By Jonah Raskin —
Patrick McMurtry, an accomplished artist, a local historian and a long time worker at the Sonoma Developmental Center, died last September after a long bout with cancer. He was 73-years old, though he probably would have called himself, “years young.” Gael del Mar, his partner of many decades and a fellow artist, said that he died peacefully at Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa, not far from his home in the Springs.
Patrick was born November 5, 1947 in St. Helena in Napa, but with his family he settled in Sonoma in 1949 and never left.
He walked Sonoma’s hills and valleys tirelessly, it seemed, made friends with nearly everyone he met and helped to keep alive a community that in his view was fast disappearing with the advent of “wine country,” shopping malls and McMansions. Old Sonoma was the place he loved best.
I met Patrick in 2008 when he and Gael were living at Oak Hill Farm in Glen Ellen. Gael was running the Red Barn Store, which was no easy task, keeping customers happy and coming back for more. Anne Teller, the family matriarch, introduced me to Patrick on a warm June morning and described him as “Oak Hill’s historian.” By that time, he had lived, first at Old Hill, on the edge of a vineyard and then at Oak Hill, near a field with flowers, longer than anyone else. His longevity passed Anne who had married the environmentalist, Otto Teller, and with him helped to create what is still the best little organic farm in the Valley.
When Otto’s eyesight was shot, Partrick read to him from all the newspapers to which he subscribed and drove him wherever he needed to go. A natural-born storyteller, Patrick enjoyed regaling me with takes of the old days, either at his home, at his art studio, which was crammed with his oil paintings, or while sitting on a bench in the plaza and allowed his memories to well-up from deep inside. One day he remembered his father, who, he explained, “operated a Shell station on the corner of Napa Street and Third Street West. When that business failed, he became a bartender and worked in every bar in town.
“He was an Irishman with Celtic genes. The bars served the tourists who came for the hot springs in the day and the alcohol at night. Back then, there were 26 bars in Sonoma Valley. I counted them all. People drank Bourbon, Scotch and beer. There were a lot of fistacuffs. We had a great car club, “The Devil’s Darlings, and there were just three cops in town; not a big police force. Farm boys worked on the dairiesand harvested prunes, pears and walnuts. Wine was sold by the gallon.”
After the McMurtry’s moved from Napa to Sonoma, Patrick lived with his family on Central Avenue, attended El Verano, Flowery and then Sonoma High School. He enjoyed malted milks at Simmon’s Drug Store, but steered clear of the pool hall at the back of the Park Side, which he called “a bar for thugs.” In the 1960s he lived on a commune. In the 1970s he grew pot, when, he explained, it was “was a badge of courage.” He listened to Elvis and the Beatles, watched Star Trek, protested against the War in Vietnam, rubbed shoulders with the Gurgieffians, who belonged to a cult of sorts, and observed the daredevil doings of the Hells Angels who congregated in Glen Ellen, which was then, he said, “a very wild place.”
Patrick added, “In the 1980s real estate started to boom, Sonoma became suburbia and grapes took off and took over.”
He and Gael del Mar met in July 1991. They hiked together, painted together, fell in love and became permanently engaged. “The idea of marriage freaked us,” Gael said. “Through it all, though the good times and the bad times, Patrick made his art. He was a true artist. Near the end of his life, when words failed him and he could no longer talk he could still paint. That brought him so much joy. He wanted others to experience what he experienced”
I remember Patrick’s landscapes of the Valley. Of course I do.
I own two of them which are on the wall in my living room. He also painted large, abstract, futuristic and surreal works that looked like they were meant to be visions of distant planets with strange creatures. “He made art out of anything and everything,” Gael said. “He studied all the landscape painters through history.”
Patrick loved to laugh and often wore an infectious smile on his face. He also had what might be called a wicked sense of humor. One of the bumper stickers on his truck read “Orwell was an Optimist.” Another read, “Zapa for President.” He hated, or at least strongly disliked, hypocrisy, cant and bravado.
Near the end of his life, he told Gael, “If I can’t make art, don’t keep me going.” On her landline she told me the other day, “Patrick’s passing hasn’t sunk in yet.” It hasn’t sunk in for me, either. I can still see him and hear him. I remember how happy he was about what he described as the “resurgence of farming in the Valley because people wanted to know what they were eating, where it came from and how it was grown. When I grew up eveyone in my family had their own little table. We sat in front of the TV and watched whatever was on. We have come a long way since then.” I still love Old Sonoma, but not everything about it. Some things have changed for the better.