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Healdsburg Artist Wade Hoefer Spices up Paintings

During the past four decades, Healdsburg artist Wade Hoefer has received numerous accolades for his flowing, meditative oil-on-canvas studies of Northern California landscapes.


Yet when a visitor paused recently in front of a painting at Hoefer’s current show, “Concerto Spaziale” (Concert in Space), the casual critic offered unparalleled praise.


“I want to lick these,” said John Keker, who was taking a break from his work as a San Francisco trial lawyer to stop in at Hotel Healdsburg on a November weekend, and had been drawn to the gallery display in the hotel’s Carriage Room. He stuck out his tongue and feinted a taste.


Hoefer was delighted. His new medium is completely different from anything he has ever used before, and the result is a striking departure for the generally more traditional painter who favors gossamer-edged vineyards and valleys.


These days, he’s painting with spices, encouraging most viewers to lean in, smelling the lingering fragrances of turmeric, cayenne and curry. Nearly everyone also feels compelled to touch the paintings – canvases depicting abstract shapes on a base of sea salt, swirled with ingredients from basic black pepper to exotic paprika.


However people react, as long as the paintings inspire contemplation, and perhaps a smile, then the artist is pleased. “You can look at the shapes for hours,” Hoefer says, “and find your own imagination.”


As he pauses in front of one of the 21 pieces on display in the hotel through Jan. 31, his skin is tanned from his favorite pastime of exploring the Sonoma outdoors. He runs a hand through his thick shock of gray hair as he reflects on how he came to be painting with dried dill.


The artist, 63, was born in Long Beach and moved to San Francisco in 1970, but has lived in and around the Sonoma countryside for 30 years. He keeps his studio at Soda Rock Winery in Healdsburg. Visitors are free to stop by and see him at work, both in the studio and in a temporary space behind the Hotel Healdsburg Carriage House. A new collection of the landscapes for which he is renowned is hung in the hotel lobby.


Yet the spice collection inspiration came, Hoefer explains, from an artist-in-residence project that over the past 11 years returned him often to a small Spanish village north of Barcelona called Torroella de MontgrĂ­.


The village marketplace brims with spices displayed in large, open containers, and Hoefer was attracted to their rich, deep, earthy colors in browns, black, ginger, warm gold and red. He recalls sifting the spices through his fingers, and thinking how they so beautifully mimic the organic colors of his own landscapes, as well as the agriculture and food-rich heritage of Sonoma.


Making spices stick


Finally, late last summer, he opened a spice canister and took up a paintbrush.



Getting the spices to stick proved to be a challenge at first. The shapes of the canvases themselves are freeform, stretched in distorted edges over frames made of natural wood branches, then layered in pure Maldon salt. Hoefer spritzes the salt with water so it moistens and builds up into mounds, sometimes growing to 10 layers of minerals.


Then he applies a base of clear acrylic gel to the hard canvas, and dusts the spices like a cake. Another bed of gel goes down, then more spice, and he rubs the colors in by hand. A Dirt Devil mini vacuum sucks any messy edges up, and then Hoefer uses a spray of water to achieve the ghost-like, vaporous edges that give the designs their celestial, backlit feel. Another spray of diluted gel acts as a fixative.


Shifting colors


The result resonates, mottles, trails in whispery halos at its edges, and sparkles as light moves across it. Paintings are granular to the touch, and seem to morph color and shape as a viewer moves around them.


Hoefer works on a half dozen paintings at once, he says, since the drying process is lengthy. “Some spices are elusive,” he says, such as turmeric, which starts out golden orange, then turns yellow when it’s wet, and yet brighter orange if it’s applied to salt with iodine versus without.


Now he is venturing into other foods, as well. One portrait is made with dill and parsley, ground in a mortar and pestle and moistened with olive oil. He uses mustard, and eggplant pulverized in a food processor for a velvety purple gray.


And while he doesn’t recommend anyone who purchases his art actually put their tongue to it, Hoefer’s might be one of the healthiest expressions of art there is. Each painting is entirely organic, except for the latex, and the artist has thoughtfully provided a recipe of spices used on the back of each painting.


San Francisco Chronicle

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