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Authors Posts by Flora Tsapovsky

Flora Tsapovsky

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The work of floral designer and stylist Natasha Kolenko

Natasha Kolenko, a Marin-based floral designer and stylist, has a passionate, knowledgeable and loving approach to flowers. Photo by Mike Larson.

By Flora Tsapovsky

A prestigious status symbol imperative to any occasion of importance, and with more than 700,000 appearances on Instagram, the prettiest social network of all, flowers are blooming—literally and figuratively.

The most delicate, intricate and touching part of any big occasion, flowers have never stopped fascinating us—it’s just that now they get way more social media exposure. Natasha Kolenko, a Bay Area native and a Mill Valley resident, has adopted them as a full-flung career. Kolenko, an established floral designer and stylist, has a biology degree from Cal Poly, as well as an interior design degree. Surely, there’s no better combination to prepare someone for a full-time floral gig.

“I started working, more like playing, with flowers when I was in college and my friends were getting married,” Kolenko says. “I was looking for a creative outlet and my friends entrusted me with the duty of putting their wedding arrangements together. I never anticipated this hobby becoming part of what I would do for a living.”

In reality, however, the hobby grew and developed into a busy schedule of collecting, arranging, photographing and dealing with some of nature’s most beautiful creations.

“A typical day as a florist starts early, something at 2 to 3am, when the flower mart opens,” says Kolenko, who confesses, “Even at those ungodly hours, the flower mart, and my vendor friends there always put a smile on my face.”

Kolenko picks up orders, shops for last-minute additions and heads to her studio in Sausalito, where she and her team process the flowers and get them ready to be arranged according to their needs.

“The processing is the tedious part,” she says. “Cleaning stems, stripping leaves, trimming stems, getting everything in buckets of water. Then the fun starts—the arrangements!”

Kolenko’s floral arrangements, be it for a wedding, a photo shoot or a stylish city event, are easy to spot—they’re wild and never overdone, not too fussy and always elegantly messy.

“They’re typically a variety of lush blooms and lots of textural greenery,” she says. Once the arrangements are complete, they are boxed up and loaded for delivery.

These days, Kolenko’s scope includes wedding and other family celebrations in the Bay Area, creating floral settings for magazines such as C magazine and Sunset, private events for companies as large as Google and Apple, commercial photo shoots and props styling for food photography and beauty shots, where flowers are sometime replaced by branches, leaves and loose petals. The upcoming months are all about the wedding season.

“Since California lacks drastic seasonal change, the wedding season in the Bay Area really goes March to November,” Kolenko says. “My studio will be hustling and bustling.”

A lot goes into Kolenko’s dialogues with clients. “Often I will ask brides to bring in color palette swatches and images of florals they love, we will look at vase and ribbon options [and] I make suggestions of seasonal flowers for their event,” she says. “We come up with the overall design together and then I take it from there. I tell my clients that I truly believe that the more they trust me to work my magic, the more magical their arrangements turn out.”

When she’s not busy creating dreamy bouquets for blushing brides, Kolenko keeps evolving as a florist while nurturing her inner biologist or, the way she puts it, “nerding out.”

“One new endeavor that I am really excited to dive deeper into is growing my own flowers,” she says. “I am currently reading several books about local roses, dahlias and other cut-flower favorites and have planted a few tests runs. My distant drum rose is off to a great start and my dahlia blooms are loving this summer sun.”

Being a self-taught florist, Kolenko constantly hones her craft; “I practice, I read, I take workshops and I teach,” she says. “My biology and interior design degrees, although not directly related to flowers, both gave me a solid understanding of botany, the science of plants and flowers and the basic design principles which I apply in my designs daily.”

One would have a hard time imagining a better geographical spot to  run a florist business.

“I am constantly inspired by the natural beauty that surrounds me both at home and at our wonderful local flower mart,” Kolenko says. “I am a nature girl, I hike the surrounding hills as often as possible, stopping to touch and smell all the wildflowers.”

The designer’s aesthetics are largely inspired by the local landscape, as arrangements often look “like they almost could’ve grown on a tree that way.” Some of the ‘easiest’ blooms to work with, according to Kolenko, are ranunculus, protea and zinnia. “They are hardy, and hold up well in warm conditions,” she says.

“Flowers are easy to work with because they are innately beautiful,” Kolenko says. “I often say I am ‘playing with flowers’ because it feels like play rather than work. Flowers make people happy, and it feels great to be able to contribute a little beauty to my clients’ most special days.”

Natasha Kolenko; natashakolenko.com; @natashakolenko.

Novato-based Norwegian Wood features stylish clothing and homewares

Norwegian Wood, a Novato-based, online design store, offers everything from decorative pillows to printed kimonos. Photo courtesy of Angie Johnson.

By Flora Tsapovsky

When an online store is called Norwegian Wood, you can pretty much expect anything. And indeed, on Angie Johnson’s impeccably designed website you’ll find funky, colorful leggings next to decorative pillows, metal wall mobiles next to roomy, compliment-attracting bags and printed kimonos. The only thing that these items have in common is a cool-girl, desirable appeal, and a worldliness deserving of a globetrotter. And all of them are shipping around the world from Novato.

Johnson, who has a degree from the University of Manitoba in human ecology, with a focus on clothing and textiles, knows all about global vibes. She moved here from Montreal, following her husband’s job, in 2015, and brought Norwegian Wood with her. The store is almost a decade old.

“I started designing at a very young age, starting my first clothing line at 16 and selling the clothes in three local boutiques in Winnipeg, Manitoba,” Johnson says. She continued to run various small clothing design businesses on the side from that time forward, but also went on to work for larger clothing companies, earning industry experience and often traveling to Europe and Asia. The move to California prompted a slightly more free-flowing, liberal approach to merchandising.

“In the past I created seasonal collections, two times per year on the traditional fashion calendar,” Johnson says. “Since moving to California and starting the homewares collection, I’ve pulled back on that, and am now just making leggings and kimonos. That’s the beauty of having your own business; you can evolve it as your life changes.”

For the Norwegian Wood store, Johnson makes all of the textile-based homewares in Novato; the metal hanging planters are made by a metal fabrication company in Los Angeles and the leggings are printed and sewn in Montreal. The pillows are often made of African textiles like mudcloth and indigo-dyed cloth, and the Indian ikats, or fabrics, Johnson designs herself. Often, she collaborates with other makers or artists, like Jessi Preston, a tattoo artist from Montreal who co-created a mini collection of artful, bold lingerie featuring tattoo-inspired graphics (Johnson is a big fan of tattoos herself). Another memorable collaboration is with the well-known Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, focused on digital collages of various images to be printed on silk kimonos.

“All of the artists I’ve collaborated with in the past are personal friends of mine, so all those collabs came about very organically through conversations and get-togethers,” Johnson says.

It sounds like Californian style fits well into her general aesthetic. “It’s funny, but even when I lived in Montreal I always had the bulk of my U.S. customers based in California,” she says. “I think California was calling to me for a long time; I just didn’t know it until I got here. Now I have an even stronger reason to indulge in the bohemian West Coast aesthetic, and I feel like the history of that movement is deeply rooted in the Bay Area. It seeps out of everywhere, from the architecture and home decor, to the fashion sense of the people.”

In Novato, aside from enjoying the sunshine (“It’s not too hard to get used to life without snow!” Johnson says enthusiastically), the designer has become a true devotee of nature. “I love how close we are to nature at all times, having a big backyard for our dog to run around in, and exploring all the amazing plantlife year-round,” she says.

Gardening is a recently adopted passion of Johnson’s. “Very shortly after I moved to Novato I was looking on Craigslist for some used patio furniture and met a lovely lady who sold me her set,” she recalls. “She had a truck and offered to bring it to my house, and upon seeing our giant backyard invited me to join the Novato Garden Club.”

Johnson has been an active member ever since, joining the programs committee last year. “We put together the guest speakers and activities for the monthly club meetings,” she says. “It’s been so great to meet a group of people who care about plants as much as I do, and who can help me navigate the very different climate/soil conditions and teach me about California gardening!”

Luckily, when it comes to curating tasteful home decor and individualistic garments and accessories, Johnson needs absolutely no help.

Norwegian Wood; norwegianwoodonline.com.

The Surf ’n Turf  Shack makes its farmers’ market debut

The Surf ’n Turf  Shack, now at the Sunday Marin Farmers’ Market in San Rafael, is an example of a company combining seafood and meats, and cooking them on the spot.

By Flora Tsapovsky

The Sunday Marin Farmers’ Market in San Rafael scored a new and intriguing resident over Memorial Day weekend—The Surf ’n Turf  Shack. Technically, it’s not really new, but a welcome unity of two neighboring stands that frequent market-goers know well: Same Day Seafood and Prather Ranch Meat Co.

“The idea came out of conversations with Doug from the meat stand,” says Gary Root, the man behind Same Day Seafood and the owner of the shack. “There [are] zero miles between the source and the customer.”

Root believes that the stand will highlight the seafood and meat by the two collaborators, and add to the fun, interactive approach he’s already taking. “We do a lot with kids, educating young people about fishing, local seafood, wild versus farmed, and we’ll expand that to explaining how meats arrive at a market,” he says.

The Surf ’n Turf  Shack serves land and sea dishes like steak sandwiches, salmon cakes, ceviche and sashimi, and in the near future, will offer combo platters that include side dishes like mac & cheese.

“We both spend a lot of time explaining to customers how to turn our offerings into meals at home,” Root says. “The shack will give them a number of ideas.”

Root recruited Efren Sandoval, the executive chef of San Francisco’s Scoma’s, to manage Sunday’s cooking activities, and wanted to give him “flexibility in the cooking process, so he can accommodate people’s requests.”

Root’s belief in the Shack is so strong that he’s already looking into a permanent location in San Rafael or San Francisco, where Prather and Same Day Seafood would partner up. Stay tuned.

The Surf ’n Turf  Shack; 415/944-7871; facebook.com/surfnturfshack.

Expert outdoor guides offer insider’s look at Marin’s beauty

Marin Outdoor Adventure, offering world-class surfing, hiking and biking trips, hopes to ‘inspire, empower and awaken others to a conscious way of travel and living.’ Photo courtesy of Nicki Clark.

By Flora Tsapovsky

What makes an adventure? Can a divorce be one? For Nicki Clark, the founder of Marin Outdoor Adventure, one turbulent escapade led to another much more joyous one, and a business based on connection, empowerment and community was born.

“About four years ago I was in a pretty major life transition,” says Clark, a Marin native. “I had just gotten divorced with two children, now 10 and 8, was eager and ready to start working towards financial independence for the sake of personal growth and confidence and simply to be able to continue to live in Marin.”

Around that time Clark, who had previously worked as a mountain biking guide, a snowboarding instructor, a glacier tour guide and a CrossFit coach, got an email from a friend.

“I learned that Airbnb [was] starting a pilot program for offering ‘experiences’ and looking for people who were interested in being a part of that,” Clark says, describing what recently launched in multiple cities across the U.S. as a brand-new offering by the hospitality giant. The premise: In addition to staying in people’s homes, travelers can book an experience with a local guide—be it in the form of an artist’s studio visit, a cooking class, a behind-the-scenes look at a ballet group and more—as a way to deepen their romance with a place.

“The opportunity to work with Airbnb during the beta phase of this new product was a catalyst for me to start Marin Outdoor Adventure,” Clark says. “Within a few months I had my first booking for ‘Mountain Biking in Marin,’ which was the first ever Airbnb experience to be booked.”

Currently, Clark’s venture, working both with Airbnb and outside of it, offers countless local outdoor adventures for groups and individuals. Led by experienced guides, excursions range from exploring Muir Woods, to beginner and advanced mountain biking, to group surfing lessons on the coast. Surely, anyone can go hiking and exploring on their own, right?

“Having an expert who is passionate about whatever the activity may be makes the experience completely different,” Clark says. “We bring a quality of connection to the experience with each guest—a person-to-person connection that tends to lead the guests to a feeling that is memorable and special. It has to do with human connection and passionate, kind and experienced experts.”

While Clark hires both male and female guides, the representation of women adventure guides and what they offer is vast—Marin Outdoor Adventure lists Kathy Hutton, a windsurfing expert and triathlon runner, Audrey Le, a hiking enthusiast and producer and Drea Lester, a mountain biking lover, among its guides—and it’s no coincidence.

“I am passionate about empowering and inspiring women and young girls,” Clark says. “I have a weekly girl’s and women’s surf club that meets every Tuesday afternoon, and I think it could turn into something very powerful and special.”

Clark also works with Send It Foundation, a nonprofit offering adventures for young adults who are cancer survivors. On a regular week, clients could be locals and travelers alike, as well as companies aiming for teambuilding through mindfulness, adventuring and simply getting down and dirty.

Three years in, Clark’s business is blossoming; last November, Airbnb invited her to speak at Airbnb Open, the company’s community-based hospitality festival in Los Angeles.

“I had the opportunity to speak at the Orpheum Theatre in L.A., and give a presentation on what it takes to be a successful experience host,” Clark recalls.

In addition to participating in the experiences and running Marin Outdoor Adventure, Clark keeps incredibly busy in more ways than one; she recently accepted a position as regional manager for Air Concierge, a property management company based in San Diego. She also teaches two CrossFit classes a week at TJ’s Gym in Mill Valley and is participating in a teacher’s training with Mark Coleman, a mindfulness guru, to become a meditation teacher in a nature context.

“I feel like I am at a point in my life where my capacity for productivity is growing and developing, which is exciting,” Clark says. Add raising two young kids to the mix, and you’ll get an adventure like no other.

Marin Outdoor Adventure; 415/322-0034; marinoutdooradventure.com.

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Artist Cristina Rose-Guizar on her playful work

San Rafael-based textile artist Cristina Rose-Guizar creates whimsical designs that are full of humor. Photo courtesy of Rose-Guizar.

By Flora Tsapovsky

Nowadays, the global is local and the universal can be deeply personal. If this sounds like an empty statement, take a look at the story of Cristina Rose-Guizar, 39, an accessories designer with an international reach and a unique coming-to-America story, working and creating right here in San Rafael. For her brand, Centinelle, Guizar illustrates colorful silk scarves, pocket squares and silk-cotton blend bandanas, decorating them with whimsical, fantastical worlds made up of hypnotizing cats, koalas in tiny pedal boats, dancing donkeys, colorful guitars, corn husks and ‘Mexican pinup’ ladies. The latter two are a nod to her home country of Mexico, which Rose-Guizar left two years ago, after meeting her future husband in San Francisco, while visiting a friend.

As a girl back in Mexico, growing up in Morelia, a four-hour drive from Mexico City, Rose-Guizar always loved sewing. “I started sewing when I was 5 years old with a little toy machine that my mom bought me for my birthday” she recalls, “making clothes for all my dolls.”

The artist also expressed, from a young age, a special interest in drawing. “All kids draw, but I continued, always forming projects that would need some illustration, and I drew for the high school newspaper.”

Rose-Guizar went to Jannette Klein Fashion University in Mexico City and launched her first collection in 2010. The scarves were there from the beginning, as a simple and straightforward product.

I wanted to create something easy to sell, so Centinelle started with handmade/homemade accessories, focusing on local fabrics and between friends at first,” she says. “When traveling, I started to look for the fabric store wherever I was and get fabrics. Once on a visit to L.A., I found a huge store in the fashion district and I got crazy. I thought, this could be a dress, too—and just like that, that same year, Centinelle accessories became Centinelle clothing, with pieces focused on craftsmanship, natural fabrics and prints designed by me.”

The name of the brand is a story among friends, too. “My friends in Mexico City gave me the nickname of Chispa, which means ‘sparkle,’ 20 years ago,” Rose-Guizar says. “So I wanted to give the brand a name related to that. Centella is a Spanish synonym for ‘sparkle,’ so playing with that I ended up with Centinelle.”

After a couple of years of designing both accessories and garments, Rose-Guizar understood the challenges

The work of Cristina Rose-Guizar. Photo courtesy of Rose-Guizar.

involved in creating clothes, especially when it comes to providing sizes and the right fit. “One day in 2014, I sat down and made my business plan,” she says. “That’s when I went back to the original accessories plan, specializing in silk accessories, and applying all I learnt in the past years.”

Besides their practical appeal and the ease of their production, Rose-Guizar loves the versatility of scarves.

“As a child growing up in the ’70s, I remember my mom having these gorgeous scarves in her walk-in closet, lots of them, from different places; beautiful, colorful, elegant but fun, with bold prints that some people probably will never dare to wear, but would accept in a scarf. It’s like a well-kept secret,” she says.

The artist’s lifelong passion for illustration, too, contributed to the expansion of scarves. “I started to realize that I enjoy the textile design process the most,” Rose-Guizar says.

After Rose-Guizar draws and adds details digitally, the prints are placed on the scarves at a manufacturing facility in China; they then make the trip around the world back to Rose-Guizar’s home studio in San Rafael.

Before moving to the U.S., Rose-Guizar lived in Mexico City.

I was lucky to live a very nice life in Mexico city, in the Napoles neighborhood, surrounded by jacaranda trees that bloom beautiful purple flowers every spring,” she says. “I lived 15 minutes away from the Condesa neighborhood, and it had a lot of cool restaurants and a farmers’ market at walking distance.”

Rose-Guizar and her then-future-husband lived in San Francisco upon her arrival to the country, and later moved to San Rafael. While living in San Francisco she came pretty close to her favorite Mexico City vibe; the move to Marin was an adjustment. The reason for the move? Partially, two cats, Evo and Naoko, whom Rose-Guizar and her husband adopted soon after meeting. “We lived in a studio in Pacific Heights and the cats had to sleep in the bathroom—naturally, a studio for two humans and two kittens was too small,” she says.

The couple started looking for a house that would suit them. “We all know San Francisco real estate is just ridiculous right now,” Rose-Guizar says. Enter the city of San Rafael. You can’t walk to run errands here; everything is done by car and cars are not my favorite thing. But I love to be surrounded by nature, and almost every day I get to see deer; this makes me feel so lucky.”

Other welcome additions include riding to China Camp by bicycle, and the views. “From my living room, I have an amazing view of the bay, the Marin Islands and the Richmond Bridge.”

Currently, in addition to her online store, Rose-Guizar’s accessories are sold in more than 15 stores across the U.S. and Mexico, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art gift shop and Mexico City’s Tamayo Museum, to name a few. She’s taken part in numerous trade shows in New York City and L.A., and has displayed her creations at Tictail Market, the brick-and-mortar Manhattan store of the online platform Tictail. She’s highly devoted to her business—it’s a full-time commitment.

How would she describe the designs, which turn the basic idea of a neck scarf into a humorous, stand-out affair? “In a few words, fiction, fantasy, memory and myth are what I would use to describe my scarves,” Rose-Guizar says. “These four concepts mix together to inspire each scarf design, all with a common thread: A chic sense of humor. Humor is a part of my daily life, and I would like it to be a part of the lives of many others.”

The inspiration for the out-there illustrations, according to the artist, is very everyday. “I get inspired by my daily life as a city girl who loves animals, nature and life’s simple pleasures, as well as my fascination with

Cristina Rose-Guizar holds one of the scarves that she designed. Photo courtesy of Rose-Guizar.

foreign culture and traveling in general.” Japan, specifically, is a big influence. “Japan is just a beautiful, photogenic surreal place. The mix with the old and new amazes me, so much energy, the incredible food,” she says.

Sometimes, however, the motivation is to fix a pop-culture injustice: See the playful donkey scarf as evidence. “I just thought that the donkeys are so underestimated and deserve the same focus as magical unicorns,” she says.

But our nation’s obsession with all things unicorn isn’t the only bias on Rose-Guizar’s mind. The elections, and their surprising result, shook her and led her to reconsider her position as a U.S resident.

“These aren’t great times to be a Mexican in the U.S.,” she says, “when fear and ignorance are driving people to see other cultures through stereotypes and not give the chance to meeting individuals. It’s weird not to feel welcome in your own home. Regardless of the fact that I have great people around, from the U.S. as from other countries, times are tense.”

And so escapism is echoed in her newest illustrations, featuring peaceful bunnies, pink flamingoes and always, Rose-Guizar’s greatest muse, cats. But despite the somewhat intensified attitude towards immigrants these days, much of it inspired by our current president, she still feels quite at home in San Rafael, or rather comfortable in her own skin.

“I don’t think the move changed me much,” Rose-Guizar concludes. “I still travel to Japan and other places, I am still Mexican, still love nature and cute things, my friends are still my friends. And I think that is why the transition of Centinelle from Mexico to the U.S. has been well received—because the brand gets inspired by simple, daily things that could happen to any gal in the world. And besides, who doesn’t love cats?”

Learn more at centinelle.com.

Craig Ponsford’s ‘innovation center’ is forever evolving

“I am a servant; I am meant to take care of people,” says Craig Ponsford, owner of Ponsford’s Place, a small, innovative bakery tucked away on San Rafael’s Shaver Street. Photo by Andrea Salles.

By Flora Tsapovsky

Craig Ponsford has been in San Rafael since 2010, which means that he’s way ahead of trends. He may be a graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, the ex-owner of acclaimed Artisan Bakers in Sonoma and an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, but first and foremost Ponsford is a pioneer of gluten-free baking and innovative approaches to pastry. Experimenting with unique baking techniques and gluten-free flour way before it became a hot topic, Ponsford calls his San Rafael venture, Ponsford’s Place, an ‘innovation center,’ among other things.

“When I opened it, the idea was not only to have a kind of experimental retail kind of place but also a development laboratory, which can be used for a very focused project getting an item from the bench to the factory,” Ponsford says.

In the bakery, Ponsford constantly tries new products made of quinoa, spelt, durum, cornmeal and amaranth flour, as well as grapeseed and even grapeskin flours, a byproduct of the area’s rich winemaking industry. He’s eager to pass the knowledge on; educational classes in the bakery are coming soon, but for now, along with baking, Ponsford often consults with big brands and small businesses on system optimization, gluten-free and high-fiber baking and more. On his resume, one will find truRoots, a brand which made it into Costco and was later purchased by The J.M. Smucker Company, as well as work with the California Raisin Marketing Board, advising Enray, a company out of Livermore, on incorporating sprouted, organic grains from around the world and much more. His take on the huge surge of gluten-free products as a fad? Let’s just say that Ponsford, who has taken the long and patient route to the phenomenon, is not thrilled: “It has been hard to watch and see all the misinformation,” he says. “Ultimately, it has been a big win for Wall Street. Do I need to say more?”

In a welcome contrast to his impressive resume and in full concordance with his modest approach, Ponsford’s bakery is a humble and simple place, filled, nevertheless, with tempting treats. “Everything is made with wholegrain flour; we do not use any white flour,” he stresses, adding that most of the flours come from small California farms. Favorites include a very popular and unique vegetable croissant, seasonal breads like an artichoke, olive and feta levain or a sauerkraut rye, plus “European-style baked goods with a healthy twist.”  

The creativity doesn’t stop at the dough, either—the menu includes turnovers filled with anything from crème of nettle mushroom with or without speck, Rancho Gordo Domingo Rojo and vaquero beans with cumin, shishito peppers and potatoes, biscotti adorned with candied blood orange, and there’s a lime mousse tart with tequila-flavored whipped cream. Announcements about seasonal offerings are posted on the bakery’s website, and often lead to a mini-frenzy.

Despite the fact that Ponsford’s Place is now seamlessly embedded in the local community, opening the business wasn’t an easy decision for Ponsford. “I had made a bad business decision with my previous business of 17 years and was going through a terrible ‘divorce’ with my new business partners,” he recalls. “I realized my real passion was feeding people, with my own two hands.” So he found a location close to his home, “small enough to be pretty much a one-man show,” and went for it.

Ponsford has been living in San Rafael for more than 10 years, appreciating every moment. Now, with his small business employing a couple more grain enthusiasts, he feels more at home than ever.

“We have an incredibly supportive local San Rafael crowd, and then we have people who come from all over the Bay Area to visit us,” he says. “The community is the best part.”

Ponsford’s Place, 117 Shaver St., San Rafael; ponsfordsplace.com.

VenturePad offers workspace, social stimulation and motivation

VenturePad, Marin’s new coworking and entrepreneurship center, is a project by Alejandro Moreno (left) and Chris Yalonis. Photo by Andrea Salles.

By Flora Tsapovosky

It took some time, but the coworking trend has reached San Rafael; VenturePad, a full-service coworking and entrepreneurship center, opened here in March. The bright, welcoming space on B Street (between Fourth and Fifth streets) is a joint venture by Chris Yalonis, a longtime Marin entrepreneur with 30 years of experience in software development, and Alejandro Moreno, who guided marketing at Marin’s former leading accelerator Venture Greenhouse. We caught up with Yalonis on local entrepreneurship, working remotely yet together and Marin County realities.

Flora Tsapovsky: Why start a coworking space in Marin, why in San Rafael and why now?

Chris Yalonis: “I’m a 30-year Marin resident and VenturePad is my sixth start-up that I have founded or have been on the ground floor with. I believe that as a community, we need to support our entrepreneurs, freelancers and work-at-home professionals. We were involved with Venture Greenhouse and Renaissance Center, two incubators here in San Rafael that supported and launched over 350 businesses between 2010 and 2015. They dissolved because of unsustainable business models and left many of us in the entrepreneurship and small business support community without a rallying hub. Existing Marin coworking spaces are either niche, or out of the way without nearby amenities, so we wanted to have a center that was substantial and professional, with capacity for a critical mass of over 150 small businesses and entrepreneurs to inspire and support one another.”

FT: Who is your target audience?

CY: “It is an inclusive model that casts a wide net across Marin: Work-at-home individuals in Marin, incorporated entities with four employees or less, commuters to San Francisco, Sonoma, the East Bay and Silicon Valley—a percentage of whom would prefer to work closer to home part of the week, individuals employed by Marin nonprofits and more. Our early founding members tell us that they find that working at home, while comfortable much of the time, can be isolating and distracting and they need to be around other people for social stimulation and motivation.”

FT: Most of your team members are age 40 and older—do you feel there’s a need in coworking for this age group, rather than just the younger, start-up-like crowds?

CY: “According to the census, Marin’s average age is 45. There is a substantial number of professionals who are well established in their careers, are on their third or fourth start-up or business that they own. Besides, according to a McKinsey study in 2016, one third of the U.S. workforce do some kind of freelance work. Marin has an even higher percentage, closer to 40 percent, according to census data, which is approximately 60,000 residents freelancing, so regardless of age, coworking is addressing these needs.”

FT: What kind of workshops and classes do you plan on offering?

CY: “Every Thursday, we have a Lunch & Learn session, free to members and $10 for non-members. They are run by local experts in a variety of leadership practices, [and cover] special skills or relevant hot issues that impact a small business owner or leader. Popular topics have included social media for small business, intergenerational team collaboration, managing cash flow, innovative business models and negotiation skills.

We will be launching our incubator and accelerator program later this year. This will be a six- to nine-month program with 10-15 members per cohort who will have a workspace and meeting rooms, weekly mentoring and classwork, regular milestones and presentations to hit and a network of advisors. VenturePad is also organizing Marin’s first Sustainable Enterprise Conference, slated for October 26 at the Embassy Suites. This is an offshoot of a 12-year-running conference in Sonoma that draws over 400 every spring.”

FT: Where did the inspiration for the look and feel of the place come from?

CY: “We wanted something open, full of natural light with a modern, yet post-industrial feel. Plenty of steel, wood and glass; a very uncluttered, clean look. We found a wonderful open space at street level with 16-foot ceilings, all glass on two of the four exterior walls. We also have ‘baked’ sustainable practices into our operations; VenturePad is carbon-neutral, and all of our energy comes from 100 percent renewable sources.”

FT: What’s your take on the changes that Marin County has gone through in recent years, following the tech boom?

CY: “In recent years, we have added jobs overall, but not our housing stock. The lack of housing stock is the biggest challenge we face as a community, and it has multiple ripple impacts. This includes longer commutes and more out-of-county commuters. As a community, we need to make commercial and residential space more affordable to be able to support young and growing companies and families. Otherwise, they will continue to decline in numbers.”

FT: What are you hoping to achieve with this project?

CY: “We want to grow our membership and build out a rich educational program of lunch, online and workshop sessions, as well as classroom programs for baseline entrepreneurship skills and tools. We also want to be a convenor for public-private collaborations that link up our technical and professional services experts with policymakers and nonprofits to address some of our biggest community challenges. Right now, the target issues include homelessness, sea level rise impact and climate change, fossil fuel-based transportation and congestion, affordable housing and equity. Easy stuff, right?”

VenturePad, 1020 B St., San Rafael; 415/309-0331; venturepad.works.

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Point Reyes National Seashore safaris with Daniel Dietrich

With his wildlife viewing and photography safaris, Daniel Dietrich helps locals and visitors alike discover the natural wonder of Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo by Daniel Dietrich.

By Flora Tsapovsky

Being a resident tourist sometimes takes effort. While gems may be hidden on a neighboring street, or in an unassuming parking lot, sometimes discovering the richness and boldness of your surroundings means driving for a few miles, immersing yourself in nature and, to your own surprise, finding a safari experience—minus the plane ticket to Kenya. Marin County-based professional photographer Daniel Dietrich has made a whole career of it. Born in Buffalo, New York, Dietrich moved to Point Reyes from San Francisco three years ago, and now lives on the coast with his family.

“Photography has always been a passion hobby of mine,” he says. “I developed my first roll of film in the darkroom when I was 13 years old. A camera went with me on every trip I took growing up, but it wasn’t until four years ago that I dropped my high tech industry job to pursue wildlife photography full-time.”

Since moving, Dietrich launched a service under the intriguing name Point Reyes Safaris, offering authentic safari experiences for groups of up to eight people. “Wildlife is my only focus,” Dietrich says, “and I am very fortunate that I don’t have to supplement my income with any other form of photography.”

On a full-day safari, visitors go from sunrise to sunset exploring Point Reyes National Seashore, photographing wildlife and barely stopping for lunch to spot as many animals as possible. Sound too good to be true? We asked Dietrich to tell us more.

Flora Tsapovsky: How did you come up with the safari idea?

Daniel Dietrich: “I have been fascinated with bobcats for years. They are elusive and shy, powerful and regal. As I spent more and more time observing them, I was able to obtain better and better images of them. Being one of the only places in the country where you can find and photograph them with any consistency, I invited a few friends to come shoot with me. With that, the idea to guide to photograph bobcats was born. But it really is the [Point Reyes] National Seashore that makes it all possible. Over 50 percent of North America’s birds have been documented here, as well as 85 species of mammals. It is a highly overlooked park for wildlife, but one that needs to be on any wildlife photographer’s list.”

FT: What kind of animals do you encounter on the safari?

DD: “The animals we encounter really depend on the season and what my guests want to see. The animals we see most often are tule elk, elephant seals, bobcats, coyotes, great horned owls, barn owls, whales, peregrine falcons and so many other birds. We get lucky at times seeing badgers, eagles and long-tailed weasels. I am still waiting to see a mountain lion with one of my guests. Each safari is quite different, which is great. They are wild animals so we never know what we’ll see, but we always see something exciting.”

FT: Have you done safaris in other countries? How is the Point Reyes experience different?

DD: “I am very lucky to have traveled quite a bit. Growing up, I was always saving for a plane ticket instead of saving to buy some material item. I have done quite a few safaris overseas. On these safaris, you cover vast amounts of land in pursuit of viewing wildlife. Point Reyes is quite small in comparison to the likes of a Masai Mara. So we don’t have to cover as much ground to encounter wildlife. And of course the wildlife itself is quite different. Point Reyes is home to many animals not found in any other country.”

FT: What are some of your tips on ethics and safety while on a safari?

DD: “Ethics are of the utmost importance to me. Keeping the safety of the animal first should be at the top of every photographer’s list. Never purposefully flush an animal or bird to get a shot. And never, ever, bait or feed an animal for the purpose of photography. The best tip I can give to anyone photographing wildlife in

Professional photographer Daniel Dietrich shares the magic of Point Reyes National Seashore through his wildlife viewing and photography safaris. Photo courtesy of Daniel Dietrich.

Point Reyes National Seashore is, use your binoculars first. Stop and scan. Walk to higher ground and search the hills for wildlife. It is there; you just have to find it. When you do find a bobcat or a coyote, work out the best plan to help you photograph it. Position yourself to where you think you can get a good shot without running after the animal. Patience is the number one thing needed to capture great wildlife images.”

FT: Who typically signs up for these experiences?

DD: “The diversity of people who have joined me on safari has been incredible. I have had guests fly in from overseas specifically to photograph bobcats. I’ve taken out many people who live right here in Point Reyes. I’ve taken out families with kids as young as 2 and retired folks who aren’t getting around like they used to. Since I typically take out very small groups, the itinerary is totally up to my guests, which I think makes it very personal and enjoyable for them.”

FT: Are there any photography pointers specific to West Marin and the Point Reyes area?

DD: “Point Reyes has so many different faces when it comes to weather. This gives incredible diversity to photography. Shooting the tule elk during a cool, foggy morning one day to a red, fiery sunrise the next is really exciting and creates such drastically different images. You always have to be prepared for any kind of weather here, so dress in layers, even in the middle of summer. Bring a variety of lenses with you. It is great to have a long telephoto lens for wildlife, but don’t forget your landscape lens. There is a magical scene around every corner.”

FT: And finally, what can we do to enrich our daily ‘resident tourist’ experience and be more open to our surroundings?

DD: “Point Reyes National Seashore sits within striking distance to millions and millions of people. Yet when I was living in San Francisco, I met an enormous amount of people who had never visited this magical place. We have national parks and public lands all around us here in Northern California. Get out and visit some of them. Connect with these special places that are right at your doorstep. You will be amazed at what a sighting of a whale can do to you, or the feeling you get standing on a sun-drenched cliff at sunset with the wind blowing on your face. There is growing pressure on these special places, and who knows what the future holds for them. By connecting with them, we will be more inclined to protect these national treasures for many years to come.”

Point Reyes Safaris; 303/929-8443; pointreyessafaris.com.

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Costume designer Abra Berman in demand at Bay Area theaters

Abra Berman costume designer Bay Area
One of Abra Berman's first steps as a costume designer is to make sketches, like this one, of what actors will be wearing in productions. Illustration by Abra Berman.

By Flora Tsapovsky

As with fashion, spring and fall are the theater’s peak seasons. This is when new productions debut, subscribers dust off their suits and dresses (or, in San Francisco’s case, The North Face jackets and fine jeans) and the buzz begins. Theater seasons may be subtle and not as widely celebrated as fashion weeks around the globe, but there’s still plenty of excitement to be had—and lots of incredible, timeless fashion. If you plunge deep into some of the Bay Area’s theater bills this spring, from San Francisco to San Jose, and look for the costume design credits, chances are you’ll see the same name over and over again: Abra Berman. Working all over the Bay Area, season after season, Berman is one of the busiest costume designers around, and she does it all while being based right here in Marin County.

Berman grew up in Mill Valley, lived in Novato for 15 years and currently resides in Tiburon, where she works from her home. She fell in love with costumes through ballet, preparing to become a professional ballerina all the way until high school, and even going through the typical Bay Area ballet child rite of passage—participating as an extra in the San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker.

“I was a little soldier and even got a $10 paycheck!” Berman says with a laugh. After high school, her original plan was to audition in Europe, while her love for costumes led her to obtain some sewing skills in the process. She travelled to Basel and Gothenburg to try her luck, but found that she was “nearly not good enough.” Berman returned to California, certain that she’d be a costume designer for rock bands, “with no preparation or training!”

Finally, Berman’s parents convinced her to study fashion design, so she attended the Louise Salinger Academy of Fashion in San Francisco, an institution no longer in existence. There, a professor named William Eddelman influenced Berman’s sensibility and vision.

“I started seeing I really didn’t have it in me to produce five to six collections a year, and that the feminist in me couldn’t live with convincing women they have to buy a short skirt this season and a long skirt another season,” Berman says. “[Eddleman] encouraged me to pursue costume design in grad school.”

Out of the 10 leading schools in the country offering such a program, Berman got into nine, and chose UCLA, “because I thought I might go into film,” she says. It was, according to Berman, amazing. “I did everything I wanted to do.”

During her M.F.A. in Costume Design, Berman learned theater history, sketched endlessly, participated in actual shows and worked with fellow students.

Berman’s first job out of college was at a bridal salon in Pasadena, helping women get into elaborate gowns. The next steps were moving back to the Bay Area and taking a job at a couture bridal shop, as well as joining, back in 1998, Theater Bay Area, a local network for the industry.    

“It’s not a union exactly, but it’s a great meeting point,” Berman says of the network. She landed her first gig with the Palo Alto Players “and just kept going.” Her impressive resume now includes work with the San Jose Stage Company, San Francisco Playhouse, Ragged Wing Ensemble, Berkeley Playhouse, Marin Theatre Company, West Bay Opera and even Alonzo King LINES Ballet; having trained with the company briefly, Berman jumped on board when the group staged a new production of Scheherazade.

“I got to see my peacock tutu on a giant billboard in San Francisco!” Berman says excitedly.

Currently, the costume designer’s main companies are San Jose Stage Company, San Francisco Playhouse, West Bay Opera in Palo Alto and Pacific Repertory Theatre in Carmel. Audiences will soon see her work in The Memory Stick at San Jose Stage Company and Noises Off  and La Cage Aux Folles at the San Francisco Playhouse, plus Salome at West Bay Opera.

Additionally, it’s Berman’s second year teaching costume design, makeup and improv at City College of San Francisco (CCSF), across two campuses.

“I love that all sorts of people show up, taking a chance,” she muses about CCSF. “I’m working on a certificate program for City College actually, which will specialize in costume design.”

With jobs that take her across county lines, Berman travels a lot. “My poor car—she has 256 thousand miles on it,” she says with a smile (the car is undergoing a major repair as we speak). “I do a lot of schlepping, carrying bags of costume around.” And Berman’s teenage daughter, she says, “has been going to the theater since before she was born, seeing all the craziness.”

The job of the costume designer is varied and never dull—each day is spent differently, some researching in a library and some backstage, with endless nuances in between. Some companies, like Marin Shakespeare Company, have an established relationship with Berman, and she gets to choose the productions she’s interested in for the season; others offer one-time projects.

“I’m always a freelancer, so theaters get in touch with me to check availability, then they send me a script, a contract,” she explains, “and from there I’ll set up a meeting with the director, go do my research, meet with the production director again to see what works and what doesn’t, and then it’s time for sketches.”

After a number of tweaks, Berman usually has around two to three weeks to prepare the actual costumes, sometimes making them herself or shopping for vintage or modern items, according to the theme. Occasionally she’ll have assistants, if the budget permits. After dress rehearsals and opening night, her job is done. The work is, apparently, very ego-free: “It’s not about a spectacular design, sparkles and feathers, but about telling a story,” Berman says. “And you must love research and be a team player.”

On her resume, drama, opera and comedies mix, and medieval times meet the ’60s, fantasy-based looks intermit with accurate representations of the era.

“For My Fair Lady at the San Francisco Playhouse,” she says, “we put Eliza in pants, because we figured she’s a progressive woman.”

Another favorite is Samson and Delilah for West Bay Opera. “I’ve started noticing trends,” Berman says. “Recently there’s been a Game of Thrones styles to costumes; you can see that with Camelot at the San Francisco Playhouse. Then, there was a steampunk year, lots of named people; these trends are influenced by culture and politics.”

Berman recalls, for example, working on the San Jose Stage Company’s Disgraced, a play which pretty much predicted Donald Trump’s ‘muslim ban.’ “It was life imitating art, surreal and tragic,” she says.

With New York still shining as the country’s prime theater capital, celebrity productions, big budgets and all, one must wonder if Berman ever wanted to make the big leap.

“I never believed that with fashion or theater you must make it in New York,” she says. “I’ve always loved the Bay Area and Marin, so I decided to make it work here. I’m not even a city person.”

How does she regard the local theater scene, compared to the rest of the country?

“The theater here is world class,” Berman says, without a doubt. “A.C.T., the Berkeley Rep, a lot of shows like Angels in America originate here and then go on to Broadway. In general, it’s a really rich community for such a small demographic.”

And in it, Berman is clearly a mainstay.

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Headlands Center for the Arts provides artists with resources to push their work forward

Headlands Center for the Arts’ Artist in Residence program, a renowned opportunity for working artists of various mediums, allows creators time and space in the inspiring Marin Headlands. Photo by Andria Lo, courtesy of Headlands Center for the Arts.

By Flora Tsapovsky

If you crave the tranquility and inspiration of  Headlands Center for the Arts this season, you’ll have to curb your enthusiasm. The center, a long-standing Marin County staple, has been closed for the winter and will remain inaccessible to the public through spring. When it reopens, in summertime, a new area named The Commons will welcome visitors and artists. The redesigned outdoor space between the center’s two main buildings will enable, according to the press release, “more public programming,” and provide a “welcoming space to relax, connect with art and artists, and enjoy the natural environment.”

There’s more to the $1.8 million dollar project than originally meets the eye. Funded by a group of individual supporters and foundations, The Commons will feature newly commissioned, permanent artworks by local, national and international artists, an outdoor amphitheater and a promenade that connects the two main buildings—plus, of course, the location’s famous views. Among the artists selected to create specific elements of The Commons are Chris Kabel, a Dutch designer based in Rotterdam, and Nathan Lynch, a Bay Area sculptor and performance artist. Additional artists will help with the renovation process itself, led by San Francisco-based Conger, Moss & Guillard Landscape Architecture.

While change and progress are welcome forces in the art world (the center has spearheaded not one, but six rehabilitation projects since 1986), the campus has always kept a smidge of austerity and simplicity in its atmosphere, staying true to its military past. Originally home to the Native American Coastal Miwok, then Spanish and Mexican ranchers, and later Portuguese immigrant dairy farmers, the space was mobilized for military purposes in the 1890s, adding the Fort Barry buildings to its landscape. The area served as an active military center until 1950, and the National Park Service took over in 1972, eventually turning it into an arts center originally named Headlands Arts Center in 1982. Now, it’s the home of events, changing exhibitions, an Affiliate Artists Program, a Graduate Fellowship program and a lively bi-annual Artist in Residence program, running since 1982.

Offering residencies that are generally four-to-10 weeks, studio space, meals prepared by chef Damon Little and housing, travel and living stipends, the residency program is one of the county’s most sought-after gigs—especially given the dreamlike location and the program’s multidisciplinary approach (painters, sculptors, photography, film, video and new media artists are all welcome, as well as nonfiction writers, poets, dancers and musicians). Artists are chosen by panels—comprised of curators, educators, scholars and artists—specific to each discipline.

It is the program attendees who will get to witness the renovation in progress, as it will take place on campus this spring. One such attendee, Chicago-based artist Edra Soto, is looking forward to the experience.

I’ve never been to the West Coast,” Soto says. “Colleagues of mine that have attended this residency have the highest regards for it. I’ve been focused in moving my artistic career forward, and Headlands has the reputation of being a place where artists get visited by professionals in the field and engage in significant conversations regarding their art practice.”

Born in Puerto Rico, Soto grew up in an urban development in the San Juan area, spending her early years in a Catholic high school. “Attending church services every morning became influential to my art practice,” she says. “The stage and its symmetry, ideas of hierarchy and the impetus for congregating communities is all dispersed throughout my work.”

Soto attended Escuela de Artes Plásticas de Puerto Rico to pursue an undergraduate degree, and then moved to Paris for a year; eventually, she attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for her M.F.A., which she obtained in 2000.

Specializing in conceptual art, installations and ‘architectural interventions,’ Soto plans, while attending the Headlands, “to develop a new body of work, create something site-specific while addressing issues that are interesting and personal to me. Hopefully, this is a place where I will be able to find growth, new connections and networks to expand my career’s visibility, inspiration and productivity.”

The artist is also looking forward to the weather and the famous Californian vibe. “Considering the great reputation of California’s weather, I am expecting nothing but the best,” she says.

Prior to settling in, Soto will be given the opportunity to visit her studio on campus. “This will allow me to visualize the space and its surroundings, and basically daydream about the possibilities before heading over to the residency to work,” she says. “My studio will be an open space that welcomes visitors to engage with me while I’m working, so when they told me about this particular aspect of my residency I was absolutely thrilled!”

Oakland-based Christopher White has completed the daydreaming stage—he attended the residency last fall, and is happy to reflect on the time spent at Headlands.

“The Headlands residency is quite well-known in Bay Area performance circles, and many friends have done it in years past—Jesse Hewit, Erika Chong Shuch, Larry Arrington,” he says. “I had heard wonderful things about the experience and decided that this would be a good time to apply, because it would give me the space to refocus on my art-making practice and slough off some of the sclerotic administrator-brain that had accumulated over the years.”

Working as a theater and performance artist, White started his career as a director specializing in new plays and new play development, which led him to “the downtown NYC scene in the late ’90s.” In 2000, he moved to Dublin, Ireland, and immersed himself in European performance theater, following groups like Forced Entertainment and Pan Pan Theatre in Ireland. A move to Boulder, Colorado followed, and White attended grad school at Naropa University. He was in the first class of an M.F.A. program in “Actor-Created Physical Theater.”

“My program moved to London after the first two years and became the London International School of the Performing Arts,” he says. “It’s based in the pedagogy of Jacques Lecoq, a very influential French theater teacher and the training focuses on empowering actors as the primary creative force in creating a piece of theater.”

After school, White moved to the Bay Area with two classmates and co-founded Mugwumpin, a performance theater ensemble based in San Francisco. “For 12 years I ran the company, during which time we made many works, both full-length pieces for theater and smaller performance works for non-theater spaces,” he recalls. “All the work is created collaboratively by the ensemble and the pieces are generally non-narrative, preferring to explore thematic and emotional terrain through potent images, spacial dynamics, movement and a protean internal logic.”

About a year ago, White took a leave of absence, following a health scare, during which he “continued teaching and redeveloping my own voice as an independent artist, but as someone who derives power and inspiration from collaboration.”

White says that the residency allowed him ample time for reading, hiking, thinking and percolating.

“Of course, I also had an enormous studio space to work in, and took advantage of that as well,” he says. “I ended up focusing on ways to think deeper about collaboration as a process that I can engage in with the audience, not just with my fellow artists.”

While at Headlands, White created a piece called Asking, which he calls “a little bit Quaker meeting, a little bit seance.” For each showing, the artist recruited an audience member  and gave him or her a prompt question to elicit a story from their own life, followed by questions from the audience. “The key aspect is that

Headlands Center for the Arts, currently being renovated to include a redesigned outdoor space between the center’s two main buildings, will reopen this summer. Photo by Andria lo, courtesy of Headlands Center for the Arts.

the participant is never seen; instead, a performer wears an earpiece and is channeling the participant’s words in real time, never having heard them before, to the audience,” White says. “It’s a quiet, meditative piece that nonetheless carries a lot of emotional heft, largely because of its simultaneously intimate and mysterious qualities.”

According to White, the Headlands residency is a retreat, in the truest sense of the word. “The location is remote; despite its proximity to the city, you feel far from civilization, and you’re surrounded by miles of gorgeous hills and trails and coastline,” he says. “There’s almost no phone service, and the internet available there is very weak and spotty. It was very valuable because it forced me to get out of ‘go’ mode and shift into a more reflective mental space.”

For artists living in the current social climate and economy, such opportunities are fuel. White says that disconnecting, relaxing and carving out space and time allows artists to “connect to the basic root impulses that drive us to work, quieting some of the pressures of deadlines and technology and urban living that insidiously shape our habitual thinking patterns.”

Then, there are practicalities and not-to-be-underestimated human connections.

“It is an individual’s journey, but there [are] places like Headlands that understand that aspect of an artist’s professional needs, providing space for engagement, resources and time to develop your work and practice and exposure to their community,” Soto says.

Soon, the center will welcome her, along with more than 40 other artists from all over the world, to do just that.

Headlands Center for the Arts, 944 Simmonds Rd., Sausalito; 415/331-2787; headlands.org.

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