I arrived at Ceago Vinegarden, which is located on the shores of Clear Lake between Nice and Lucerne, a few days before the lavender harvest to paint the crop at its peak. The two acres of plants spread out between the winery and the lake are equally spectacular for their hue and their scent. Painting here in the hundred degree heat was like being immersed in a lavender scented sauna. I wondered if this was how the ancient Roman baths felt. Romans used it for treating wounds and for bathing. Its name is said to derive from the Latin word to wash ‘lavare’
( The entire series of these paintings may be viewed on this site in the Ceago Series 2007- 2009 Gallery .)
Viewed up close each plant is like a small 4th of July rocket-burst: from a silvery-leafed sphere hundreds of thin green stems shoot out bearing a second, concentric, shimmering sphere of lavender hued flowers. The air amid them is abuzz with bees and other insects. I even spotted some small dragonflies searching out insects among the stems. Several mornings I rose around 5:30 AM to paint the harvest. It was already light at 6 AM as I sketched two of the farm hands working their way towards me. It would be another hour before the sun crested the eastern mountains dramatically illuminating the scene. A jay hopped from trimmed plant to trimmed plant gobbling unsuspecting insects. A field mouse, grown used to me, darted near my feet only running for cover when I looked directly at it. A great blue heron rose from the neighboring field and flew over us towards the lake.
Jim Fetzer told me, later, that a row of approximately 50 plants produces one and one half quarts of lavender oil. Which means that this field could produce 20 gallons of oil. Later in the day I observed the distillation process. Water is boiled in the spherical bottom of the 'column still'. (See painting below)
It rises through the central column which has been stuffed with lavender blossoms. The steam extracts the essential oil and carries it through a pipe that descends from the alembic dome and runs in coils down through a cooling container that is filled with water. It emerges at the end of the pipe as oil and and a milky hydrosol. The oil is floated off and bottled and the hydrosol is collected and sold in spray bottles.
Distillation is a process that was developed by the Alchemists some of whose methods are also incorporated in 'biodynamic' farming practiced here at Ceago.
Saturday, June 27th was the day of the Annual Lavendar Distillation Lunch. I was working in the raised corridor above the entrance painting a view through an opening that overlooks the courtyard.
(This view is the exact opposite direction from the one I painted from up here on my last visit in January. It was reproduced in the blog titled "Painting at Ceago Vinegarden".)
Standing above the courtyard I witnessed people's reactions as they arrived. There were loud "Oohs!" and "Wows!" as they got their first view of the field in full bloom. Many headed right for it. Others paused at the fountain, which splashed seductively in the heat, to take photos of each other. Soon the courtyard was filled with friends and families seated at tables eating the fresh salad, grilled sausages and handmade tortillas.
A photographer, Ron Kees, found me and took some pictures of me at work. He told me that his paintings of Barack Obama had recently been featured in the New York Times.
"Art about, art about art." I commented, referring to the fact that he was photographing me making a painting of Jim Fetzer's creation.
" Life doesn't make a lot of sense unless you can create something beautiful to pass on to the next generation." he responded.
Around sundown I joined the dinner guests in the back courtyard. The Ceago Estate Lamb Gyros prepared by chef Nick Hiedeman from a lamb Jim had slaughtered on Monday was, hands down, the best lamb I've ever tasted and so tender it seemed to melt in my mouth.
A live Salsa band, Orienta, performed in the main courtyard until late into the evening. I chatted with some of Jim's childhood friends. We all paused to savour the lavender infused cake with macerated strawberries and lavender blackberry cream.
"Life" someone observed, "doesn't get much better than this."
( In early October I will be exhibiting my complete 'Ceago Series' at Ceago.
The entire series of these paintings may be viewed on this site in the Ceago Series 2007- 2009 Gallery on this Site.
To receive announcements to this and other exhibitions e-mail me at [email protected] with "add me to you e-mail list" in the subject line.)