Artist in Residence
Calistoga painter Ira Yeager fills his three singular structures with 18th-century artifacts and antiques—and his own creations.
Every day, artist Ira Yeager wakes with the sparrows and works until dusk in his paint-spattered Napa Valley studio. As sunlight flickers through tall windows, he paints dramatic and alluring Native Americans, elegant French princes from the 1700s, Golden State landscapes and Swedish countesses at costume balls.
“History for me stopped in 1812,” says the prolific Yeager, “and I’m besotted with 18th-century Sweden and France and long-ago California. I love the romance of that period, the fantasy. And it’s fun to recreate the Gustavian or Louis XVI eras on my canvases and in my houses.”
On his remote property—the former site of an apple orchard 20 minutes outside of Calistoga—Yeager divides his time among three enchanting follies, a collection of small, quirky country residences custom-built to display his paintings.
“I first discovered St. Helena and Calistoga around 1975, before they were chic,” says Yeager. “There were a handful of fine wineries and some great friends, but no social life or restaurants. The Wappo tribe used to hunt in the region where I live. I often find their obsidian arrowheads.”
Mountain lions stalk across his meadows, and deer tiptoe through the walnut grove. Yeager’s redwood board-and-batten workspace, built like all of his edifices by contractor Richard Horwath, reaches high into the surrounding ancient oaks. It’s topped with a jaunty cupola that lights up like a magic lantern on a summer afternoon.
Half a mile away, but still on Yeager’s land, and surrounded by manzanitas, stands the red barn, assembled from a Swedish-style kit shipped west from Alabama.
“I dream up houses and iconic farm buildings and Richard turns them into sun-filled structures,” says Yeager. “I see an image of a Gustavian pavilion in a design book, and want to build it, decorate it with my antiques, have parties.”
On weekends, friends from San Francisco and the Napa Valley arrive bearing vintages from their estates and gossip from the city.
When Yeager steps out of his studio, he’s sleuthing through Petaluma antiques galleries for gilded French pieces and rattling around San Francisco flea markets in search of Meissen porcelain. He recently found a set of 12 delicately carved ballroom chairs from Antique & Art Exchange in San Francisco that now adorn his Gustavian folly. New objets cluttering an old farm table include delicate Venetian glasses, an 18th-century French nobleman’s crimson silk jacket with its original carved mother-of-pearl buttons and a cache of French-cut crystal carafes from a Bordeaux château.
Yeager’s studio manager, Brian Fuller, ships canvases to avid collectors and galleries in Carmel Valley, Beverly Hills, Santa Fe, Aspen, Houston, New York, London and Mumbai.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a long career,” says the artist, taking a break to pick ripe heirloom tomatoes in his garden. “I studied in the early ’60s at the San Francisco Art Institute with teachers like Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff, and I’ve been painting ever since. When people ask me if I’m still creating, I respond, ‘What else is better to do?’ I research and work on my art every day.”
With Berkeley-based publisher Peter Koch, Yeager just released Paul Bowles 2137 Tanger Socco, a limited-edition, lavish red boxed compilation of the artist’s letters to the writer over four decades—illustrated with original portraits.
“I met Paul Bowles in the late ’60s in Tangier,” says Yeager. “He was so encouraging for my work. And we always kept in touch.”
The peripatetic Yeager has painted in Morocco, Corfu, the South of France and Paris. “I’ve been happy around the world, but I’m happiest in Calistoga,” he says. “In California, I can invent, dream, create and live a wonderful life.”
Written by Diane Dorrans Saeks.
Photographed by Adriàn Gregorutti.