by Shannon Mortensen
How do you present Humboldt County -- with its diversity of people, industry and environment -- in a space measuring 16 by 16 feet?
Ask Michael Guerriero, a 45-year-old Bridgeville artist who, in conjunction with the Humboldt Arts Council, has risen to that challenge for the past 10 years.
Guerriero creates the county's annual exhibit at the State Fair in Sacramento, opening this year on Aug. 15.
Titled, Where the Redwoods Are, the 1997 exhibit includes works by county artists, a video, and a wall of pamphlets promoting businesses and attractions. Its signature elements are Elizabeth Berrien's life-sized wire sculptures of a Roosevelt elk and a black bear, and two towering freshly cut redwood trees.
Guerriero grew up in the Central Valley town of Livingston, Calif. Guerriero's family, including an artist uncle, nurtured his creative expression. "There weren't any inhibitions placed on me about being interested in art," he said in an interview last month.
A high school teacher sparked a passion for screen printing, Guerriero said, and when he entered California State University at Stanislaus in 1971 the college's new art department had little experience in that medium, but was blessed with state-of-the art equipment.
"Stratus," by Michael Guerriero, 1996
"I walked into some of the best facilities in the country and hardly anybody was using them," he said. "The college professors were just starting to learn how to do it themselves. My interest got them interested, too, and they now teach screen printing at the school."
By the time he graduated he was also an accomplished sculptor. Awarded a fellowship in sculpture from Western Michigan University, he and his wife Rosemarye moved to Kalamazoo.
In 1977, after earning his master of fine arts, Guerriero asked Rosemarye if the thought of living through another Midwest winter sounded like fun. It didn't, so they returned to California.
Following the lead of a friend who'd settled in Bridgeville, the Guerrieros bought inexpensive land which fulfilled their love of gardening, of being near the ocean and mountains, of living in California -- and not cold.
For five years Guerriero has been a Bridgeville School Board member, and Rosemarye the school's librarian, tracking the careers of their son and daughter, now 16 and 12.
"I'm really interested in the evolution of primary education and how much it's changed in the past few years," he said. "(There's) new and relevant information on how the brain works and how people learn, and seeing those new discoveries being applied to a K-8 situation is really exciting.
"Because education has to evolve along with everything else in order to really make it relevant to the kids so that when they do get out into high school and then into the real world they're able to make the transition."
Guerriero's own transition from screen printer to sculptor to fair exhibit designer has an evolutionary tale of its own.
"In 1988 someone made an appeal to the County Board of Supervisors that we should be involved with the State Fair. They ended up offering $3,000 to the Arts Council (to create the exhibit).
"The director at the time, Libby Maynard, had seen some of the structural work I had done and some of my sculptures, and she thought that I might have the skills to put one together. So we collaborated and built that one and took it in."
The 1996 State Fair exhibit by Michael Guerriero.
The exhibits are reviewed by jurors, and counties earn either a gold, silver or bronze award. That first exhibit earned a bronze, but all of Guerriero's subsequent exhibits have won gold awards. He's also won Best of Show at two fairs, Best Craftsmanship four times, Best Artifacts twice and Best Content twice. Each award carries a cash value, and Guerriero returns 30 percent to the Arts Council.
"And that award money is very welcome," says Debbie Goodwin, executive director. "The county's funding for our project this year is $8,400 -- other counties spend up to $40,000 -- but Michael does amazing things with a small budget.
"Each year we must request funding from the County Board of Supervisors for the following year's exhibit," she said. "But this year when we approached them, they said, 'Sorry, we're out of money,' so this may be the last time the county supports the exhibit.
"In past years we've had businesses donate a lot of things for Michael -- and we acknowledge them as sponsors. But the county has been the one that pays Michael for his time and the majority of the expenses. It's a huge deal."
Funding for next year's exhibit will be considered by the board in September. Whatever the decision, after a decade of doing the project Guerriero said it may be an ideal time for him to step back and allow other artists the chance to take over.
He'll still make his living by screen printing in Bridgeville -- only without the yearly challenge of creating a State Fair display that puts a collective face each year on the diversity of Humboldt County.
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