In the eye of the beholder | SierraSun.com

In the eye of the beholder

Jon Beckhardt

Photos by Ari Steffen/ Sierra Sun Alanna Hughes throws on the potter's wheel at Riverside Studios in Truckee on Monday. The "new generation" of artists in Truckee are turning to an array of subjects, forms, and media that are typically more associated with larger-city art communities.

For centuries, nature art was the reject of the art community. A walk down Commercial Row, however, and one can see how radically that view has changed.Artists whose works are shown in downtown galleries rely on Truckee, Tahoe and the Sierra for their subject matter. Fueling that is a housing boom that is bringing in more bare-walled clientele to swoop up masterpieces devoted to bears, pine trees and lakes.But despite the success and proliferation of art devoted to the area’s natural beauty, increasingly more artists in Truckee are freeing themselves from the profitable subject matter. The “new generation” of artists are turning to an array of subjects, forms, and media that are typically more associated with big-city art communities. “In the last few years, artists have become much more willing to express themselves,” said Billy McCullough, chef and owner of The Dragonfly Restaurant, which hangs the work of area artists. “While landscapes are still popular, they are not a predominate theme.”McCullough attributed much of the growth of the new generation of artists to Riverside Studios.

“[We don’t think] what we’re doing is better than painting aspen trees,” said Alanna Hughes, a potter who helps run the studio.But the artists at Riverside Studios, she said, are beginning to explore a diversity of arts and crafts that have not yet been fully explored in Truckee. Still, with downtown galleries maintaining their focus on nature art, it is difficult for artists who are expanding into new territories to find outlets for their work.”People expect nature scenes,” said Judie Vrooman, owner of Vrooman Fine Art Gallery. “If you’re doing New York City stuff, you’re not going to have a clientele for it.” Hughes’ experience with galleries brought her to the same conclusion.”If you’re not doing typical Tahoe stuff, it’s hard to get in galleries,” she said. “The more I talked to gallery owners, though, I realized that it’s not that they’re being lame about it, they just can’t sell anything else.”Nonetheless, many of these new artists are able to pay the bills entirely through their art – a reasonable measure of success for any artist.

The five artists at Riverside studios are some of the many full-time artists in the Truckee community. According to Hughes, one of the keys of surviving as a working artist has been to market the work to longtime residents. “The locals see what’s outside all the time – the lake, the bears – they don’t need it on their walls,” she said. Other area artists, though, look to the Bay Area to supplement their income. “San Francisco buys San Francisco and Tahoe buys Tahoe,” said acrylic painter and paper maché sculptor Alexis Kelly, who recently had a show in San Francisco.This segment of the art community is also buoyed by local restaurants and coffee houses that hang and sell artists’ works. Joe Coffee, Dragonfly, Cottonwood, Wild Cherries, and Starbucks put up pieces either through their own curation or through the North Tahoe Arts Center’s Art in Public Places program. Still, the emerging success of these artists has not hindered Truckee’s nature-art industry.

“The only thing that’s limiting me is the speed my hands can carve,” said Bill Vrooman, about the demand for the hand-carved birds he sells at Vrooman Woodcarving & Wildlife Gallery on Commercial Row.Many artists who use Tahoe and the Sierra as their inspiration said the second-home buying boom and tourist economy were fueling their trade.Painter Audrey Dygert said that it was the second-home buyers who are purchasing her limited-edition prints.Judie Vrooman, who said that the area was a “marvelous place for artists because of all the growth,” said tourism was also responsible for the success.”We ship a lot of stuff,” she said. “If you don’t ship, it’s silly.” The growth has also brought change in the industry. She said that the new art buyers are highly educated.”They don’t want to see macramé,” she said.