Valley of the Artists: Lucas Valley - San Rafael

lucas valley

Serene and picturesque, the Lucas Valley of northern San Rafael can bring out the artist in anyone. It's no surprise that so many practicing artists—painters, sculptors, ceramicists, jewelers, weavers—have been drawn to and inspired by its surrounding majestic hills.

The Eichler design traditionally has defied the stereotypical suburban demographic and attracted homeowners who tended to be adventurous and creative. That certainly seems true in Lucas Valley, where many of its residents not only share a connection by way of their individual art, but also through their affinity for nature, the outdoors, and as we recently discovered, a common lifestyle shared between the area's more than 800 Eichler homeowners.

artist and his work

"When you put it all together, there's so much openness here, and every home has a beautiful view of the hills," says Donna Solin, a former Humane Society counselor whose love affair with animals is carried on through her art—pastel, oil, and acrylic paintings of cows, horses, tigers, and other wildlife.

"I just want to paint the hills so that a person can look at the painting and say, 'Ah, I remember being there,'" says Deni Wetzel, a retired horse stable manager who recently reconnected with her passion for landscape painting.

Five years ago, at the Marin Open Studios event held each May, fellow painter and valley Eichler owner Logan Franklin observed that many of the participating artists, including both Solin and Wetzel, lived in the two nearby Eichler neighborhoods, commonly called Upper and Lower Lucas Valley.

Taking advantage of an opportunity, Franklin, who's spry and gracious with a neatly trimmed silver hair, proposed that locals come together for an open studio of their own. The idea caught on, giving birth to the Lucas Valley Artists group. Each year, they band together and open their doors for the Holiday Open Studios, a Thanksgiving weekend exhibition.

A former publisher of a San Francisco peninsula newspaper, Franklin is a natural maestro, albeit a modest one, who dusted off his organizing skills by uniting this core of 17 Lucas Valley artists, including 14 Eichler owners. "We pride ourselves in being a very loose-knit group," says Franklin. "There are no bylaws or officers."

Like Franklin, the petite and energetic Solin is an original member of the Lucas Valley Artists who shares a passion for Eichlers and a connection to nature. Solin recognizes that she lives in a special place, and reminds us that Eichler architect Claude Oakland, perhaps the valley's most revered artist, once lived in an Eichler home only a few doors away from her.

What Solin's home lacks by not having an atrium, it gains in wall space. Her long hallway that extends from her home's entrance is perfect for showcasing art—exclusively her own, featuring detailed compositions of animals.

Melissa Woodburn, another member, was once an artist waiting to be set free. Melissa started her career in the arts as a graphic designer in Chicago, but cold winters pushed Woodburn and her husband west to San Francisco nine years ago. While growing frustrated with what she calls "picky clients," Woodburn eventually reappraised her design career and felt it was time to "get her reward"—which meant doing her own art full time.

melissa woodburn and her art

Today Woodburn works almost exclusively with what she calls "three-dimensional art"—intricate basket designs that unite clay and pine needles. She began integrating art mediums shortly after the 911 disaster, when she got the urge to work with clay for the first time. "That was part of my self-healing process," Woodburn says. "I was dropping my younger boy off at a class at the Terra Linda rec center - a kids' clay class - and I thought, 'Oh god, that really looks like fun. I want to be doing that.'"

Entering Woodburn's Eichler home of seven years, one is drawn to her sculpture of a young woman sitting on a park bench, hunched forward, with her knees bent and hands grasping the edge. It's appropriately titled 'Body Language.'

Woodburn's studio, set in the rear yard of her Eichler, is a converted pool house filled with open space and light. "I grew up in a house in Iowa that my father designed, very much like this one," says Woodburn of her Eichler. "We lived out in the country then, so the rhythms and cycles of nature are very important to me. Everything about my present home is tuned to nature—and that's why this Eichler is so perfect."