The Talented Mr. Black
by Bruce Anderson, November 2, 2016
Check that. How about The Omni-Talented Mr. Black? Or The Mysterious Mr. Black? Or The Charismatic Mr. Black?
They all apply.
A tall, fit-looking man who looks like one of the good guy gun slingers at the OK Corral, Ron Black, a man of many parts, works his artist's magic out of an unlikely studio — a pioneer-era barn on an olive ranch near Yorkville. The barn is unheated. It's also un-windowed and somewhat un-walled. Characteristically, my host shrugs off the chill of an early Tuesday morning. "It can get pretty cold in here, but I like the space."
I liked it, too. I also liked my host's crisp tour. He got right to the point, or lots of points, most of which whistled past my uncomprehending ears as he rattled off the techno-functions for an array of complicated machinery, much of which the ingenious Black has constructed out of used and found parts.
Pointing at a barrel-shaped object I'd thought might be a whiskey still, Black laughed and explained that it was a kiln. And also laughed when I broached local rumors that he was "a mystery man" and, Boonville gossip said, maybe even a federal cop of some kind.
"I've heard that one," he confirmed. "I've worked security at Grange events and some of my good friends are cops. At the Grange a guy walked up to me and asked me why I gave him a ticket in the 80s. You are Ron Black, right? I said I am. He said, You gave me a ticket back then and I didn't deserve it. I told him that in the 80s I was living in Texas. There is another Ron Black and he's married to a Sue Black and he used to be a sheriff here. He's in Santa Rosa now. That's the guy who gave you a ticket. But people wonder, I guess. They say it’s suspicious that I'm seasonal. They say I'm always here in pot season. In winter he’s somewhere else, they say. Well, I go where the work is. Period. They have no knowledge of what I am or what I do. I'm quiet, I mind my own business.” The object of all this speculation laughs. “I know all about those rumors. I’ve hung around with cops. I'm not running around as a criminal."
Gossip and idle speculation put to rest, Black moved me quickly through his see-through studio. This is an interesting man who has led an interesting life, much of it supported by skilled but hard physical labor.
On display in the 1860 barn are many beautiful things, all crafted by Black, and ranging from multi-colored plates to inlaid tables to abalone jewelry. The artist's equipment is also neatly arrayed, all of it aimed at the production of these glass and concrete objects of a very high order of rendering, including a headstone-in-progress for the Housley family, stunning in its elegant simplicity, the most striking headstone I've ever seen. And there's a backgammon board inlaid on perfect concrete, and another table top brilliantly inscribed as a chess board, one-of-a-kinder items whose fortunate owners will possess instant heirlooms.
How did the talented Mr. Black find his way to Boonville?
"I came to Boonville from the Bay Area in 1996 and, except for a stay in Oak Run, a wide spot in the road in the hills above Redding, I've been here ever since. My uncle was living in Ukiah. He drove me over Highway 253 and showed me Boonville. I was looking for work. I drove by this house and I put a note on the door saying I was looking for work. The next day I got a call from Burt the original guy who bought this place. He hired me and we started restoring the old house here. Ron Rice, a retired schoolteacher, bought Burt out. We've restored the old ranch house and planted 1600 olive trees in 10 fields, I did all the excavation, all the fencing and whatnot. I've been back here two years from Redding."
The barn Mr. B works out of, and the old ranch house next door, go back to 1860, only a decade after California achieved statehood and Mendocino became a county. Mendocino County was so untamed it was governed out of Santa Rosa. Not far down the road from where we're standing was a large Indian village. If these buildings could talk…
Black has done much of the remodeling of the ranch house. And he's done much of the olive tree planting. And he put the artichokes in the ground. And he fenced it all in. Somehow he's also found the time to become an artisan whose creations are now much sought after. Small wonder he's up at 4:30 every morning.
The artist goes through literal tons of colored glass.
"This glass came from mirror with a 1958 date on the back. I didn't know that until after I broke it. But those are mirror inlays."Gesturing to a large bin of multi-colored glass, he says, "This over here is from a guy in Redding who had a landscape business. He went out of business and gave me 1000 pounds of his colored glass."
I can't help asking Black if he's seen Fort Bragg's famous Glass Beach.
"I could restore it. I could restore Glass Beach!" he says with a laugh, pointing to his barrels of glass fragments.
"I hauled 3500 pounds in a one-ton truck from Weaverville back to Oak Run outside of Redding because I was not going to let it go. It was in cardboard boxes in the dirt, I dug it up, washed it off, and some of it's right here in this barn."
This isn't a man who's comfortable talking about himself. He answers specific questions without much elaboration. I asked him what kind of training he's had, how did he become so proficient with these basic materials, so proficient he's elevated concrete and glass to art?
"I've learned all this by myself within the last three years. A lot of it is Internet study and a lot of different people taught me things. Any design you can think of, I can cut. If I cut the design like I did here," he says, pointing to a meticulously inlaid, multi-colored plate fit for an emperor.
Black's imaginative facility with tools, he suggests, probably came from his father.
"I was born that way," he says of his gifts "at Peninsula Hospital in Burlingame outside of Redwood City. My Dad owned a Shell station and I helped him with that. He passed away in 2010. I'm California all the way except for the 2 1/2 years I spent in Neah Bay with the Indians. They adopted me and gave me a tribal card in 1992. I remodeled their houses and did whatever needed doing. I had a contractor's license up until May when I canceled because I am tired of digging holes and putting up fences."
But before the enterprising Black gave up general contracting, he built an animal refuge in Southern California that now houses 75 exotic animals. Mort Meyerson, a retired graphic artist for Walt Disney "had me do 40 fish ponds and waterfalls and a redwood waterwheel in his backyard." It's clear that these projects required many skills plus a large imaginative gift.
At heart a small town guy, a rural person, Black eventually sold his large pieces of equipment "and I went to a little place near Redding called Oak Run where I had a shop called Second Time Tables," adding, "I made the bench tops for the Sundial Bridge." He said a friend liked his work so much the friend redubbed him, Ron Black Art."
Properly re-christened as the artist he obviously is, Black recalls his first work. "I made many many chess tables and sold them to B&Bs, I made chess pieces out of a bottle tops. These umbrella bases? I made a black one for Mike Hopko [a famous glass artist], I made his name out of his glass and melted it in the kiln, Soul Glass in a black table, with his glass in it and a black base. And that was my gift back to him."
The Yorkville man’s work involves a lot of heavy lifting, but I didn't see so much as a dolly, much less a forklift. I asked him how he moved the heavy stuff.
The artist points to his fit and sinewy self.
"No forklift. I just pick it up," adding that he has occasionally called upon Steve Henderson of Boonville "to help me at times."
Black also crafts smaller items, which he’s arrayed for informal display. They include finely wrought items of abalone shell.
"This is it, my shop" he says. "It's right here. This is me. I haven't even tried to sell the stuff yet. But I have Facebook pages and some things have already sold. The feather earrings were sold to a gal in Boonville. If you can see it I can make it. These will be for my stepmother's grandkids," he says, pointing to figures of animals he's made from abalone.
And where do the ab shells come from?
"Mancher Pardini gave me all of his, 100 of them to start with. A guy who heard I was looking for them came by with 10 shells. Rick Rajeski gave me 30 shells when he visited the shop.”
So you find a lot of things used and secondhand?
“Yes. Except for the tools. Any of this material except for the pallet racks, I bought those. That cart there was given to me and I restored it. I added the steel cross pieces. All the glass is recycled. All the granite is recycled. And of course the abalone is recycled.”
So you know something about olives too now?
“Yes, I do. All five Italian varieties. I know that they are turning purple faster than normal now so that will give it that buttery flavor which I like. And the green will give it that pungent little peppery taste. Until a few years ago I didn't even know the difference, but along with the olive trees we have interspersed peaches, pears, apples, artichokes pomegranates, persimmons."
Black describes an encounter with the late Guido Pronsolino when he first moved onto the ranch to begin the restoration work on it. Guido’s ranch was across the road.
"Guido used the barn a lot for his sheep. We met at the gate and we had our words. He didn't know me. He told me where he lived and I told him where I lived, that we had a lease on this place. We argued at the gate and he threatened to shoot me. And I said, You're too old, too slow, I can get your gun out of your truck before you get there. He says, What's your name? I say, Ron Black. He said he'd take my No Trespassing sign off and stomp on it. I said, You do that and I will do yours at the same time. We will do it together. He shook my hand and that was it. Guido said, Oh okay, all right. We met that way."
How is your body holding up after all these years?
“I could tell you stories," Black says, suggesting the aches and pains that come with pushing sixty after years of physical labor. "But today I feel good. I've had those days. If I bump my head it's a bad day. I supposedly had a stroke four years ago in 2011. I couldn't talk until about four days later. My left side went. I went to the hospital in Redding, stay there overnight, they let me out. I just finished with a neurologist about a month ago. I get a headache if I don't drink coffee. I haven't had any spells since then. Ron Rice has hauled me over there to emergency three times now. I'm 57. I feel great. I'm healthy. I'm in shape. I can run up a hill and back down.”
(Photos of Ron Black’s work can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/pg/ronblackart/photos/?ref=page_internal)