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Enjoy the Arts with Casual Style at Occidental Center for the Arts

Whether it's an art exhibit, chamber music, choral concert, readers theater, a book launch, or any other celebration of creativity, formal attire is definitely not needed to attend events at the Occidental Center for the Arts, in western Sonoma County.

"We're very casual," said center coordinator Candace Mackey. "People come in shorts and T-shirts."

The center's gallery hosts about eight shows a year, in a variety of media, both two- and three-dimensional, including painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, and fabric arts.

Live music — classical, folk, jazz, and other genres — fills the center's stage two to three times a month. The Redwood Arts Council calls the center home, presenting monthly world-class chamber music concerts from September to May.

Also considering the center home, the Occidental Community Choir — which creates, performs, and promotes choral music composed primarily by its members — presents concerts at the center twice a year, typically in May and December.

The center hosts book launches for local and regional authors about every other month. Readers Theater nights are held the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month. And a variety of classes are offered, such as figure drawing or memoir writing.

All of this activity takes place year-round in a former school building that has been extensively remodeled. It truly was a community effort.

"Construction was supposed to cost $750,000, but we did it with $75,000 and over 60 volunteers putting in about 8,000 volunteer hours over a year," Mackey explained.

The result is an acoustically sound auditorium, which includes a professional stage, light, and sound board, and audience seating with great sight lines. There's also an art gallery and art classroom, and an amphitheater out back.

The center's casual, laid-back, enjoy-life style is on display each year in April, when is sponsors the annual Fool's Day Parade. It's a chance to dress up, and be a bit silly. People start gathering at noon, and at 1 p.m. they parade through town — ending, of course, at the Occidental Center for the Arts.

It's a distance of about five blocks. Typical participants include a marching band called the Hub Bub Club, a mechanical green caterpillar conveyance (filled with smiling children) known as the Lunapillar, stilt-walkers, llamas, people and their pets in silly costumes, and King of Fools Zero the Clown.

"People come as far as Minnesota to take part, because it's so much fun," said Mackey.

After the parade, the center hosts an open microphone session and barbecue. It's a great time in a small town.

Even if you're not lucky enough to be in Occidental for the April Fool's celebrations, this small Russian River Valley town (pop. 1,115) is a great place to relax and explore. As the parade demonstrates, the arts center is in easy walking distance of "downtown," home to art galleries, gift shops, and renowned dining establishments.

Founded as a railroad saloon and boarding house in 1879, the Union Hotel and Restaurant is now a lovely Italian cafe, bakery, and pizzeria, complete with red-checkered tablecloths and run by the property owners since 1925. And Negri's Original Italian Restaurant, with its vintage trattoria ambience, has been serving Italian classics since 1943

For a change of pace, try quick and tasty Mexican food at El Mariachi Mexican Café; choose from the healthy and organic breakfast and lunch selections at Howard Station Café, in a restored Victorian home; or try the local brews and from-scratch pub grub and Barley and Hops Tavern. You can also check out the fresh produce and other offerings at the Friday night Occidental Bohemian Farmers Market, June through October at Second and Main.

Lodging options include local vacation rentals; the pet-friendly Occidental Hotel, with a pool and 27 rooms; and The Inn at Occidental, providing a luxury inn experience.

Written by Sonoma Insider Patricia Lynn Henley.