My early experience with gay liberation and the “movement,” along with the pioneering example of other California-based artists like David Hockney, encouraged me to be bold with my subject matter. My vibrant, inspiring printmaking professor at UC-Berkeley, Sylvia Lark, was defiant about being hassled by Madison police for using photographs of nude men in her work while a student. I also met Richard Caldwell Brewer at his Top Floor Gallery show in San Francisco in 1979—---my work has never pushed the boundaries he dared to.
Thereby emboldened by the examples and derring-do of others, I depicted nudists at beaches in a series of paintings, drawings, and etchings. Hundreds made the trek to the stretch of nude beaches on the Russian River from the San Francisco Bay Area, about 70 miles north, every weekend, in the pre-AIDS era.
It’s now been 40+ years that we’ve been going to the River. It winds through the vineyards, entering the Pacific at the little coastal town of Jenner, with fat seals on the beach. The East Coast equivalent would perhaps be Fire Island, not that I’ve been. Buses used to bring crowds from the Castro. Naked bears on horseback. The river is not that deep, warm water in the summer, air temperature can be in the 90s. There was the gay male beach, lesbian beach, bi-beach, and the straight beach--—the lush vegetation on the riverbanks surrendered to the throngs. And the “sex trail” through the woods.
Then AIDS, and the censorious county officials restricted parking, and the crowds thinned. Like that episode of Torchwood with John Barrowman, with the long-abandoned music hall and the tinkly, ghostly music in the building’s pores. Now, with the revelers gone but for the passing boaters in their canoe rentals, the wood ducks, vultures and ospreys abound.
The land belonged to the movie star Fred MacMurray (Double Indemnity). We feared/assumed when he died it would be condos and development. Instead, it’s protected watershed and made available to school groups, but we found it harder and harder to walk in 2-3 miles in the heat, lugging raft and provisions. Then, last year, we started using a nearby new Sonoma county park, created from environmental destruction: gravel removal from alongside the river left pits that filled with water. When the mining stopped, lakes were created. Now we have a manageable half hour walk to get to the river bank, blow up the raft, and find “our” spot on the bank. There you swim, (try to) read, endure the dog barking and spreading sand on the Sunday Times.
But now everyone wears suits---the ribald company’s long gone.
M. Louise Stanley, Untitled (Robert Brokl painting, Lilies Beach, Mendocino), gouache/paper, 10"X14," ca. 1988