May 22, 2017
By Jonah Raskin
Can a young woman from rural Sonoma County find happiness working in an upscale art gallery in Santa Rosa? For Camille Marie Palmer the answer is a resounding “Yes.” The manager of the Calabi Gallery on Tenth Street, Camille says that from an early age her parents instilled in her “an appreciation for art.” Her mother, Sharon, is a weaver. Her father, Bob, has long worked in wood and stone. They didn’t have to twist Camille’s arm to persuade her to major in art history and art studio at Sonoma State University. These days you’ll find her surrounded by dazzling paintings and wondrous sculptures at the gallery that Dennis Calabi, 68, founded and that he has turned into an elegant showcase for local artists and local art and a haven for local art fans. Calabi himself provides the wisdom. Palmer lights up the place with her presence and her enthusiasm. “Art can touch the soul and even change the world,” she says. “It’s wonderful to offer art to the world in an environment where appreciation and education are both encouraged.”
This summer she and Calabi will host a spectacular show by Ray Jacobsen, best known as a landscape painter who depicted the hills, the valleys and the coastline of Sonoma County from the 1970s until his death in 2007 at the age of 79. “My paintings blend realism and the surreal in a unique interpretation of our hills and our valleys,” Jacobsen explained. “My deep personal love of the natural beauty of Sonoma County and the northern California coast has inspired my work for five decades.
A native of Colorado, where he was born in 1938, Jacobsen was a largely self-taught artist who learned volumes about painting and sculpture during a mind-expanding sojourn in England, France and Italy. Much of his early work was influenced by the leading American abstract expressionists of the day—including Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell—though it also pays homage to the unconventional landscapes of Richard Diebenkorn and the striking color schemes of Mark Rothko. After his art education in Europe and his immersion in the American counterculture, Ray’s painting became more experimental and more personal. He put his own stamp on his canvases and moved, with a sense of joy, from oils and acrylics to his favorite medium, watercolors.
Ray’s widow, Barbara, who is also a skilled artist and an art teacher—she specializes in collage—keeps his work in the public eye with a website (www.rayjacobsenart.com) and retrospectives. Dennis Calabi is eager to help. “I’ve admired Ray Jacobsen’s work for decades, he told me. “I wouldn’t show it if I didn’t truly like it. I don’t say, ‘Yes’ to everyone. I only exhibit work I believe in and I believe in Ray’s work.” Camille Marie Palmer likes it a lot, too.
Barbara Jacobsen painted side-by-side with her husband and helped him exhibit his landscapes and his abstract art in galleries from Taos and Scottsdale to Los Angeles and Sacramento. Calabi hopes people will buy one of Ray’s paintings and take it home with them. He’d also be happy if people would come to his gallery and feast their eyes on art.
“Ray Jacobsen’s work has received attention from critics and art lovers,” Calabi told me. “But not nearly as much attention as it deserves. It needs more exposure than it has so far received.” He added, “Picasso is great but there are many artists like Ray who ought to be featured more prominently. He’s local. He painted our world. And he loved it, too.”
Like Camille Palmer and Barbara Jacobsen, Dennis Calabi also has a deep emotionally attachment to Sonoma County, though he wasn’t born here, but rather in Upstate New York. “I went from the apple orchards of the Hudson Valley to the apple orchards of Sebastopol,” he told me. Barbara Jacobsen was born in 1937 in San Francisco, the great granddaughter of Gertrude Atherton, a West Coast literary and cultural icon, and the author ofThe Californians, a pivotal 1898 novel, that’s still read by students and teachers of California history. You might say that California is in her genes. Her connection to Ray and his work goes beyond the rational and the logical. “I dream about him all the time,” she told me one afternoon at the Calabi Gallery. She added “Last night, he appeared in a dream wearing an old bathrobe spattered with paint. In his right hand, he held several paintbrushes.”
Camille Palmer would not be surprised if Ray Jacobsen’s ghost shows up at the opening day of his exhibit, June 24, and that runs until August 12. Dennis Calabi will be on hand to talk about local art galleries and how they can be financial sustainable. Barbara Jacobsen promises to recount her dreams of Ray and to talk about his watercolors, his oil painting and his acrylics that look as bright as the day he framed them himself.
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