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Gold Fever! The Lure and Legacy of the California Gold Rush

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Natives & Immigrants


Artist Harry Fonseca Explores Impact of the Gold Rush in New Exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California

The Discovery of Gold in California: Paintings by Harry Fonseca opens April 18, 1998 at the Oakland Museum of California as part of its project GOLD RUSH! California's Untold Stories. The exhibition, a series of some 40 works on paper by California artist Harry Fonseca, extends the artist's earlier exploration of the impact of the Gold Rush on California's Indian population. The exhibition runs through January 3, 1999.

The Gold Rush brought disastrous consequences to California Indians, especially Fonseca's Nisenan Maidu ancestors. Between 1846 and 1870 alone, the numbers of California Indians declined from 150,000 to 30,000 due to disease, starvation and outright murder. This series of paintings was created in the summer of 1997 when Fonseca, who currently resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, returned to his native California to address the subject of the Gold Rush in his art. Painting in the heart of Gold Country in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Fonseca created nearly 300 abstract landscapes, predominantly on paper, with other paintings on unstretched canvas. On several occasions, he set up a studio on the American River, footsteps away from the site where gold was discovered in Coloma some 149 years earlier.

Fonseca's early works, painted in the late 1960s through the 1970s, illustrated aspects of traditional Maidu culture. The artist is perhaps best known for his Coyote series, in which he places the powerful trickster of Native American mythology into contemporary settings, and Stone Poems, inspired by his interest in ancient rock art. His Gold Rush paintings are more explicitly political and mark a stylistic change in his work. They are small, intimate works on paper in which gold penetrates the landscape and explodes on the horizon. In some, traces of red suggest the blood of Fonseca's ancestors shed by encroaching goldseekers. In this new series, the paint is mixed with soil and other natural materials from the heart of gold country. "Being in the environment in that country, feeling the energy of the land, gave me a chance to work with the subject matter on a new level," Fonseca notes. "The upheaval that took place was the catalyst for this body of work. It started with the land and Native American cultures that were disrupted if not destroyed, and evolved into how the Gold Rush affected everybody. The drama just grew."

The exhibition will include a selection of earlier works, providing a historical and aesthetic context for the Gold Rush series in Fonseca's art, along with photographs of Fonseca painting on the American River at Coloma, and quotations from the artist's sketchbook.

Harry Fonseca was born in 1946 in Sacramento, California, of mixed Nisenan Maidu, Hawaiian, and Portuguese ancestry. He grew up in Sacramento, where he studied fine arts at California State University, before moving to New Mexico. His works are in a number of permanent collections, including those of the Oakland Museum of California, the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento and the Heard Museum in Phoenix, as well as museums in Germany and Japan. During the past year he has been a featured artist and consultant for Memory and Imagination: The Legacy of Maidu Indian Artist Frank Day, and in conjunction with that project, was an artist-in-residence at the Oakland Museum of California.

During GOLD RUSH! California's Untold Stories (Jan. 24 - July 26, 1998), the Oakland Museum of California will be open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended Friday hours to 9 p.m. For information, call 510-238-2200 or 1-888-625-6873 

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