma Land Trust executive director. “It’s all the different forests, watersheds and grasslands that surround that river, each of which has a critical role in the functioning of that ecosystem and how it can be made healthy and whole again.”

The book launch and opening exhibition for the paintings at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts had been planned for Earth Day last April. But with COVID-19 restrictions, it was canceled. A new exhibition is now scheduled for September 2021 at the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation’s Heron Hall Art Gallery.

Whether you see the paintings in the book or in person, McDaniel is more than willing to reveal a little secret about his river landscapes: “I will fib. I will move a tree or not include a tree. I will combine things. I’m not a photographer,” he says. “These are my impressions of an area, more like how I feel at the time. I don’t think it’s my job to paint something the way a camera sees it. I’m doing something different and I will take liberties. When you think about it, all this painting is a lie anyway. It’s taking a three-dimensional world and putting it on a two-dimensional canvas. It’s all an illusion.”

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