Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Antoinette von Grone

by Steve Sparks, August 5, 2011

I met Antoinette at her beautiful home on Anderson Valley Way on the outskirts of Boonville. After a brief tour of the house and her studios – some of it originally dating back to the 1880’s (although much renovation has been done). We sat down in the spacious kitchen with a cup of Irish Breakfast tea at my side.

Antoinette was born in Lower Saxony, Germany, the second child of Volkmar von Grone and Erna von Stein, whose families can both be traced back through central European aristocracy for many centuries, her father’s being German/French/Polish as far back as the 1200s and her mother’s French/Polish to the 700s.

“My paternal great grandmother was a Countess with large land holdings and lots of money. However, it turned out she was actually the daughter of the local cobbler and her stepmother was going to expose this unless a bribe was paid. My great grandfather refused to pay and soon the news was all over Germany, causing quite a scandal in society. My great grandmother, the ‘False Countess’ never left the home again even though she was much beloved in the nearby area and became the second mother to my father. My grandfather suffered terrible shrapnel wounds in the First World War and had lost an arm at the Battle of Verdun. He had met his future wife in a field hospital where she was a nurse. Then during the Third Reich, he could not prove that he was not Jewish. They lived in a largely Jewish area of Krakow, now in Poland, but once my brother came along, with his blonde hair and blue eyes, they were fine and the ‘curse’ was lifted. I guess they didn’t get to see me. My father worked in the government’s Department of Forestry and Agriculture during the war.”

Antoinette’s mother’s family was from East Prussia. Her grandfather had been shot in the face in World War I and was disfigured as a result. Before the Second World War, they moved to a big family estate, about fifty miles from the Lower Saxony home of the von Grone’s, who had lived on their estate for five hundred years. “My mother was dating my father’s brother who was very enamored with her. He and my Dad had always talked about their girlfriends but he was not going to ‘share’ this one with my Dad. However, he was killed in the war in 1944 and my mother was a friend of their sister, who introduced her to my father. They immediately fell in love and were married in 1946. Germany was bankrupt by that time and the family had lost a lot of money and the estate was deeply in debt. Their home in Berlin was in the eastern sector so that was also lost.”

Antoinette was born on the estate in Lower Saxony and grew up there until the age of twelve, attending the local public school. “We lived in a very rural area and I was a tomboy who was always outside, although I had been drawing since I was five. I loved animals, mainly dogs and cats, but horses and wildlife too. From an early age I was convinced I had a gift with animals. Although, as a family, we socialized with other aristocratic families, lots of my friends were the local kids from the school, of whom many were Polish refugees who became a big part of my life in those years. I thank my parents for not having an attitude about me playing with those kids as we generally were expected to mix with the other privileged children. Besides, they treated me like a princess!”

At the age of 12, Antoinette was sent to a well-known boarding school in Holzminden, about 20 miles away. “I was not forced to go, I could have traveled every day, but my brother was there already, he was five years older than me, and I wanted to board. The school was for the very rich but the academic standards were not as high as the public school I had attended. I had to select four main subjects and chose Math, Biology, Literature, and History, with Art as a secondary subject. Fortunately I had an excellent art teacher, although he was hated by many of the kids. He would say ‘Few of you have real talent but I will teach you all the basic skills.’ He gave me the best grounding imaginable for my art. Unfortunately he left and for my final year I had a poor teacher who just wanted to be liked and taught art in a different, modern way. However, he generally left me alone to work on my own technique that I had learned from the first teacher.”

Antoinette was a mediocre student who was never really motivated. “I was not a bad student, I was just lazy with most subjects. My parents knew I was good at art and did not discourage me from that, but they were not keen on me becoming an artist. They wanted me to study so that I could get a good job for a time to support myself before I got married and had kids. Biology was my favorite subject other than art but my grades were not good enough to take me further. I graduated and did not know what to do. My family had a friend who restored churches who was also an artist and we suggested art restoration to him but he said I had way too much imagination to simply restore other’s paintings. He suggested design school and when my father heard the words ‘industrial design’ he though ‘money’ and was all for it.”

After going for an interview and deciding Industrial Design would not work, Antoinette and her mother met with the head of textile design at the school and that seemed like a much better fit. So in 1970, at the age of eighteen, Antoinette went to the Hanover College for Applied Arts. “Before my final year there I took time out to study Spanish in Hamburg for about nine months in 1973/74, where I really learned to be on my own feet – I had a really good time. My course had about one year left but I found myself in a very dicey relationship and needed to get away. I moved to Vienna and applied to continue my studies there but they said I would have to start over again as they were a ‘university’ and I had been to only a ‘college’ before. However, if I did a tapestry-weaving course they would accept me. My Dad said I should do that for six months and then return and finish my course in Hanover. I did that, the tapestry evolved slowly, and I enjoyed my time in Vienna so much that I stayed an extra semester. However, I made sure my courses were covered in Hanover, thanks to my professors who gave me pass grades in basic classes. I then returned for a final semester and graduated with a degree in Textile Design.”

As for a job, there were not many in that field. “I had not really thought that much about it. It was work in a battique shop, wallpaper design, or mass production stuff — all horrific to me. Then my mother’s friend said she might be able to help as she knew a teacher at a fashion school in Paris. Yes, of course I was interested and enrolled. It turned out to be the school from hell. There were just six students and the teacher was a really nasty character. I was doing haute couture, working on making the cuts in fabric that was draped on a mannequin. My ‘White Nights of Paris’ were not that at all. I worked through the night in my nine-by-nine room with very cold running water, sharing a toilet with some bad characters in the building. I was there for ten months but got my qualification and applied for many jobs in prêt a porter fashion — ready to wear clothes. I did get a job when one of the companies picked me up for a month’s trial. Others said my work would be too expensive to produce.”

In August of each year Paris virtually empties of its citizens as they head off for the countryside. “The city closes down. During that time in 1979, I finally realized that I wanted to be recognized for my work but needed an introduction to the right place. A friend of mine knew the owner of Hermés, the French high fashion house, and I got an interview with the head of the design department. However, when he saw my portfolio of textile designs he said that he felt I did not have the flair or style they required. But there was a three-month temporary position for a window decorator at the company’s store in Paris. I jumped at the chance and loved it. It was a wonderful experience and they extended my stay to eight months at which point I was told that by law they could not keep me any longer, but I could leave for a couple of months and then come back.”

Antoinette left Hermés and a few days later saw an ad in a magazine looking for people to work at Club Med teaching various skills. “I had no idea what Club Med was all about. I went to the interview, dressed in a kilt and hair in braids, for a job teaching arts and crafts. They said they loved my work and would get in touch with me. A few days later a gypsy woman on the side of the road persuaded me to have my palm read and she told me I would be traveling. ‘Yeah, right’ I thought. Club Med contacted me that night and I was soon teaching battique and weaving in Morocco!”

Antoinette had dated an Englishman and her English was good. She took a test and passed, giving her more options on where to work for Club Med. As a result she worked the tourist season of 1980-81 in Cancun, Mexico, with its mostly American visitors. “I loved Club Med and would have liked to have stayed. We lived in beautiful places and there were many interesting people to meet. You could indulge in your fantasies and have lots of fun with the guests. However, I could hear my parents in my head saying ‘Do something serious’ so I left and returned to Germany. To my surprise, my mother said, ‘We kind of didn’t think you would come back.’ They had accepted that I had grown up and wanted to know what I was going to next – it would be my decision. I started to do silk painting as a self-employed artist and they supported me in that and said I could stay as long as I wanted. Well, I stayed for six months and had a blast designing silk dresses, tops, scarves, all with painting on them... Eventually I met up with a woman who had her own store in Hamburg and I explained my vision to her – haute couture printed silks. We clicked and I moved to Hamburg into a fabulous flat with large studio, selling some things out of her store and also my own outlet at the flat. Overtime I made many contacts, got my own seamstress, and did many little shows. I knew I could call my Dad if I needed financial help but I never had to do that. I did not go back to Hermés, although I did do a final three-month run with Club Med.”

In April/May 1983, Antoinette came to the States for four weeks, visiting friends from her Club Med days in New York, Minnesota, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. “I set aside ten days at the end of my visit to see a particular guy who lived in Mill Valley in Marin County. We clicked and when I returned to Hamburg we continued a long distance relationship until I moved over here at the end of 1983 and started a business in Mill Valley, returning twice a year to Germany to sell there also.”

Antoinette eventually got her ‘green card’ through a program whereby permission to stay and work was granted if you could prove you were not taking a job away from an American. She and the boyfriend were together for nine-and-a-half years before she moved out and found herself a loft apartment. A few years later, in 1995, through an artist friend, she met Thom Elkjer and started to date. They were married in December 1996 and bought a house in Santa Rosa in 1997. “Thom is a freelance writer and I was happy to stay there for the rest of my life.”

“It was around that time that another big change occurred. I was doing a show where some of my scarves were on sale for $1200 — $1500 and one customer just laughed at that price. They would take me a week to do, so over forty hours or more it was not a huge hourly rate. However, I realized that many people would think like that and I decided perhaps a change was needed. Meanwhile I had received a big commission for some silk paintings at the Elephant Bar Hotel in Tokyo and through that met the designer Eugene Anthony. He said ‘I can see that you have a great hand but I cannot use the silks – paint on walls for me.’ I had dabbled in oil and acrylic painting for my own development but this was a new challenge and I did a painting for him on a bathroom wall — a stylized French piece, featuring animals dressed in costumes. It was a success.” For a couple of years the silk work continued alongside Antoinette’s new art but in 1997/98 she finally let go of silks. “I still miss it. The colors and effects are not available in any other medium.”

In 1999, Thom was asked to do an article on the town of Mendocino for Wine Spectator magazine. “We had driven along Hwy 128 many times on our way for getaway weekends on the coast. It was certainly pretty valley but we were always on our way somewhere else. On this occasion we stopped for a night’s stay at the Apple Farm. The next morning, I looked out of bedroom window and saw the light on the trees, the working barn, and a little fog. I thought – ‘I am home!’ Thom then told me he had always wanted to have property in Anderson Valley. I had no idea what the Valley was.”

They were both doing very well at that time as freelance artists in the Bay Area, so did not wish to move here full-time, but a weekend getaway place would work. They decided on looking for a small piece of land with a fixer-upper home, within walking distance of Boonville, level land for a garden, and an orchard. “We looked around with a local realtor but after two years we gave up – it seemed we only saw large pieces of land or things that were beyond our price range. We had actually passed this property early in our search, had even leaned over the fence and had said – ‘something like this would be perfect.’ By 2001, Thom was very frustrated and rewarded himself with a BMW. We had given up our search but came to visit the Apple Farm with friends. We showed them around the Valley and as we passed this property there was a hand-painted sign saying ‘For Sale’.”

They bought the property from Elizabeth and Jon Miller and then the real work began. “It was cute but needed lots of work, both inside and out. We came up at weekends with my painting materials and a computer, and worked in the daytimes on the garden and redesigning most of the interior. We did that for three-and-a-half years. Despite the effects on 9/11 on many, I did well for a time in the Bay Area before the economic problems finally hit me too. By 2005, we were also emotionally done with the traveling. We had to decide which house we would rent out but for a time decided we couldn’t do either. However, after Ferd and Tracy Thieriot offered me the perfect studio space up here in Yorkville, we rented out the Santa Rosa home (eventually selling it) and moved up, beginning a two-year plan to build a studio here, thanks to Bob Tierney. In the early days we already knew Don and Rene Bissatini, on Peachland Road, from Santa Rosa, and soon got to know neighbors Patty and Mike Langley, Bob Tierney and Sandhya Abee, Susan and Michael Addison, Cynthia McMath, and Kathleen Porter.”

Antoinette sold her paintings out of her home and also the Erickson Fine Art Gallery in Healdsburg. “I had always been reluctant to deal with galleries and have had mixed results. My commissions went well for a time but that business is now almost zero. I sell out of the Mercantile Store in Boonville and I have work up in the Boonville Hotel, the Mosswood Market Café, winery tasting rooms, at open studio days, and have many referrals. And of course there are my faithful customers.”

Antoinette has now been a very keen member of the AV Ambulance service for five-and-a-half years and the Fire department for six months — EMT only. “Thom thought it would be a good idea to get involved in the community but I was not as keen. However after Bruce Longstreet said I should go for it, I took to the Ambulance service right away under the training of David Severn. I remember thinking after my first transport over the hill to Ukiah: ‘It took you 50 years to get here.’ I had no idea it was so much fun to help someone. I had never worked in the service industry and had never volunteered for anything. This was new to me and I worked hard at it and love it. As for the EMT, I did not think that was for me but I developed a real drive and wanted to be good at it. That had never happened to me that way. I soaked it up and it felt great that I could still learn and I immersed myself in it. I love going on calls — the adrenaline rush, the camaraderie, and the feeling of doing something for the greater good. And I should add, we always need more people.”

“I love the Valley for its amazing sense of community. So much is done on a voluntary basis here. I have never seen it in other places. Maybe I wasn’t looking. I sometimes go back to the Bay Area and have no regrets about leaving, although if we’d stayed I feel I would have been happy there. I now feel like my home is here.”

I asked Antoinette for a snapshot verbal image of her father. “A tank – a big force in life.” And her mother? “Cerebral but a do’er; a real lady, but one who could swear.”

I then asked her for her brief thoughts on various Valley issues.

The Wineries? “They continue to grow in number and encroach evermore. I do not like it. Also I am saddened by the fact that many of them are owned by larger businesses, not local families. I am concerned about a one-crop Valley, diversity would be good, just as Sarah Bennett-Cahn is doing with her goats and sheep on her property at the south end of Boonville, and the people who are planting olive trees.”

Changes in the Valley? There are many part-timers, which is ridiculous of me to say as I was one for a time, but we are being depleted by them.”

KZYX radio? “I don’t listen.”

I posed a few questions to Antoinette.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “Just stepping outside the door and observing nature... My cat – I have always had dogs and cats – now I am pretty much a cat person... The pager going off for the Fire and/or Ambulance... Oh, and Thom too!”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? – “When winter goes on too long...People driving at just 45mph who do not pull over on Hwy 128 to let others pass. The problem is they do 45 in the center of Boonville too!”

Sound or noise do you love? “The sounds of nature, birds singing.”

Sound or noise do you hate? “Accelerating motorcycles. I hate that. Airplanes.”

Favorite food or meal? “Steak with sauce béarnaise and some fancy vegetables. Oh, and with orange flavored chocolate for dessert. I could eat that all day long!”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Joy Adamson, who worked with lions in Africa. The film ‘Born Free’ was based on her stories. I have a deep affinity for Africa and its animals. This is reflected in much of my work.”

If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? “My cat; art materials; some sort of historical book about Africa or a medical book – so I’d learn something.”

What scares you? “Over population. The political climate.”

Favorite film or book or one that has influenced you? “Well not a film but the award-winning television series ‘E.R.’ set in a hospital. It opened up a part of me that I didn’t know was there; a book would be Arthur B. Guthrie’s ‘The Big Sky,’ an epic adventure novel of America's vast frontier.”

Favorite hobby? “Gardening.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to have attempted if given the chance to do anything? “When I was a little kid I wanted to be a lion tamer or a zoo-keeper. Then later, a biologist or medical person of some sort in the African bush — if I was about 20, not now!”

Profession you’d not like to do? “Anything in a factory, or that was mindless. I need to have regular change.”

How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? “It was when I was at boarding school at 13 — disco night.”

A memorable moment; a time you will never forget? “My time in Vienna; or when I was with Club Med and enjoyed the crazy freedom of youth; or even boarding school which was lots of fun.”

Something that you are really proud of and why? “I am very proud of how the vision of our home here was realized. And of my work as an EMT because I didn’t think I had it in me.”

Favorite thing about yourself? “Well, I got lucky with my hair! That’s hard to say. I don’t know what to tell you.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “I’d like him to say ‘We have a special animal section where you can live and work with and study the animals.’ That would be great.” ¥¥

(To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee will be 90-year old Clyde Price Jr., whose family was among the Valley’s earliest settlers, back in the 1860’s.)

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