Marie-Elena Schembri Writer, Photographer & Visual Artist Marie-Elena Schembri Writer, Photographer & Visual Artist

Good prospects in Mokelumne Hill

Good prospects in Mokelumne Hill

Marie-Elena Schembri, Everyday Magic, Calaveras Enterprise, November 3, 2022

If you’ve been following my journey through this column, then you know that a handful of months ago, I was tempted to lease a commercial building in my small hometown of two years, Mokelumne Hill. If you read my first column, “Facing my fears,” you know that I opted to pass on that space, not because I didn’t want to do it or because fear got to me, but because I just wasn’t ready.

I am, after all, very busy with my full-time job as a reporter, training and spending time with my energetic 1-year-old puppy, not to mention creating art and just living and being a part of the community. So the idea of trying to start and run a business on top of my already pretty full life, plus the financial expenses I’d have to take on, seemed like a stretch.

The thing is, stretching can be really good for you.

So, fast forward to September, when I again received notice from my landlord (who has supported and championed the idea from the beginning) that another, larger, more convenient space (with a huge basement perfect for a darkroom) would become available starting Oct. 1.

While surprised, I felt this was a big sign from the universe/God /a higher power that I’d been hoping and waiting for. So I did it.

I signed a lease and started the process of launching a sustainable arts-focused nonprofit in a 168-year-old stone building in the charming and quaint (yet once busy, boisterous, and culturally rich) foothill town of Mokelumne Hill.

Now, halfway through the first month of my lease, I’m writing this in a mostly empty, yet-to-be-painted room, the sound of the clacking keys reverberating off of the stone walls and wood floors. I’ve got tables to assemble, flyers to print, papers to file, bills to pay, and emails to send. I’m preparing for an open house event and am trying to corral artists, writers, musicians, and the general public to create an engaging and exciting event to introduce what may seem a strange concept to some, but is actually based on very old ways of living, creating, and mindfully interacting with our environment.

So, here’s the sitch: Prospects Eco Art Center, at 8359 Center Street in Mokelumne Hill, is a work-in-progress, slated to evolve into an evocative, nurturing, safe, open-hearted space where anyone can come to see, feel, learn about, and experience the magic of transformation that is art-making. The building that houses it is one of the town’s historic buildings, having survived disastrous fires and waves of change since its inception in the early Gold Rush days, when it was the Sturges Store, then the Costa store, later a sheriff’s office, and most recently, the beloved “Hippie Closet” store where you could buy locally made tye-dye, soaps, crystals, gifts, and antiques.

Now it will be a multi-functional space that honors the past while looking to the future. “Prospects” celebrates creativity and humanity at its core—ever seen a cave painting?

Humans have been trying to communicate through mediums beyond our own voices for thousands of years. Starting with prehistoric cave drawings and paintings, art has been at the center of human communication from the very beginning, long before spoken word and language evolved. Back then, art was free, and you didn’t have to drive to a craft store or take an expensive class to do it. It was mud slathered on hands and pressed upon walls, or shapes scratched into the dirt and rocks with sticks, stones, bones. Not only is this fascinating to me, but it seems like the most sustainable way to learn, make, and share art (that’s why I like to start my “nature-based” art classes with this example, as many local kids don’t have access to expensive art supplies or artistic training, but know where to find some good dirt, sticks, and leaves).

If you aren’t familiar with cave art, check out the many books and films made about cave art sites all over the world. I recommend Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” It’s one thing that has inspired me to explore different ways of art-making without the burden of making “good art” or having the fanciest, most technologically advanced cameras, or the most expensive brushes and paints. This is one aspect of what I hope to share with the community through the new space.

Aside from being a creative space that local and visiting artists can utilize to make some art and learn new skills, techniques, and sustainable ways of creating, it is also intended to be a community hub. Classes, workshops, and lectures will happen here. Art exhibitions and maybe even artist residencies. There will be conversations, meetings, and the free exchange of ideas, like any educational center, but most of all it will be a resource for artists and community members to engage in, learn about and create art that is safe, affordable, and eco-friendly.

For example, classes could include making paper from “weeds” in your yard or recycled junk mail, making paints, inks, dyes, and pigments from natural, non-toxic, freely available sources. Want to try making a sculpture or wall art from “trash” or objects you find while on a walk around your neighborhood? A mobile from the branches that drop after a windstorm? Jewelry from repurposed “junk” or a photograph using plant-based “chemistry” that you create by hand from plants you grow or common household materials, instead of buying chemicals manufactured and shipped to you in plastic bottles (creating CO2, exposing you to harmful toxins and going down the drain to your tap water or poisoning your local flora and fauna)? Or maybe you’d like to make mosaics, try your hand at clay or simple pottery techniques, or learn how to create household objects that double as functional art! You can do that, or teach that skill here. Sustainable art can be so many things and is pretty subjective. Other ideas are welcome.

Prospects Eco Arts will launch in November, with the community’s support. An open house event is slated for Sunday, Nov. 6th from 1-6 p.m. and will feature interactive art activities, speakers, music, and more!

The center is getting painted, furniture is being acquired, supplies purchased, and we—a board of directors that includes a very trustworthy local treasurer, an excellent secretary who has ample experience with nonprofits, and myself as executive director/president—are in the early stages of filing paperwork to become a charitable organization, which costs a small fortune and takes the better part of a year, or so I’m told. Eventually, we’ll be able to apply for grants and garner financial support. In the meantime, I’ve set up a GoFundMe (and gratefully have already accepted donations from so many supportive souls from near and far) and am crossing my fingers, toes, heart, and anything else I can think of to get the support needed to make this happen!

Whatever happens, I feel positive, hopeful, and can’t wait to see how it all “pans out.”