On May 15, an exciting new exhibit will open in the Lower Arsenal. Structure and Light, featuring work by Hedi Desuyo and Linda Grebmeier, will present a stunning collection of light-filled work created by the two artists interpreting their experiences at the nearby Yuba Manufacturing Complex during the last days of its existence. Arts Benicia is hosting the exhibit, with support from local donors and a Fleishhacker Foundation Grant.

The Yuba site, like the Lower Arsenal, was once an active hub of industrial activity; it was the oldest manufacturing complex in the West, located on Benicia’s waterfront since 1850. The classic industrial buildings were the last remaining structures from the original Pacific Mail Steamship Company, an enterprise that repaired paddlewheel steamers plying the Carquinez Strait. In subsequent years the factory fabricated agricultural equipment, marine engines, dredging machines for the Yuba gold fields, howitzer guns, and cranes to control spillways of dams. After the plant closed in 1972 a host of artists and artisans, including Benicia’s renowned glass blowers, moved into the buildings and for the next 15 years helped build a vibrant arts community in Benicia. The Yuba Factory was demolished in 2006, but not before Desuyo and Grebmeier committed to capturing its passing through their distinct visions and mediums of photography and printmaking.

Late in 2006, as show curator, I obtained access to the site from Yuba property owner Amports. Three weeks before the buildings were razed, Desuyo and Grebmeier used the rare opportunity to work at the site nonstop. In this short time they gathered hundreds of images, and used them over the next three and a half years as the basis for creating dozens of remarkable artworks reflecting their deep emotional and visual response to what they experienced inside the deteriorating structures. The artists have created an eloquent visual testimony for a place that could not be preserved, articulating the important role visual memory plays in history and in our present lives. 

Since moving to the Lower Arsenal 15 years ago, Grebmeier has interpreted the industrial buildings and cargo ships surrounding her studio in striking paintings and prints suffused with golden light and deep shadows, profoundly expressive of her connection to the area. Her use of unexpected vantage points results in atmospheric images bordering on abstraction. For Structure and Light she has created approximately 30 monotype prints, a process that involves painting an initial composition on a plate until she finds the structural form and light she seeks, then building the image by separately hand-printing several “ghost” layers of color on the paper.

As an artist who has long been interested in places layered with the effects of time, Desuyo was uniquely suited to capturing the forsaken beauty at the abandoned old factory. A native of Germany who immigrated to the United States in 1962, she travels extensively and observes her daily surroundings acutely, capturing images that lend mystery to humble workaday objects and places, and present the viewer with a rich emotive experience. She shot more than 500 negatives before and during the Yuba Factory demolition and has printed over 40 photographs for the exhibit in both black-and-white and color.

In June, both artists will share their personal and creative experiences working at the Yuba site at an Artists Talk. Tours of the show for Benicia schoolchildren are being arranged for the first three weeks of the exhibit along with collaborative events with the Benicia Historical Museum featuring displays of Yuba artifacts and historical photographs.

Although the artwork that has been created for Structure and Light is a response to the passing of a piece of local history, it has far-reaching import, serving as witness and signifier to the many thousands of once vibrant sites of human enterprise that have given way to progress and are changed forever, with little or no record of their existence. The universal nature of this project, and the powerful images created by the artists, hold interest for a broad and diverse audience. Many viewers will find personal interest in the “local angle” of the show, and all will delight in these artists’ exceptional abilities to create universally resonant images of light and structure in their work.

The exhibit will run from May 15 through July 11, with a reception May 23, 2-4 p.m.  

Hedi Desuyo, C-15/16

Chromogenic print, 13” x 17”

Linda Grebmeier, Yuba Site 7

Monotype print, 30” x 22”