Those familiar with the work of Michael Guerriero may be surprised by his latest show, opening this weekend in HSU's First Street Gallery. The mixed-media works on paper and canvas are different from what you've seen from the artist, who works at his home studio on a mountainside near Bridgeville. While he's known for refined serigraphs showing forest scenes, seascapes and wide open vistas of mountains and rivers, the new work in his show, "Celebrating the Eel River Salmon Run," is infused with naïve elements. These images of salmon are not just childlike, they're done by children.
As art students from HSU were putting the finishing touches on the First Street show last week, Guerriero recalled the project's genesis. It began along a salmon-rich river, the Van Duzen (a tributary of the Eel), in sessions when kids got out of their classrooms to learn about nature.
"I'd been doing these workshops with kids at Pamplin Grove for a few years, printing with fish, making these sets of flags," said Guerriero, explaining that the Japanese call the fish print process Gyotaku. "It was part of a science and ecology program through several schools; Barbara Domanchuk has been getting grants through the Save the Redwood League to do them for something like five or six years."
While the students learned from local scientists about trees, fish and the like, Guerriero was among those providing an art component. That led him to a project of his own working with schools in the Eel River watershed. He received a grant from the Humboldt Area Foundation's Ruby Kennedy Memorial Field of Interest Fund to support working in local schools teaching kids about art -- and about the watershed they live in.
Guerriero would start by talking about salmon and showing the kids videos of swimming fish, underwater shots done by videographer Thomas Dunklin. "Then I showed them how to do some simple brush drawing, maybe with some textures, and asked them to create their own drawings," said Guerriero.
The drawings were turned into silkscreen stencils, which the kids used to print a different sort of fish flag. The First Street show includes silkscreen prints by 140 kids ranging from 10-year-olds up to teens and coming from tiny towns like Casterlin, Blocksburg and Alderpoint, and from the Round Valley Reservation in Covelo.
The kid-created art was just phase one. Guerriero created his works, using around 40 different fish screens as elements, to paint a portrait of salmon life.
In one piece the fish become a constellation, in another a forest with clouds above, showing, he said, "how the salmon bring a whole slug of nutrients into the watershed every year and create this wealth with the redwoods. It's a codependence: the forest creates the habitat for them to reproduce in, and the fish bring in nutrients to make a strong forest."
You could call Guerriero an artist/activist. He's a community organizer in Bridgeville and he sits on the board of Friends of the Eel River, an environmental advocacy group.
While he was beginning work on his project, FOER held a campout on the river near Hearst, an unincorporated area in Northern Mendocino, inviting the Round Valley feather dancers and a spiritual leader. Children danced and adults drummed, and in the dance celebrating the return salmon run, "we were all invited to touch water, touch the river. A fire was lit in the center -- the kids danced around it," he said. "It was powerful."
The salmon dance was in the summer of 2010. "That fall, following that, all of a sudden a huge run of salmon came up the river. I saw that happen, and thought I should turn the whole year of work into acknowledging the salmon run. I'm turning 60 this year and that seemed like a good way to spend my year," he said.
Another piece in the show, "Balancing Act," echoes the salmon life cycle lessons. He says, "It's about all of the elements the salmon have to balance in their lives as they complete their cycle. They have to make it out to the ocean alive, survive for three years, then come back to the same river where were hatched to reproduce. It's an extraordinary thing."
It's believed that half a million fish once returned to the Eel River annually. That number had dropped dropped dramatically, with only 500 to 600 salmon per run showing up in 2005 and 2006 at the Van Arsdale Dam fish ladders, where water from the Eel is diverted to the Russian River.
Restoration work has since boosted that a good bit. "In 2010, the count was up to around 2,400 fish; 2011 was about the same," said Guerriero. "And this last year a fair percentage were jacks, 2-year-old males precocious enough to come up with the older fish, then go back to the ocean."
As he tells this story, his eyes light up. He's genuinely jazzed about the salmon revival -- and about this show he's completed.
"It's a celebration -- that was part of my pitch to the kids -- we've had this extraordinary run of salmon in the Eel River for these last years, and things like that don't happen all the time. I tried to transfer my enthusiasm to them."
It's clear that enthusiasm reflected back on the teacher -- it shows up in his work.
A reception for Michael Guerriero's "Celebrating the Eel River Salmon Run" will be held Saturday, April 7, during Arts Alive! Guerriero will present an artist talk on his exhibition at the gallery on May 5, at 3 p.m. First Street Gallery is open Tuesday through Sunday from 12 to 5 p.m. at 422 First Street, Eureka. For more information call 443-6363 or go to www.humboldt.edu/first.
Ten percent of sales from the exhibition will be donated to the Friends of the Eel River, who are hosting an all day conference, "A River Renaissance: the Ecology, Life, and Future of the Eel River," on Saturday, April 14, at the River Lodge in Fortuna. Information at eelriver.org.