Artist Bill Wheeler, who 50 years ago welcomed free spirits onto a west Sonoma County commune that affronted country neighbors but also helped along the region’s tentative embrace of liberal politics and non-mainstream lifestyles, died early Tuesday morning at the remote Occidental-area ranch that remained his home. He was 77 and had braved Parkinson’s disease and other ailments.
From 1968 until the hippie habitations on the ranch were razed by the county in 1973, Wheeler presided over the exercise in spontaneous, simple, musical, stoned, off-the-grid, clothing-optional existence. The commune grew from the demise of Lou Gottlieb’s nearby Morningstar Ranch, also shut down by the county.
Wheeler Ranch became nationally known as an intentional alternative to uptight middle-class values and the daily grind. At its peak, about 400 people grew vegetables, toileted in holes and coexisted on the isolated, wooded, 320 acres off Coleman Valley Road.
“I didn’t consider myself the head of a commune,” Wheeler told The Press Democrat in a 2002 interview. “I wasn’t consciously doing it. I was just interested in being an artist.”
He stood up for the admittedly flawed utopia on his ranch and for the souls who found there a new way to be. Along with the late Gottlieb, he is credited with moving social and political dials leftward in what was then a still-conservative county.
Author Ramon Sender Barayon, who lived on both communes and chronicled their history in a 2017 book, noted Tuesday that Wheeler was regarded as the “King of Hippies.”
In the wake of what he introduced in just a few years at his ranch, Barayon said, “the culture-at-large gradually incorporated more and more of the values he and his ranchers embraced: organic food, the women’s and the environmental movements, alternative medical practices and spirituality such as Zen Buddhism, Vipassana (meditation), Hinduism and Native American religion.”
When the end of the commune came, he left his property for about a year and half, then returned and in time resumed making art, his best days spent painting outdoors.
Over the decades, he moved far beyond the Age of Aquarius days and he tired of talking about them. One of his two daughters, Jessica Wheeler of Colorado, said Tuesday that often upon being asked about Wheeler Ranch, he’d say, “Time for a new conversation.”
“Or,” interjected her sister, Aliza Wheeler of Massachusetts, “‘I don’t remember.’”
Sebastopol artist Jack Stuppin credits Wheeler with rekindling his interest in on-location or plein air painting. The two of them became a foursome with Occidental artist Tony King and the late Bill Morehouse, and in 1992 they drove cross-country together, painting all the way.
“It was eight hours (a day) of driving, eight hours of painting and eight hours of everything else,” said Stuppin. The trek concluded with a show by the Sonoma Four in New York’s exclusive Century Club.
“Bill was a storyteller,” said King, who painted outdoors with Wheeler for more than three decades. “The story was his painting on site. It seemed to go best when it was done in one day.”
He recalled Wheeler standing before a landscape, applying color and often scraping it off and reapplying it, with brushes, sticks, knives, pencils.
“It was a process, an event,” King said. “At the end of the day, he would say, ‘All right. I’m done.’”