Petaluman publishes new photo book depicting city’s street art
One of the things that Petaluma photographer Gail Sickler likes best about modern street art is its ephemeral nature. If a splash of color catches your eye, you have to stop and enjoy the painting right then and there — because the next time you pass by, it could be nothing but a memory.
“It’s like a canvas that changes daily, or not at all, and you never know,” Sickler says.
Such offerings are the attention-grabbing, occasionally controversial subjects of Sickler’s recently-released photobook, “94952 Street Art.” Intentionally available only in Petaluma stores, the slender book is an elegant, text-free collection of photographs featuring large and small, well-known and unknown representations of street art in downtown Petaluma.
On a recent Thursday morning in downtown Petaluma, Sickler took a leisurely walk, pointing out some of the many examples of street art she’s become fascinated with over the last few months, many of them featured in the book. From the whimsically industrial, black-and-white, Works Progress Administration-style murals hovering overhead on American Alley, to the mysterious, ever-evolving graffiti pieces spray-painted onto every available surface in the parking lot behind the Phoenix Theater, the examples that Sickler shows tend to be large and unmissable. But they can also be hidden where you have to know what you are looking for.
“I’m often out with my camera, looking for things I’ve never seen. And a lot of the time,” Sickler said, “I find them.”
She pointed out one little-known example. The curious anonymous artifacts tucked with care into the holes in a downtown wall where bricks once were. The tiny dioramas are on display to those passing through the Golden Concourse, a regal name for the courtyard between Kentucky Street and the parking garage.
“They are so great,” says Sickler. “They are always changing too, but I don’t know if it’s one person who does it, or a whole bunch of people. It’s sort of magical.”
On the side of the garage, within walking distance of those secretive displays, in striking contrast to the miniature assemblages in the bricks, hovers a towering, spray-painted tsunami of color by artist Ryan Petersen.
All are in her book. The photos, among Sickler’s first forays into digital photography, often seek to place the art being showcased within the context of the environment that piece is part of. A shot of Petersen’s work on the garage, for instance, is taken from a distance, and includes a skateboarder in mid-trick. Several shots include the artists at work. One features a small gaggle of geese, appearing to be taking in a large Ryan Petersen mural at Steamer Landing Park.
“I am somewhat new to digital photography,” Sickler said as she sat on the low wall within Helen Putnam Plaza. “I bought my first digital camera last summer and have been taking classes at the SRJC.”
A retired software engineer, she’s lived in Petaluma since 1986. Though she considers photography to be a lifelong passion, she did less of it while raising her kids, and is now devoting herself to it with renewed commitment.
Praising the photography program at the Santa Rosa Junior college, where she’s been taking Zoom-based courses during the COVID-19 lockdowns, Sickler points out that while digital is somewhat new to her, she’s had plenty of experience with classic film photography.
“I am a pretty good old-fashioned black and white film photographer,” Sickler says.
She even recently installed dark room in her west side home, one more illustration of her rediscovered enthusiasm for photography.
How that passion would transfer to book publishing, though, requires another story.
“Two musicians live on my street, and they were giving concerts last summer,” Sickler said. “I used a Canon AE-1 to photograph the concerts, and all the neighbors that lined the streets to listen to their music. I made prints in my darkroom and posted them on my garage door. I called it Gail's Gallery.”
The striking black-and-white prints made Sickler’s driveway a popular spot in the neighborhood.
“In the end,” she says, “I scanned the prints and put together a photo book which I sold at cost to my neighbors as a memento of the summer of 2020.”
With that successful experience, and having simultaneously become enamored of downtown Petaluma’s lively embrace of street art, Sickler decided to do something similar with her photographs of graffiti, only this time, in color.
Flipping slowly through her book’s full-but-few 38 pages, she arrived at a series of shots taken in the aforementioned Phoenix Theater parking lot.
“Already, this one is gone,” Sickler said, stopping at one particular image. “It’s been painted over since I took the picture, which happens a lot with the art outside the Phoenix. It’s always changing. That’s part of what makes it so interesting.”
Turning another page, she said, “This one is still there, but most of these other ones are gone now. Painted over by other street artists. The paint on some of these walls is very thick, there are so many layers, one on top of the other. It’s wonderful.”
Sickler says she printed just 100 copies of the book, a few of which have been placed in local shops, while others were away. On the back page, she lists the artists who created the works she showcases.
“I did a lot of research,” Sickler says, describing her efforts to figure out who painted what. “And I eventually started putting together artists with specific paintings.”
She adds that she’s met several of them by now, many as curious about her photography as she is curious about them and their work.
That curiosity is at the heart of her new book, and she hopes that state of mind proves contagious.
“There is so much interesting art all around us,” Sickler says. “You just have to look around a little for it. Then you begin to notice that it’s everywhere.”