Rich's yard May 2017

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In May Rich invited a small group of friends to see his garden and home, soon to be rented out to a relative, while R&L will relocate to Rocklin.  Rich is a native plant aficionado from long ago and I recall being at a few Native Plant Society sales in Sacramento or in Berkeley and many of those plants in his yard are now full-scale. The east Natomas area where Rich lives has amazingly good soil, perhaps the best in the Sacramento area.         

A return trip was needed two weeks later to retake photos of some of the flowers, and to get their Latin or street names written down.  I also wanted to learn more about Sophie Alstrom Mitchell, who Rich is descended from.  Sophie was an accomplished watercolor painter of California native flowers, long ago.  

note - you can enlarge any part of a picture by left-clicking in and then out again.    

succulent greetings !! Watsonia lambs' ears bulbine
  dry pond flannel bush out back  
on the viewing platform native Carpenteria or bush anemone alstromeria love in a mist & canna lily
  love in a mist flower bud canna leaves add great  background color the flowers
  lambs' ears & kitty soap plant flowers (out of focus a bit) misc. w/ shoe
  spice bush Rich      

From my paraphrase of Rich's 1984 edition of Fremontia, A Journal of the California Native Plant Society: 'Sophie Mitchell became one of the finest botanical artists of nineteenth century California. She had a very steady hand for meticulous work and her own way of arranging flowers.  Using fine camel's hair brushes and paper imported from England, she applied transparent watercolor over a base of white paint, a technique that gives a translucent quality to all of her works. Throughout her lifetime she used only this medium, always on a background of gray-green paper.' 

Sophie Alstrom Mitchell, Rich's great-grandmother, lived from 1858 to 1940.  Sophie was born in Sweden and a series of fortuitous events brought her to St. Helena, California in 1864, age six.  Sophie grew up in the heart of Napa Valley, a simple farming area, a few generations before it became a world class wine-growing area and present day wine-pilgrimage destination. 

Sophie Mitchell attended Napa Ladies Seminary in the late 1870s, majoring in Art and Botany.  During her long artistic career from 1877 to 1939, she completed more than 150 paintings.  A different article states that they all exhibit "a remarkable degree of consistency" over this 62 year span.   (Pacific Horticulture,  Vol. 40, no.4, Winter 1979)  Rich has paintings from her early and late periods. 

Sophie's husband James was a very respected Protestant Minister in St. Helena for 43 years.  For half those years, he was also the Minister for Calistoga.  According to the sources, the two of them were 'stalwarts in the community'. 

Sophie at 31 in this picture unfinished Lupine   poppies
  Washington  Lilly    
baby blue eyes (Nemophila) Wyethia sunflower Clarkia Leopard Lilly
  Blazing Star Pine Drop < native Clematis and Mariposa Lily >

The images above are shown in the order taken. 

This visit occurred in strong evening light and later in processing, at first I was reluctant to post the images because of the glare, or, reflections of household appliances in the background.  But this approach would have left few images to post. When taking the images, I tried to body-block out the worst glare, or, if that was not successful, later on the images were cropped to reduce such effects.  But still, some glare & appliance reflections remain, which I came to see as adding an interesting homely and spatial layer.     

A few things about Sophie's history stood out for me, from the resources which Rich let me borrow.  One is that (from Pacific Horticulture) she was known to be a quiet and unassuming person.  She also painted somewhat secretly. The magazine speculated it was possibly not considered proper for a Minister's wife to be known as an artist, back then & there.  According to anecdotal history, almost no one ever saw Sophie in the act of painting, until after her husband's death.  There seems to be an admittedly soft clue here. 

Sophie's artistic life, although prolific, was somehow conducted in complete privacy.  Proof of this is that her immediate descendents and inheritors "were quite unaware of the volume of material Sophie had produced." 

My guess after musing on this for a few months, is that James tolerated, and possibly appreciated Sophie's painting, after all, she had talent, as long as she kept out of the public eye, so it would not effect his standing in the community as a Minister. 

Today this may seem condescending, but on a day-to-day he at least enabled her to indulge her talents, and she might have been essentially happy to be able to express herself even if only in private surroundings.  The consistent quality of her work indicates to me that Sophie painted in a stable, supportive environment. 

Other evidence showing that Sophie and James were a happy couple is that they built the first summer cabin at Dillon Beach, and they and their two children visited there annually, for years.  Living in Napa Valley and summering in Dillon Beach, back then, is hard to imagine, but it sounds charming and fairy-tale like. 

A final tale to tell - long after Sophie passed away, 64 of her early paintings were found back east, where she had mailed them as gifts to her influential art teacher Virgil Williams, who had moved from St. Helena to somewhere in New England.  The fact that Sophie signed her works only with her initials made it very difficult for the art collection inheritors to identify who the artist could be.  Finally a connection occurred in 1976 which brought her entire collection together.  All of Sophie A. Mitchell's originals are now in the care of the St. Helena Historical Society.   

I'm very grateful to Rich for allowing me to photograph & post images of his Sophie artworks and for his loan of pertinent historic resources.  I became very impressed by her artistry and by her story.      

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