Building peace, one conversation at a time
The first thing you might notice is the table in the corner.
Within the cozy North Gallery of the Petaluma Arts Center, where a one-of-kind exhibit currently offers a look at the life and legacy of the visionary artist-activist Sami Sunchild, the small round table with two chairs is much more than what it seems. Its intimate, conversation-enabling arrangement perfectly encapsulates Sunchild’s belief that many solutions to large problems begin with two people sitting down and talking.
Titled “Towards a Movement of Peace: Then and Now,” the exhibit runs through Sept. 9. Another exhibit, “Laws of Nature: Sculpture,” is running concurrently in the adjacent G.K. Hardt Gallery. The show is a blend of Sunchild’s paintings – strikingly colorfully examples of activist art, often containing words and phrases onlookers must sometimes search to find – and artifacts from her life, with an explanation and celebration of the work of the Peaceful World Foundation.
“Sami dedicated the last 30 years of her life to peace-building work,” explained Heidi Majano, executive director of the Peaceful World Foundation, the organization that was founded to extend Sunchild’s vision and continue her work following her death in July of 2013. The exhibition, created as a tribute to the legacy of Sunchild, also serves as a visual celebration, marking the 10-year anniversary of the Peaceful World Foundation.
Currently headquartered in the McNear Building in Petaluma, the foundation’s roots are in San Francisco, where Sunchild owned and operated the iconic Red Victorian Bed and Breakfast Peace Center, on Haight Street, beginning in 1977. Described on the foundation’s website as “an international peace hub attracting people from around the world to connect over breakfast conversations,” the Red Victorian – to anyone who ever dropped by for a coffee in its ground floor Peace Cafe or stayed in one of its eccentrically decorated rooms – was a an open-hearted labor of love for Sunchild. Her regularly scheduled, Sunday morning conversations about peace became a main attraction of the place, with thousands participating in them over the years.
Sunchild, who relocated to San Francisco after the dissolution of a commune she’d founded in Hawaii, dedicated herself to the art of peace, which she believed came through recognizing the humanity in each other, often only understood through the sharing of stories.
“She would begin conversations by asking people, ‘What do you see outside your window?’” Majano said. “And after everyone shared whatever it is they could see, Sami would say, ‘Let’s pause for a moment, for those who do not have a window, who do not have a home.’”
The exhibition at the Arts center begins with a display about the origins of the Peace Symbol, giving credit to English artist Gerald Holtom, who created the symbol for a nuclear disarmament march in 1958, combining the semaphore flag positions for N (nuclear) and D (disarmament) into one image.
Accompanying the text is an absorbing array of historical photographs, selected by Majano and co-curator Peggy Sebera, showing the peace sign in use during rallies and protests around the world. In the center are three vibrant examples of art pieces by Sunchild, vividly featuring the peace symbol.
“She told me she would use the peace symbol as a vehicle to talk about peace,” said Majano. “She’d ask, ‘What is Peace? What is art? What role do they play in your life?’ Her archives are full of paintings with peace symbols. That’s when I started digging into its history. There’s so much I didn’t know.”
Another display gives a brief history of the Red Victorian Hotel (originally named the Jefferson Hotel, and later the Jeffrey-Haight), which was built in 1904 and somehow survived the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Majano and Sebera have included photos from inside the hotel – pictures of the rooms, the downstairs café and especially the guests gathered together in conversation circles. There are charming examples of artfully-crafted Guest Book notes left by visitors, describing what their visit meant to them and thanking Sunchild for the experience. Particularly powerful are a few notes written by guests who happened to be staying there during the events of Sept. 11.
One note, signed “Aurora from Hawaii Island,” reads, “Together at Red Vic we grieved & comforted each other w/tears, smiles & hugs ...” Another reads, “Far from our home in NYC, we found comfort as the tragedy unfolded Tuesday morning. Still in much shock, we return today with a sense of peace from our stay & time at the Red Vic and the people we met in S.F.”