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Petaluma home to famous artist

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For a town that gets really excited about its connection to such attention-grabbing items as ugly dogs, American Graffiti, Lloyd Bridges, and more, I have always found it peculiar that for the past 38 years Petaluma has been the site of a studio for one of the country's most heralded sculptors, and very few people here know anything about it.

This sculptor's works are currently on public exhibit at more than 160 museums and sculpture gardens throughout the world. He is prominently featured at the National Galleries Sculpture Garden on the National Mall in Washington D.C., among such legendary names as Klaes Oldenburg, Alexander Calder, Joan Miro, and Roy Lichtenstein.

He has received a large number of honors, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000 from the International Sculpture Center and the prestigious Heinz Award for Arts and Humanities in 2005.

Three years ago, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama at a ceremony in the White House.

He is Mark di Suvero, and his field of creativity is turning steel I-beams weighing tons into works of art. Still going strong at the age of 80, di Suvero has studios in New York City and Petaluma. He also had one on a barge in France until 1989. He opened his studio here in 1975, and lived here for many years to supervise his work. He now lives in New York, but his studio here remains active.

Although his work is on display at more than 20 sites in California, apparently none of those is in Sonoma County – the closest is at the Rene di Rosa winery in Napa County's Carneros region.

Now, however, local folk can get a healthy dose of di Suvero's creativity by visiting an exhibit of eight of his sculptures at Crissy Field at the San Francisco Presidio. This exhibit opened in May, and is scheduled to continue until about this time next year.

Sponsored by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the exhibit is the largest display of di Suvero sculptures ever shown on the West Coast. There is no charge for admission.

To give an idea of how highly esteemed his work is in other places, I was in Costa Mesa about 15 years ago, and the town was having a Mark di Suvero exhibit. Costa Mesa pulled out all the stops, and big banners advertising the exhibit flapped from light poles on major thoroughfares throughout the city. It was a big deal there.

But, in Petaluma and throughout the county, di Suvero's contribution to American art has been pretty much a matter of indifference, at least in official circles. Part of the reason for this lies with di Suvero himself. Locally, he shunned publicity and during his years of residence, took great pains to stay below the radar, as they say.

I had a phone conversation with him back in the '80s, and my understanding then was that he was avoiding the public eye from a concern that his work might be misunderstood, or held up to ridicule. At the same time, I'm not aware that this community (beyond the world of artists and artisans) ever took the effort to welcome him or embrace his work. If there ever was a concerted effort to get a di Suvero sculpture in a public place here, I'm not aware of it.

Di Suvero was born in China, but came to San Francisco with his family as young boy. Growing up and educated in California, he established himself as an artist in New York, then came to Petaluma in 1975. Many of his famous works were created right here.

Today, there are very few Petalumans who have any idea di Suvero has been an integral part of the local art scene for years. Seems that maybe this is something that can be rectified.

(Don Bennett, business writer and consultant, has been involved with city planning issues since the 1970s. His e-mail address is dcbenn@aol.com.)

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