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Artists at Heart

Author: Judith M. Wilson
February, 2013 Issue

Even if you’re born an artist, if may take many years to pursue that calling.

Having one successful career is an accomplishment. Having two, especially when the second is the pursuit of a passion, is even better, as several local artists can attest.

Movement in stone

“I feel so blessed, so fortunate,” says Santa Rosa sculptor Bob Sorani, who spent 35 years as a teacher and professor before embarking on a satisfying career in art. Like many artists, Sorani showed an affinity for art as a child. “Even as a youngster, I was always drawing,” he says. He didn’t, however, have any inkling that art would some day become his profession.
“I’ve always been a very physical person,” he says. He became a high school teacher and coach and then a professor of kinesiology and physical education at Sonoma State University. He enjoyed teaching and coaching, but also had creative instincts. “I just had the desire, the passion to try sculpting,” says Sorani. So in the 1970s, when he was on sabbatical, he gave it a try. “I got some tools and some wood, and I just loved it,” he says.
He had to put aside sculpting when his sabbatical ended, but he always knew he’d return to it some day. That moment came in 1994, at the age of 58, when he told his wife, Sharon, that he really wanted to try life as a sculptor and then took early retirement. “Most of my work still centers around human form and movement and sport,” he says, “I carve it now instead of teach it.” He took a couple of short workshops, and says, “That’s all I’ve had in formal instruction.” Rather, his learning style is trial and error, talking to a lot of fellow artists, reading and having fun.
Although he started with wood, Sorani estimates that 95 percent of his work today is in stone. “I’ve grown to love stone so much,” he says, adding that he likes the challenge of expressing motion out of rock and seeing highly polished figures emerge from rough stone. “Some movements lend themselves to that,” he says, describing a piece with bicycles coming out of stone and another of a steeplechase with a water jump. “It’s fun to watch people react to those. They don’t realize it’s all one stone, one piece,” he says, explaining that stone isn’t consistent throughout, so any dark stone contains areas of contrast. When he starts chipping, filing and sanding, a dark stone appears light gray, but as he refines it, and it gradually becomes smooth, its true color emerges. He uses the same process with light stone, but the contrast is more in the texture than the natural color of the stone.
“I really get a lot of enjoyment out of working with a variety of stones,” says Sorani, who visits suppliers and scouts for stone firsthand, taking along a spray bottle filled with water and a small mallet. He squirts the stone with water to get an idea of its true color, and with the mallet, “You give little taps and hopefully you’ll get a nice musical tone. Sometimes you hit a spot with a different sound, and it’s a sign that there could be a fault in the stone,” he says. “Unless I absolutely have to, I won’t buy stone unseen.”
Rather than an elaborate studio, Sorani has a couple of workbenches outside and a small workroom inside. “You don’t need a lot to do beautiful work,” he says. “It all has to start outside, because there’s a lot of chips and dust and noise.” Most of his work is small, from eight to 10 inches up to two feet, and he doesn’t start with any stone weighing more than 300 pounds. His largest finished piece weighs a bit more than 100 pounds, showing just how much stone he chips and sands away to create his beautiful, graceful figures in motion.
Sorani seldom includes detailed features such as eyes, ears and noses, because his goal is to capture a specific pattern of movement, and he feels they’d be a distraction from his focus on the overall form. “I’m straddling a fine line between abstract and representational,” he says, adding that he’s making a conscious choice related to the movement and form he’s expressing.
“It’s a slow process, and I’m slow at it,” says Sorani, who needs to work cautiously because there’s no easy fix for a wrong chip. He’ll turn down commissions if a deadline is too tight, and he seldom works with galleries because he prefers freedom and flexibility. He does participate in ARTrails Open Studios, a program of the Arts Council of Sonoma County, however, and says, “I really enjoy the interaction with the people who come by as part of the tour. They want to know about the work. They ask questions. It’s been fun.”
Sorani reflects that he loved his time as a teacher, but now he’s thoroughly enjoying his life as an artist. “It’s been a couple of good journeys for me,” he says. “I feel very, very lucky.”

Buttons to baskets

For sculptural fiber artist Emily Dvorin, it all began with buttons. She loved her mother’s fabulous collection of buttons when she was young, and she used to organize them into rows of color and size to make designs. “I can remember doing all kinds of things with the buttons,” she says. She had to return them, so her work wasn’t permanent, but her family didn’t consider art a serious pursuit anyway. “In my family, art was considered ‘cute,’” says Dvorin, who studied foreign language in college because it was intellectual enough to satisfy her parents. She went on to get a master’s degree in teaching and became a third-grade teacher in Maryland. But, she says, “I’ve always done art on the side.”
Life changed in 1974, when she and her husband, a lawyer with the National Labor Relations Board, and their two young children came to Northern California and settled in Kentfield. She didn’t want to return to teaching, so she opened a crafts store, Various and Sundries in San Anselmo, which she owned for 35 years. She also started doing detailed macramé, which she sold, and made curtains on commission, always feeling the need to do something creative. “I snuck the art in on the sly,” she says.
A sea kelp basketry class in the basement of the old California Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park caught her attention, so she signed up and knew right away it was going to be important in her life. “During that class, I had that ‘a-ha’ moment,” she says. She began to focus on three-dimensional art, and despite having a day job and a family, she took classes and started to define her skills. “I devoured every basketry book I could and began to develop an affinity for it,” she says.
She started by using reed. “I had to learn all the classic ways first,” she says. Then she started to branch out, using embroidery floss instead of the traditional materials for wrapping and coiling. “I was varying it somehow,” she says. “It was a path to being different.” She also took a class in fiber sculpture from Carole Beadle at College of Marin, who encouraged her and validated what she was doing.
Five years ago, Dvorin acquired a studio in Sausalito’s ICB Building, which houses 85 artists, and worked there on Fridays. The experience sparked a desire to retire, and the next year, she sold the store to launch a new career. “I speak and teach and show. I’m loving the life I have now,” she says. “Having a studio outside my house has a made a huge difference. My work has leaped, stretched. It’s absolutely delicious to spend hours doing what I love. For the first time in my life, I can let go and feel entitled to do that.”
Dvorin’s work is distinctive because, although her methods are traditional, her materials are far from it. “I’m always interested in doing a vessel,” she says. “Everything is a vessel for me because everything holds a story.” Her baskets aren’t necessarily functional, and she describes them as “trans-ordinary vessels” and “wacky baskets,” in which she transforms whatever old materials she finds, even Venetian blinds, into baskets. Recently, she made a basket from Slinkies, which stretch, retract and bounce up and down, and she describes the medium as the most difficult she’s encountered: “It goes back; it has a memory. I wish I’d had five hands,” she says.
Bright cable ties are Dvorin’s signature material, and she loves color. “Color is important to me. People comment on the exuberance of my work, the whimsy of it,” she says. She regularly participates in the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival and finds that people can’t simply walk by; they feel compelled to stop and look at her baskets more closely. “It’s my way of communicating with people. A visual vocabulary if you will,” she says. “I’m fortunate, because nobody’s doing what I’m doing.”
Having a business background, she treats her art seriously, like a job, and enjoys the intensity. Her work is on display in galleries and small museums as well as private collections, and she also accepts commissions. “I love using people’s ideas or ingredients and creating a piece like that,” she says. In addition, she teaches classes to adults and visits schools to work with children. “It pains my heart to see [art] so put aside,” she says. “Parents should encourage art. It’s a life lesson; it’s not just art.”
All together, Dvorin’s activities add up to a very satisfying new career. “I’m living my dream,” she says. “Hurray for retirement!”

Life in color

Villa Spankadellik, the art-filled home and gallery of Napa artists Kristi Rene and Edmund Ian Grant, is filled with bold color and reflects the passion its owners feel for their work. Both were dentists in earlier careers, but their true calling is art.
“I was a very artistic kid,” says Rene. “I knew at the age of six I had to have a ‘career,’ but I just related to myself as an artist. It was something I automatically did. I always had projects that were a safe place for me to go.”
As an adult, however, she needed to be realistic about getting a day job, so school and a career sidelined art. Nonetheless, she took the time to nurture her creative self whenever possible and took a class with a teacher who was “a zany cool lady.” The first assignment was picking something in nature to paint, and “I found this crack on the wall,” says Rene. She did a large painting of her perception of the crack and got an A+ in the class on the basis of that very first painting.
“I’m grateful. Art is a gift you’re given,” says Rene, but even so, making the switch to a career as an artist didn’t come easily. Injuries she suffered in an automobile accident in 1989 kept her from returning to dentistry, so in keeping with her belief in service to other people, she turned to volunteer work. She was unfulfilled, however, and describes hitting a wall and feeling an internal, hollow pain. “I felt very sad,” she says.
During a stay at Sea Ranch, she remembers sinking her feet into the sand on the beach and recognizing the need to do something different. She responded by taking a class in painting, in which students focus on who they are as opposed to the painting process, and, she says, “I just stood back and looked at my painting, and it was the first time in my entire life that something looked back at me, and we totally understood one another. I’d never felt like that before, like everything makes sense. It changed my life.”
Grant’s evolution was less dramatic. He showed signs of artistic promise when he was young and says, “I was doodling—always doodling—and seeing things in my doodling.” His real interest, though, was music. He started playing the alto saxophone in third grade, when he was seven, and at one point decided he wanted to be a professional musician, but he gave it up when his mother told him he had to be a conductor. “That was that,” he says, observing that it’s difficult for serious musicians to make a living, and his parents instilled in him the idea that you have to make money.
He did a couple of paintings when he was in college, and “I thought, ‘This is pretty cool,’” he says, but he didn’t pursue it. Then in the mid-1980s, he acquired a copy of Betty Edwards’ classic book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and started drawing. A friend gave him a pastel set, prompting him to add color to his drawings, and he found his direction. “It was all intuitive; I did crazy things with color,” he says. “It morphed into painting, and it just grew from there.”
In 1992, he met a gallery owner from Carmel who wanted to show his work, and the course was set. He had his first show, people kept buying his paintings and he continued on. Self-taught, he describes his development as an artist as a progression. “The paintings just got better and better,” he says, so by the time he was ready to make the leap into a new career, he was established. “I was an artist already. It was just a natural transition,” he says. “Now I want to take it to the next level.”
Grant’s newest work is digital art, which he creates by building up the images in Photoshop using 300 to 400 layers. “I’m creating imagery in the computer. It’s a real discovery process,” he says. “They don’t look like digital art. They look like paintings.”
Rene paints and sculpts and, although she finds the two media equally gratifying, she finds painting the greater challenge. “When I paint, I paint with my hands. It’s a dialog regardless of the medium,” she says. She also does diptychs and triptychs—two and three-panel works—and says, “I like the idea of communities, whether they’re communities of sculptures or paintings. It evolves. I call it my ‘God umbilicus,’” she says, explaining that God gave her the gift, and she has to do the painting.
Rene believes the ultimate failure is not leading a passionate life and is determined not to have any regrets. “The last thing I want to do is say, ‘I really wish we would have…,’” she says. “You don’t have time to put off being your authentic self. There’s no one who can do your art but you,” she says.
Regrets are unlikely. Among the honors they’ve received, Rene won first prize from the European Confederation of Art Critics Prize during the 2012 Chianciano International Art Awards held at the Art Museum of Chianciano in Tuscany, and Grant was awarded first prize in digital art in the Leonardo Awards at the same event.
“If you’re an artist, you just have to do it,” Grant observes. He’s describing an instinctive drive coupled with talent that’s the basis of success. When Sorani, Dvorin, Rene and Grant talk about their work, their faces light up and they smile. Following their passion into new careers clearly gives them great joy.



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