West Marin: Past and present


I spent a wonderful Saturday morning going through “West Marin Ancestors and the Land: Learning to Speak the Language of Place” with curator Kitty Whitman, who has presented a wealth of historical photographs and contemporary art at Toby’s Gallery in conjunction with the 2017 Geography of Hope Conference. This year’s conference asks the question, “What kind of ancestor do you want to be?,” and a look at this show is an excellent way to begin to answer it. 

It can be challenging for historic images to hold their own amid contemporary art. Black and white archival materials are easily overwhelmed by the visual impact of colorful works. Yet Whitman, a cultural anthropologist, and her team brought the historic images to life. The prints, photographs and maps were professionally enlarged and printed in a uniform manner, forming an ancestral timeline that runs along two sides of the gallery.

It is one of the challenges of history exhibits that curators must work with existing material. Whitman readily admits that the 10,000-year period prior to European settlement, when the Coast Miwok people hunted, fished and cultivated the land, is not effectively represented in the romantic 19th-century prints of native life. She attempts to balance these stereotypical images with the circa-1903 photograph of Miwok Juana Bautista and her three grandchildren, and reminds us that the show is designed as a starting place for the conference, where several native speakers will share a rich sense of their traditions.

Whitman’s lifelong interest in migration patterns is evident in the archival timeline, which touches upon the many different groups that settled here. It is remarkable to look into the faces of people who came from the Azores, China and, of course, Mexico. An official map of Marin County from 1892 shows the names of the large Mexican ranches, such as Rancho Punta de Los Reyes and Rancho Nicasio, that remain familiar today. Ranching has been a continuous occupation in West Marin for over 150 years. We catch a glimpse of strong family ties in M. Woodbridge Williams’s striking family portrait, “The McClures, 1950.” 

Opposite the timeline is a collection of contemporary works that fills two walls of the gallery with vibrant images. Some of the artists used the materials of West Marin, such as Xander Weaver-Scull, who used homemade earth paints in “Condor,” and Lina Jane Prairie, who wove “Two Kelp Vessel” from seaweed. As one who particularly enjoys local photographers, I was pleased that several whom I admire, including Todd Pickering, Richard Blair and Mary Daniel Hobson, were included.  

Isis Hockenos’s imposing oil paintings of women at work and Celia Herrera Rodriguez’s powerful energy spirit, “Xiuhtechuatl Fire at the Center of the Earth,” visually anchor the show, inviting us to stand before the archetype of the ancestor. “West Marin Ancestors and the Land:  Learning to Speak the Language of Place” shows through March 29 at Toby’s Gallery. Don’t miss it!


Susan Page Tillett, executive director of the Mesa Refuge writers retreat, has worked in art and history museums for over 40 years. She lives in Inverness.