The extraordinary collaborative arts of Ricia Araiza and Michael Leventhal
It’s rare enough to find a husband-and-wife team who can work together collaboratively in any one medium, but long-time Coast residents Ricia Araiza and Michael Leventhal have been sharing their passions for interior design, architecture, and art since 1995. Inside, see some of their tandem enterprises and experiments in all three creative media — amazing two-way conversations of trust and surpassing beauty.
Story by Zida Borcich
But yield who will to their separation, My object in living is to unite My avocation and my vocation As my two eyes make one in sight. Only where love and need are one, And the work is play for mortal stakes, Is the deed ever really done For heaven and the future’s sakes. —Robert Frost, Two Tramps in Mud Time, st. 9
RIGHT: A painting of trees that had been mowed down in their infancy and actually saved by Ricia and Michael. They loved these alders, which grew across from their Mendocino studio, and now this large canvas, called Alders, of course, covers most of one wall in their Clearlake media room, a reminder of their beloved coast life.
The first synchronization occurred in 1985, when house-hunting architect Michael Leventhal visited a certain house he wanted to buy in Mendocino. When he arrived for his appointment, there, answering the door of the house she had bought and remodeled, stood beautiful, sparkly-eyed interior designer Ricia Araiza. Well then…could we say that sparks flew? We could extrapolate something like that, according to Ricia, “Yes! It was love at first sight when I opened the door, for both of us! Even though we had both lived in Mendocino for years, we had never seen each other before,” says Ricia, her voice rising a half-register. She punctuates her speaking with expressive hand gestures, emphases sounding a bit like audible italics. That instant attraction and related careers, plus a mutual avocation as painters, led to conversations about aesthetics and artistic passions. That led to dates and lots more conversations, which led to—one year later —a wedding. Fast forward: this was the day of the second synchronization, the life-changing result of Michael’s innocently asking Ricia what she wanted to do to celebrate their eighth wedding anniversary. Ricia surprised even herself when she replied that she wanted to make art together. Michael agreed, thinking that meant they would be working on separate paintings, side by side. But no, actually, Ricia meant she wanted to work on the same painting together – a novel idea, and possibly a risky one. “We’d never painted together; we’d never even thought of it,” Ricia says. That first time, they started working on a two-foot-by-six-foot-eight-inch vertical collage Ricia had started and felt was going nowhere. Michael jumped to the task instantly: he turned it 90 degrees, drew two vertical black lines that turned it into a horizontal triptych, and…shall we say, sparks flew? “Michael’s move changed everything about the piece, and we had so much fun finishing the collage together. That was in 1995…and we’ve never stopped.
Art is generally considered a solitary arrangement, often accompanied by bouts of angst and moody reverie. In the case of these
two, though, making art — and designing houses — has become an adrenaline-charged tandem ride into creative dialogues that could not have occurred if each had stayed in his or her separate studios — and their work together is anything but lonesome or angst-ridden. This is a marriage of dynamic possibilities that build upon each other, inspire flights into surprising regions, amplify (and sometimes obliterate) each one’s contributions, so the final whole amounts to way more than the sum of its parts. In the end, nobody remembers
which stroke belonged to whom. Nobody cares. Dedication to creation trumps ego and everything that would get in its way.
Their work is influenced primarily by each other (with nods to Bay Area painters, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, and David Park
in particular), and the ambient current: “Conversations — that is what our paintings are. They are a reflection of our mood and our
experience of the moment: the music, light, birds, colors — all affect how we respond to the canvas.” And the canvases vibrate with their
personalities and resonances — exuberant strokes, stimulating colors, unique forms, swipes with a sponge and occasional glued-on
junk. They explain: “We work in mixed media with a base of acrylic paint, often adding collage materials, particularly recycled cardboard and found objects, finding beauty in the discarded.”
The enjoyment they experience, in both working and living together, is palpable on a video they posted on their website, ramldesign.com. It’s a peek into the intimate, intense, and very fun-filled process they share. It looks like a dance, a ballet that is made up of movement, color, intuition, humor, energy, and, fittingly, a lot of trust, all of which infuse the project — and their relationship — with constantly mounting vitality and spark. In fact, the main vibration evident when in their presence is a deep, abiding feeling of pure happiness and fulfillment.
“Our work is about a certain sense of order and design combined with intuition. We push and play until it starts to say something — and then we go with it, often not knowing until much later what the piece is saying. That is the joy of our process. It is our private language. But hopefully it is also universal.” Like a jazz improvisation, the soul, the wildness of the solo depends on the underpinning of the tune’s structure and trust in the other players. In the video, when the painting is finished, they stand back, Michael’s arm draped companionably over Ricia’s shoulder, and admire their handiwork. “Not bad,” they agree, laughing it up, “if we do say so ourselves.”
The move to Lake County
Michael and Ricia decided a few years ago to expatriate from Mendocino to Lake County to live in the second home they had remodeled there. It was a surprising turn in their lives that has made them happier than ever: “We’ve fallen in love with Lake County — the beauty, warmth, and friendly people,” says Ricia. Still, they have retained ties with children, grandchildren, and myriad friends on the coast while establishing themselves in their new community, even to the extent that several of their friends on the coast have bought property nearby.
The deep connections between the couple and the coast will bring them back to the area on September 6, ticketed for an exhibit of recent work at Glendeven Inn Mendocino, in Little River, showing until November 1, 2013. They have been working feverishly on paintings that reflect their newfound home, the style slightly more representational, but still full of all the color and irrepressible energy of previous works.
Nobody in the world could have predicted the transformation they have accomplished on their present Lake County aerie. Before and after photos show how they took it from frumpy to fabulous in a few years, not merely designing and directing a crew, but actu-ally grabbing a shovel and digging in the dirt, swinging a hammer, and ripping out shag carpeting and fake wall paneling themselves. The result of their labors is a light-filled showcase overlooking vast Clearlake for miles. Ricia’s use of mirrors, even mirrors on the outside of outbuildings, brings gorgeous lake views into every corner of the yard, main living space and master suite: the sun rising on the lake, sunsets on the lake, the moon shining on the lake, stars twinkling on the lake, the lights from houses on the other shore spangling the vista…and inside, an understated palette supports their vivid tandem art, antique Asian or African pieces standing beside bold stripes, sleek surfaces played against intriguing textures, and, everywhere, chic, modern touches that seamlessly, ingeniously merge in- and outside.
And then, there are all those houses
Although they are both semi-retired, Michael says “We think we have another couple of houses in us.” While waiting for a really great design project, though, painting is the main concentration of the creativity they evince in everything they do, from choosing floor treatments, fence materials, and landscape elements, to what Michael grows in their garden and cooks for dinner. It’s all art and it’s all them.
The residences and commercial projects they have worked on together over the years echo this resonance as well, pulling exterior, interior, and landscape design into a cohesive whole. They lived on the Mendocino coast for many years and collaborated on projects separately as well as together. Michael worked with business partner Robert Schlosser for over twenty-five years and their long partnership has enriched architectural style up and down the coast and beyond. Ricia’s design erudition affords comfort and glamour to some of Mendocino and Sonoma Counties’ most sophisticated homes.
Working with Michael and Ricia is reported to be a singular pleasure. Almost all of their clients become friends, and often one job leads, by word-of-mouth, to other projects for family and friends. This became the case after they finished The Cliff House, showcased here, when the brother of the client had them design his vacation home at Lake Almanor.
Additionally, many clients opt to purchase RAML paintings once the home is complete. The Cliff House clients’ San Francisco house, which Ricia and Michael also designed, is filled with their art. In fact, a polyptych (four-part) piece in the dining room was painted specifically for that room by the couple. This is emblematic of a sort of continuum in the life of two artists who work as one, an almost unimaginable arrangement to most couples. As Ricia points out, “The creative interaction between the two of us is the electricity that keeps the momentum.” Well, yes. It reminds me too of the Arts and Crafts Movement that flourished between 1860 and 1910, during which time design was never considered a separate function, but rather was a context thatdirected everything. The designer, like William Morris, conceivedthe house, yes, but was as likely also to design the furnishings,the wallpaper, the lighting fixtures, the decorative elements, thelandscaping — even monograms and stationery, tiles, jewelry, andclothing were under the influence of this coordinated artistic approach to total lifestyle. Similarly, Michael and Ricia can apply theirartistry to so many corners of existence, and when allowed freerein, can and have enhanced and aesthetically intensified hugeswaths of their clients’ lives.
“We paint many conversations,” they say, “We interrupt, finisheach others’ sentences, or change the subject” Indeed, the overheard colloquies of Ricia Araiza and Michael Leventhal, on canvasand on three-dimensional projects, too, do literally fill many books.And, like great conversations anywhere, can leave lasting influences, even life-changing ones, on the lives of those lucky enoughto be in the vicinity. REM