Culture queens a tale of two Kates
Kennedy and Eilertsen take the slow out of Sonoma. (From the Winter 2010 issue of SONOMA)
If you live here, or at least visit a lot, there is a perplexing paradox to Sonoma.For many people whose birthdays place them on the short side of 30, the proper name for the town is "Slonoma." For them, that name says all you need to know. And to some degree they're right.
It's true, for instance, that with a few loud and notable exceptions, Sonoma's sidewalks are rolled up and carried away by 11 p.m. Study the demographics and you'll know why night life is defined as San Francisco.
But that's a simplistic standard and it begs the counter question of how many cities of 10,000 or less have a fraction of Sonoma's cultural energy, vitality and talent.
How many cities this size have a world-class music festival and film festival, endless art festivals, wine festivals, historic re-enactments, parks, monuments and parades, not to mention one of the finest racetracks in the world with all manner of nationally sanctioned motorized competition.
Slonoma? Where's that?
And if you insist on measuring the culture of a city just on the basis of theater and art, Sonoma will say, "Bring it on!"
Nothing is more embarrassing than bad theater and bad art, and nothing is more impressive then the discovery that the opposite exists in a town like Sonoma.
Which brings us to the Two Kates.
Kate Eilertsen grew up a Minnesota minister's daughter, a legacy that instantly invites visions of Lake Wobegon.
Kate, however, found religion not in Lutheran pews but in art. Instead of trips to church, she prayed at the altars of countless art museums, where inspiration took life in every form and medium imaginable. It spoke to her the way the Bible speaks to evangelicals.
"This is going to sound corny, but I do believe that art is a similar search for answers about why we live, what we should be doing on earth, questioning beyond the daily routine. Why do I exist?" she says. "We're looking for answers in life and sometimes art can give that to you."
These weighty questions emerge inside the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art where Kate is currently executive director. Her arrival involved a circuitous trip.
Growing up in small town Minnesota, Kate knew where her passion lay but she didn't know, at first, how to follow it. That changed quickly after she graduated (magna cum laude) from tiny (less than 2,000 students) Macalester College in St. Paul with a bachelor of arts degree and headed to New York City. There, she put down her bags and headed to the beating heart of New York culture, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
She learned a job was available installing new exhibitions that uniquely matched her background as a sculpture artist with welding and building experience. But, fresh off the bus from a tiny liberal arts college with limited real-world experience, she doubted she'd be chosen from more than 300 applicants. But she was, and that fateful decision helped her smash a succession of glass ceilings.
"I was the only woman in this department of 40 men, all over the age of 45," she remembers. "I think they were challenged to see me do a lot of the things they did without much trouble. That was new to them."
But Eilertsen also had the ability to make men melt with her blond hair and infectious enthusiasm, and she rose through the ranks until she got a coveted job overseeing the installation of the Rockefeller Collection of Primitive Art, which opened to the public in 1982.
"Tradition would teach you that they would give that job to a man," she says, adding that the opportunity to handle and showcase some of the world's most significant artifacts changed her forever. "It makes you appreciate so many different things about an object, a painting, a textile-a work of art I guess. Now, I like to joke, when I go to a new exhibition I first look at how something is installed, and then (I look at) the work."
Her experience at the Met, paired with her years as director of exhibitions for the Harvard University Art Museums, gave Eilertsen the confidence she needed to share what she had always known to be true: that art can change the world. And like a missionary in Africa, she set out to share her vision. Not everyone shared it.
"Some people only want to see beautiful works of art on the wall. I love beautiful works too, but I also believe that it's a museum's job to inspire and to challenge and to provoke, and to offer new ways of seeing-and sometimes that's not pretty."
Before taking over at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, she oversaw some of the most influential museums in the Bay Area, including the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where she brought in an exhibition of paintings by beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti that was so controversial it was taken down at another location. Coming to Sonoma, she was committed to protecting her provocative point of view, despite resistance from some critics who preferred art to be less provocative and more pedestrian.
In the spring of 2010, she brought in the exhibit "Silence, Exile and Cunning," which featured the paintings of Brett Reichman, whose colorful works graphically explore the politics of sex and boast titles like "Satin Cock" and "Simulation Masturbation."
"There were some people who turned around and walked out (of the exhibit), and that's they're choice. I think our job was to let them know that there might be something challenging so they could make the choice about whether they wanted to see it or not," she explains. "Eighty percent maybe didn't enjoy it, but we certainly got them to think, much more than seeing a beautiful landscape might get them to think."
Some museum directors might have been discouraged and decamped for the free-thinking scene in San Francisco, where men in penis suits can be seen dancing in the Castro. But not Eilertsen. She is committed to opening eyes and minds, and continuing to provide a place where the voices of artists out of the mainstream can be heard.
"I was proposing some pretty politically charged exhibitions to put on the schedule for 2011-12 and there was a heated debate and disagreement about whether that's the right thing to be presenting for a museum. It was fascinating," she said. "Art is filled with challenges and ideas, and it wants you to react to it. Artists are working that way so museums should be presenting what the artists' ideas are."
So she will continue to push the boundaries of art and culture, using her keenly developed eye to preview works that may sound like either screams from the mountaintops or shrieks from the gutter.
"All people need the gift of thinking creatively," she says. "A lot of people don't believe this, but I believe everyone is an artist. We all have these creative needs, compulsions, in us. Some people actualize it, and some people don't. People will say 'I'm not artistic.' Every time I can, I try to argue it with them. I just don't buy it."
Were it not for a house full of schizophrenic children, Sonoma Valley might never have been blessed with the dramatic force that is Kate Kennedy.
A Valley resident for 30 years, Kennedy and theater are like a pair of swans-meant to mate for life. She produces, directs and stars in three to five plays every year, both for adults and for children. From the annual Shakespeare productions with her Avalon Players, to the fifth-grade "mellerdramer" she produces with every member of the graduating class at Dunbar Elementary School, Kennedy keeps Sonoma topped off with a full flight of theater year-round.
"I love every aspect of it, I'm out there hanging the lights and designing the sets. I love it all. It's not like I groan and go 'Ugh, costuming,'" says Kennedy, who's flaming red hair matches her fiery, larger-than-life personality.
"You have to be very honest," she adds, "you can't be delusional. As an actor, you are given this body, this face, this look, this voice and you have to go, 'Marilyn Monroe, you're never gonna be.' In that sense it's a very grounding, humbling profession. There are just certain roles that, no matter how well someone can act it, they're not gonna get it. It's not fair, necessarily."
While it may not be fair, it's a passion she's desperate to share, especially with youngsters. After three miscarriages, she gave up trying to have her own babies, but freely calls any child she's worked with "her kids." And just like their real mothers, she'll do just about anything for them.
Early in her days in the Valley, Kennedy launched the Avalon Players and took on a major Shakespeare production every summer. She often used children for bit parts in her shows, but one day, tired of playing pages and servants, the kid players demanded more-they wanted their own production.
"I said, 'Oh darling, you're a darling little thing, how cute,'" Kate gushes, in a perfectly patronizing British accent. But the kids stood their ground, and Kate indulged them by launching her first Shakespeare camp at the Sebastiani Theatre, convinced no one would show up.
"Thirty-three kids showed up, 33 kids!" she exclaims. "I looked at them and I said, 'You guys are all a bunch of little freaks. Did your parents promise you, like a pony or a car for coming?'"
But that first camp started a new tradition of spreading the thickly poetic language of Shakespeare to whole generations of Sonoma youth. "They're remarkable," she says. "And I think that's a testament to the arts when you integrate them young. They just absorb it like a sponge."
The fifth of nine kids from a "big, Irish Catholic family" where, she jokes, growing up she thought every pregnant women was her mother because all she could see was the big, pregnant belly, Kennedy understands kids. She knows how to speak the language of kids (without the patronizing voice so common in adults), and that allows her access to their talents.
Children will always, and have always, played a significant role in her life. It was, after all, a house full of schizophrenic children that brought Kate Kennedy to Sonoma.
"It's very convoluted, you're not gonna want to print this," she warns. It's the perfect dramatic hook.
"I came out here for love," she begins.
Her lover's best friend, Marty, who secretly pined for her, asked her to visit him in Berkeley on her way to Mexico. When she came, he confessed his "undying love, or something like that." While she didn't return his feelings, she did leave him with nearly all the money she had in the world-around $500-and asked him to look for an apartment for her in San Francisco. When she returned, Marty had blown the $500, not on an apartment but on himself. So he invited Kennedy to move in with him-and the 12 schizophrenic children he cared for in a half-way home as a live-in psychiatrist.
"I mean the door opens, and here's all these schizophrenic children-true story. I went 'Hi is Marty here?' and they all went nuts screaming. 'Marty, Marty, Marty, Marty, Marty,'" she says in full character, shaking back and forth as she mimics.
Broke, with nowhere to go, she made the best of it. "When I was there they lit the drapes on fire."
Then one day, Marty didn't return home. After two days, Kate was at the police station filing a missing persons report. "No money, no car, no job, with all these crazy kids, and thinking that he's dead or mugged or I don't know," she recalls, adding that she acted as full caregiver so well, the organization he worked with offered her Marty's job. But she wasn't interested.
Eventually she called Wendy Westerbeke at Sonoma's Westerbeke Ranch, where Marty had once lived, looking for him. "Wendy said, 'Get in his car and come up here, we'll take care of you,'" Kate says, and it was all the invitation she needed. A few weeks later Marty tracked her down. He had fled to Vermont, ashamed of how he had treated the love of his life by taking her money and leaving her with a house full of children. "I was not happy," she said.
But she was happy in her new home, which she turned into a thriving theatrical oasis where her dog Ruby became better company than (almost) any man.
And it was all thanks to a dozen schizophrenic kids.
(From the Winter 2010 issue of SONOMA)