Mendocino Talking: Tom Liden
by Dave Smith, March 11, 2015
(Tom, along with Heidi Dickerson, are authors of "Mendocino Roots & Ridges: Wine Notes from America's Greenest Wine Region." He was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award in the Arts by the City of Ukiah three years ago. He has been doing commercial photography (tomliden.com) for many of the small businesses, wineries, and art studios, and been involved in many of the business and political issues here in Ukiah and Mendocino County for over 40 years.)
I grew up in western Massachusetts with an older brother and younger sister and spent my summers on a small lake and country setting in central Massachusetts… a great way to grow up. Then off to college to study art and graduate with an BFA degree at Alfred University in upstate New York. Then I moved to New York City. I had made a lot of friends, artists and critics there during the summer of my junior year when I received a scholarship to a summer art program in Connecticut offered by Yale University. I wanted to pursue art, but I got a job with a commercial photographer and that’s how I learned the skill of photography, especially product photography.
A friend of mine had been to northern California and fascinated me with his stories and pictures, and around Christmas time in 1972 he needed to go back and pick up his car, so we flew out to San Francisco and took a bus on a rainy January day, got off the bus in Ukiah, hitchhiked up about 2 miles on Orr Springs Road and got dumped off around 5 o’clock and started walking and walking in the dark past Montgomery Woods to this little cabin with a nice meal waiting for us. The next morning I woke up to a beautiful sunny day in this wonderful valley. There was property for sale nearby that we went to see and ended up going into town and buying it. We found a couple of other folks to buy into it and paid it off in a year. Three of us got into a pickup truck and moved out here, pitched tents, and started homesteading this property and developing it. I commuted some to San Francisco for a couple of years where I worked part-time for a fashion photographer to make ends meet. Once my house was built I decided to open my own photography business in Ukiah.
Before setting up a studio in town I had to deal with backwoods logistics. The closest telephone was on a Redwood tree on the way to Comptche. One day I had to call a publisher in Manhattan on business, the secretary answered, I asked to talk to the publisher, and she said I would have to leave a number where he could reach me. I said I was standing at a redwood tree in the pouring rain in northern California. She connected us right away.
My photography business was based on folks here in small businesses producing products… my first client was Thanksgiving Coffee… Paul Katzeff on the coast. I got to know a lot of entrepreneurs. Soon after I met John Schaeffer at Real Goods who was also just starting out… the first person to sell solar panels to the public. I bought one of the first ones myself and it is still functioning today thirty five some-odd years later.
Then Mission Orchards came to town. They sold pears by mail order like Harry & David up in Oregon. Then Wind & Weather catalog on the coast started up. All these wonderful mail order catalogs eventually got bought out by big-time companies who moved them and then shut them down. Meanwhile, I had lost some valuable clients. But as that was happening, I got involved in promoting local products from Mendocino County. The wine industry was just beginning to take off at that time. Back then everyone was barely getting by and were helping each other and learning from each other. There was Fetzer, Parducci, Weibel, Malano… in Anderson Valley there was Navarro, Greenwood Ridge, Husch, Edmeades…
There was a wine shop, Ernie’s Liquors, run by Guy Vilardi, at the Pear Tree shopping center. I was in there talking with him when this kid comes in, with a dirty t-shirt, blonde hair sticking up all over the place, and he’s got these 2 bottles of wine with handmade labels on them. He comes in, plunks them on the counter, and says “Are you interested in buying some wine?” Vilardi says “You can leave it with me and I’ll try it. Do you have a card?” The kid grabs a piece of paper, writes “Jonathan Frey” and walks out.
I was Executive Director of the Mendocino County Vintners Association for ten years and was on the County Tourist Board. I got together with Glen McGourty from the UC Davis Ag Extension and Carrie Brown from the Farm Bureau to start an event to spotlight Mendocino ag and wine products. That became Mendocino Bounty which turned into an amazing annual event.
The first year it started at the fairgrounds in Boonville and drew a thousand people. There were a lot of little food producers, more than there are today: mustards, jams, beef, lamb, sausages, nuts, wines, beers, brandy, honey, coffee, chocolates, breads, toffees, hot sauces, cheeses, cookies, pickles, vinegars, salad dressings, biscotti… a wonderful showcase of Mendocino products. It was a big hit. The next year we moved it to Valley Oaks in Hopland. We were down there during the event and I was being interviewed by a TV station from Sacramento, and behind me is a line of hardly-moving traffic coming into Valley Oaks… and while on camera, this Highway Patrolman comes up and asks who’s in charge. He said: “Do you realize that you’ve backed up traffic down to Squaw Rock to the south, and Jepson winery to the north?” That was great! That second year drew 4,000 people. People could come for a day and drink and eat for $20.
We did Mendocino Bounty for another 3 or 4 years. The event grew so much that the original producers were burnt out. We decided to hire an event producer for the next one, but afterwards we felt that it was no longer working for the small producers who were giving away freebee products which was becoming half of their yearly supply. We had forty or fifty vendors by then but it was just too much. So we ended it on a high note.
I got involved early on with protesting the aerial spraying of herbicides GP and Masonite in the late seventies to kill the hardwood so the softwood would grow up faster. We took over the radio station over on the coast… Peter Bergman from Firesign Theatre was a neighbor of mine and a celebrity that spoke… Barry Vogel, Nat Bingham… we spent the day on the radio educating about herbicides, Agent Orange with Vietnam Vets, and it helped end it. As the forest was being overlogged we watched as the future of logging went away and was replaced with vineyards and wine in terms of creating jobs for this county.
Out Orr Springs Road where I lived for forty years, the community is getting together over the “Hack and Squirt” process the biggies are using as part of their forest management practice. In turn, with dead tan oak trees, this is creating a severe fire hazard in the woods. The fires in 2008 had a major effect on that years harvest with smoke tainted grapes. The wine industry needs to step in here.
More recently I’m more involved in city things. I’ve sat on the board of the Grace Hudson museum (Sunhouse Guild) for years. That is such a gem… probably the nicest museum north of the Golden Gate bridge. I sit on the Ukiah Design Review Board that reviews projects before they go to the Planning Commission and City Council. I also sit on the Ukiah Main Street Board and the Visit Ukiah task force which promotes tourism locally… the city is not known for its attractions. It’s supported with some funding from a city bed tax. I believe in tourism… it’s a clean industry. People come here, spend their money, enjoy this fantastic part of the world and leave with "Mendocino" on their minds. It’s about branding Mendocino for both the wine industry and all the great products we produce. We have a name that has great value.
About 10 years ago I was over on the coast and ran into Sara O’Donnell, Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Centers. She said they needed a revenue source from some kind of event to promote the county. I introduced her to Paul Dolan. We discussed the idea of Pure Mendocino which is now an annual fund raising dinner for them.
The Palace Hotel has always been one of my interests. I enjoyed that building when it was up and running… It was a wonderful social hub of downtown Ukiah when it had a functioning bar and restaurant. But I’ve been very irritated watching that building deteriorate for 25 years. I co-chair the Friends of the Palace committee that we put together about 7 years ago to try to work with the owner to get something happening… but she kind of phased herself out of that and the city got more involved. They have been putting the heat on the owner now for quite awhile, but citizens felt that they didn’t do enough and now we have a new City Council. The building is getting pretty close to not being salvageable. The owner has a deadline now of April 21st to get rid of the asbestos, waterproof it, get the sprinkler system working, a structural analysis to see if it’s savable… Or else the city will be starting a receivership process.
Then right behind it is the vacant Post Office that is just sitting there… and soon the Courthouse will be vacated. I would love to see the old courthouse become the County Museum.
Professionally, I have had to go through the transition from film to digital… and that was a biggie for me having spent thousands of hours in the darkroom dealing with chemicals and making prints. Then all of a sudden it turns to the whole new world of digital. Back before Photoshop, when you were setting up products to shoot, you wore white gloves so you wouldn’t get fingerprints on things. Retouching was very expensive. Also, your color lab became a partner with all you do. You had to maintain a good rapport with your film processing lab. It was a real craft that you apprenticed for gaining technical and artistic skills over many years. Producing digitally is such an easy fix. I had to learn a new technology and gain patience with computers. As in music where vinyl records are still alive for the skill, artistic beauty and longevity of sound, there will also continue to be film produced for the skill, artistic beauty and longevity of the photograph.
I’m ready to retire. I’ve moved into town for a lot of reasons. The studio here is my identity and I’m not ready to give that up yet, but I’m gradually phasing out of the commercial side. And now I’m able to spend time again on the artistic side.
When I was a kid I would think about being an adult. I always envisioned myself living in a small town. On TV there were the westerns, and there would be a great little town with the storekeeper, and there’s the lawyer and the doctor… a wonderful little town… and I always wanted to live there. And right here, living in Ukiah, has been like that. It was big enough that I could have a commercial photography business here and make a living, and small enough that I knew most everybody in town.
I love this town and county and they’ve been good to me. There I was in New York and had never been to California… and to come to this place, and the people here, was just amazing... and I enjoy being part of it.
(Mendocino Talking will be taking a couple of weeks off.)