Farmworkers celebrated in new art gallery exhibit

For Jennifer Bethke, acting director of the Sonoma State University Art Gallery, her new exhibit began with artwork she already had on hand.

Some 200 photographs by Morrie Camhi (1928-1999), who taught at City College of San Francisco and lived for several decades in Petaluma, are part of the university’s permanent collection.

In 1970, Camhi turned to the United Farm Workers union and their fight for the rights of farm workers, especially migrant workers.

“For me, these photographs were the initial point of inspiration to do an exhibition,” said Behtke, who is also a lecturer in art history at Sonoma State University.

“Farmworkers: Photographs, Prints, Paintings,” including some of Camhi’s photos, opens Thursday and runs through October 16 at the Rohnert Park campus.

The exhibit also includes work by Santa Rosa photojournalist Erik Castro; painter and muralist Jay Mercado, who lived for many years in San Francisco and now lives in New Hampshire; and Christie Tirado, a printmaker based in Washington’s Yakima Valley.

“Morrie Camhi was a young photographer in the 1920s and 30s when there were a lot of socially active artists in this country,” Bethke said.

That tradition stayed with him, and Camhi went on to document the United Farm Workers’ “salad bowl strike” of 1970 and 1971. With its mass pickets and boycotts, it became the largest farm strike in state history. -United.

But Bethke didn’t just present an exhibition that only dealt with the distant past.

“I wanted to bring things up to date, so I looked for other socially active artists, and I knew about Erik Castro’s ‘Harvester’ series,” she said.

Castro began the series, subtitled “A Portrait of Immigrant Labour,” in 2015 when anti-immigrant rhetoric in the United States was on the rise. He chooses to make portraits narrowly centered on the faces of the workers.

Castro began his career shining a light on the issues of homelessness and those struggling with drug and alcohol addiction in Seattle in the late 1990s.

As a photojournalist, Castro has taken pictures for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Press Democrat, Sonoma Magazine, and Seattle Weekly.

The “Farmworkers” exhibit also includes two paintings and four small studies from Jay Mercado’s “The Hands of Labor” series, which creates murals, large-scale paintings, and smaller still life studies.

Mercado’s works in this exhibition are part of his ongoing study of agricultural work, particularly the skilled and labor-intensive work of harvesting by hand.

“Coincidentally, I had heard of Jay Mercado’s work because when I lived in San Francisco it was near his studio and I walked past his murals,” Bethke said.

The show also includes samples from Christie Tirado’s “America’s Essential Workers” series made during the COVID-19 pandemic and her “Hop” series, as well as depictions of apple pickers.

For Bethke, the new exhibition fulfills a long-standing ambition to draw public attention to the problems of agricultural workers.

“I have long been interested in socially engaged art,” she says, “and agricultural economics occupies a prominent place in our regional life.

You can reach editor Dan Taylor at or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.

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