Jim Melchert at Winery Lake

Notes from the Field

Notes from di Rosa

Jim Melchert at Winery Lake

By Patricia Maloney July 23, 2014

A series in collaboration with community partners.

Notes from di Rosa is produced in conjunction with Art Practical's yearlong residency at di Rosa, in which the museum's collection serves as a focus and cornerstone for an in-depth exploration of Northern California contemporary art.

I’d like to make an observation that’s going to burn a hole in my head if I don’t say it. Understandably you refer to the collection, but I hate for you to think of yourself as a collector, Rene. A conservator in the true sense of the word, yes, but better yet, a guardian whose gift for husbandry is evident everywhere at Winery Lake. That includes the artwork, but also the land and the buildings, and even those Canadian geese that seemed to be nesting by the lake when Mary Ann and I last drove by it. What you do for the world is light years more essential than what a “collector” does. The label doesn’t fit you. There’s one thing I still long to learn from you, and that’s how to husband the treasures that fall into a person’s care. You have geese passing through, I have undergraduates. I need to go walking with you again. May I?1


The husbandry that artist James (Jim) Melchert associates with friend and patron Rene di Rosa pervades the grounds of the museum that di Rosa’s estate has now become. It’s apparent as one traverses the perimeter of Winery Lake or surveys the sculpture field from the top of the ridge behind the residence. It resonates through the screeching caw of the peacocks that patrol the gardens and lives on through the curving rows of vines that crest over the hills and press down toward the road that leads to the house and galleries. This pervasive quality of care continues into the residence, deflecting the bombardment of works that cover the walls and the ceiling of its main room with the assurance that what is here belongs. One feels palpably that di Rosa is a place that has been cultivated, nurtured, grown.

James Melchert. Ghost Jar with Butterflies, 1964; glazed ceramic sculpture; 9.5 x 8 x 8 in. Courtesy of di Rosa collection, Napa.

Across the main room from the doorway leading to the kitchen is the fireplace; resting on the pillar of the mantle is Ghost Jar with Butterflies (1964), the earliest of twenty-seven works by Melchert in di Rosa’s collection. An upturned face becomes the somewhat ill-fitting lid for a cylindrical vessel in red-and-green patchwork; its partially obscured vision and gaze toward the ceiling suggest the ceramic sculpture turns a blind eye toward the other objects in the room. But its title and the series of which it is part comes from a line in the Bergman film The Silence (1963), in which a character notes the care one has to take when walking among the ghosts of one’s past. Melchert’s ghosts are, as he describes them, “witnesses to events, not unlike a Greek chorus.” Ghost Jar with Butterflies is witness and prelude, then, to both Melchert’s inclusion in the di Rosa collection and to the long friendship between artist and collector.

Melchert’s presence at Winery Lake predates that of his work or even the artificial lake itself. His first encounter with di Rosa and his second wife, Carolyn—an impromptu visit to his studio in 1964—culminated in an invitation for a picnic. As the artist recalls,

They weren’t living at [Winery Lake] yet; they were getting it ready and having a big barn converted into a house. [Rene and Carolyn] were newly married; in the conversation, it came out that I was married and had kids. They said, “Oh, you must come out for a picnic.” On a Sunday, we drove up to the place. They had a table set up outside for a buffet. That was how we got acquainted… I had a show in San Francisco soon thereafter at Hanson Gallery. Rene and Carolyn came and bought some pieces. For me, that was just wonderful to have a person interested in my work and want to buy things.

Around the corner from Ghost Jar, two framed works on paper hang stacked on the wall just inside the hallway leading to the bedrooms. Each is a Christmas greeting; each is a rubbing with handwritten text below describing the what and when and where of its creation:

A package of California wild/flower seeds/A snapshot of a woman and a/child watching a river from/high above alongside a road.—Jim Melchert ’75/For Rene Christmas 1975”


“A transparent envelope (in it/a snapshot of a dozen clowns)/A snapshot of a child standing/at the edge of the sea.—For Rene and Veronica at Christmas 1976 with much love, Jim”

James Melchert. Ecco, 1994; chalk on clay; 11.5 x 11.5 x 1 in. Courtesy of di Rosa collection, Napa.

One imagines the objects close at hand in the artist’s studio, within grasp of pencil and paper, mementos of the moments described: a child at the edge of the sea, a woman and child high above the river. The inscriptions, in their oblique way, narrate not only their creation but also the friendship that was being cultivated here alongside the collection.

Each of the works by Melchert in the collection bears some semblance to the koan-like inscriptions of the Christmas greetings: eschewing rationality in favor of intuition. Throughout his career, the artist has consistently defied the conventions governing ceramic production, choosing instead to work in “partnership with the materials."3 This characterization corresponds with the artist’s assessment of di Rosa’s interest in ideas over style and how his work fits within a collection assembled accordingly. He notes, “I happen to be one of those artists who has no signature style, and I go wherever my curiosity draws me. I think of my artwork as research, and that was just fine with Rene.4 The work’s intuitive nature is most apparent in Melchert’s description of his process:

It begins with breaking and glazing more porcelain tiles than would be needed. Once that’s done, the search begins for two tiles whose patterns of breaks and marking attract and activate one another when paired. The pairs must be found that excite one another when juxtaposed. Within weeks an entire field coalesces into an image. The red version came together at a height of 9 feet, 2 inches, its width 7 feet, 10 inches.5

James Melchert. Feathers of a Phoenix (Red), 2004 (detail); broken and glazed porcelain tile; 110 x 94 in. Courtesy of di Rosa collection, Napa.

The red version he refers to is Feathers of a Phoenix (Red) (2004). White and red chevrons of various scales collide in a kaleidoscopic explosion of patterns that flow sinuously across the grid of thirty square tiles, each tile an amalgam of broken fragments reassembled into plumes ascribed to the mythical bird that arises again from the ashes. One follows both the cracks of the tiles and the maze of lines that undulate from one corner to the other. The patterns unfurl and fold back upon themselves, and like the resurrected phoenix, the tiles are all the more remarkable for the reincarnated state Melchert has arranged them in, their points of origin irretrievable and irrelevant to us.

As Melchert notes in a 2003 interview, a crack is a structural phenomenon that reveals where the bond between molecules is weak.6 The only way to know where the weakness resides in a clay tile is by breaking it. By the time he undertook the Phoenix series, Melchert had been exploring and exploiting these tenuous bonds for years, breaking and reassembling tiles, drawing on them, and glazing them. The resulting syncopated compositions have a tendency to erase a desire for unblemished porcelain or clay, so rich is the calligraphy the fractures create.    

James Melchert. Lunar (Phoenix II Series), 2003; glazed porcelain tile; 17.5 x 17.5 in. Courtesy of di Rosa collection, Napa.

In Lunar (Phoenix II Series) (2003), for example, deep cobalt glaze approaches but does not trespass over the cracks that fan across its surface like palm lines. All of its power lies in the tension between the pools of blue and the white edges outlining the fissures. Conversely, Ecco (1994) is a single, unglazed clay tile that bears witness to the blunt force that shattered it. There are gaps where the fragments come together, and small pieces that have gone missing; they suggest that this object should not hold together. But two red chalk lines drawn parallel across its surface propose that cohesion lies not with physical integrity, but rather as part of a continuum of time or place that extends before and beyond the object itself.

From the same period are six untitled works (1993–1995) unimposing in scale and riotous in color. Unlike the Phoenix series, the fragments that compose these works do not comprise a single plane. Instead, they clamber over each other and spill out over the edges of the tile to which they adhere, ignoring rhythm, logic, and pictorial convention. They are visually disruptive in every sense of the word. These works are also the most revealing of the relationship between artist and collector. Gifts from Melchert, each bears an inscription in verso that alludes to time spent at the lake, to advice offered and taken, to the gratitude for a life transformed by a place and a friendship: “For Rene with thanks for making Winery Lake part of our lives” reads one. “To Rene, who inspired me to visit Europe in the ’60s” states another. A third: “With thanks for welcoming my family to Winery Lake with open arms.”

James Melchert. Untitled #3, 1994; broken and glazed ceramic tile; 11.75 x 11.75 in. Courtesy of di Rosa collection, Napa.

These inscriptions underscore how Melchert’s work—and his friendship with di Rosa—complicates the conventional image of a collector as one single-mindedly in pursuit of art that fits into a particular recognizable period or style. If a collection is always in the process of formation, the roles of the artists and the collector remain perpetually in flux in relation to the objects assembled and to each other. For Melchert, the collection, and his place within it, is inextricable from the topography of the landscape in which it became embedded. Di Rosa harvested grapes and friendships, and acquired the art necessary to complete the experience of being at the lake among friends, gathered around the table, immersed in conversation and food.

One felt so welcomed; the whole family would go up and we’d be there for the better part of five hours. We’d go for lunch; we’d often go for dinner. Rene loved to entertain. There were always people there… If you had a meal there at the long table, Rene made it a practice of at some point standing up (his chair was at the end) and lecturing a bit. Lecture may be the wrong word; there were thoughts that he had that he wanted to share, making a connection between this and that. It was always very pleasant and he did it very well. One of my sons—the one who was married there—I’ve noticed at his dinner parties there will come a point where he will do the same.7

A lawn slopes away from the house and toward a grove of trees, ending at a low stone wall. It shares a view of the lake with the adjacent garden, with its citrus trees, flowers, and sculptures. Here is the collection’s only large-scale work by Melchert, Earth Door (1965), a curved, poured concrete slab created from a mold dug from the earth where it now stands. Its long, narrow depressions mimic the way the surrounding fields were tilled. As Melchert describes it,

The cast side has deep grooves that rise, turn, and descend. They repeated the pattern of the plowed vineyards across the road. Now of course, the field is full of grown vines so you no longer see the rhyme. My grooves nevertheless let you know how that land once looked. Things get recorded in concrete.8

James Melchert. Earth Door; concrete and paint, 92 x 57 x 28 in. Courtesy of di Rosa collection, Napa.

Melchert is fond of pointing out the hoof print in the base of the sculpture, the work of a favorite sheep who had run of the place and was treated like a pet. The animal’s free roaming of the grounds is recorded here, as is the wealth that di Rosa recirculated from the soil’s harvest into the art and conversation he just as carefully tended. Earth Door, like each of the works that stand sentry on the grounds or peer down from the ceiling of the residence’s great room, is a witness and a testament to the exuberant cultivation of the lives and ideas that crossed paths in this place.

For more information about di Rosa, its history, and collection, visit http://www.dirosaart.org/


  1. James Melchert, in a letter to Rene di Rosa, August 16, 1991.
  2. Author’s conversation with Melchert, July 13, 2014.
  3. Author’s conversation with Melchert, March 5, 2014.
  4. James Melchert, in an email to Kathryn Reasoner, March 26, 2010.
  5. Leslie Goldberg, “di Rosa Artist Interviews: Jim Melchert,” 2003.
  6. Author’s conversation with Melchert, March 5, 2014.
  7. Melchert, August 16, 1991.

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