The Complex Life of ‘California’s Heartland’ On View at SF City Hall

Sam Comen, Jose Saldana and Sandy Melendez share a dance in Lost Hills, CA. October 29, 2011

Sam Comen, Jose Saldana and Sandy Melendez share a dance in Lost Hills, CA. October 29, 2011; Courtesy of the Artist and SFAC Galleries.

Unless you’re from California’s Central Valley, you may rarely think about it; it might just be the scenery that flies by as you drive to Los Angeles. However, the Valley is where some of California’s most complicated issues are in play, which is what makes the San Francisco Arts Commission’s The Valley/El Valle: Photo-essays from California’s Heartland exhibition at City Hall so compelling. It provides a seldom-seen and much-needed view of everyday life, work, love, politics, hardship and celebration, along with a brief history of the place that produces two thirds of America’s table food.

When this show’s postcard came across my desk, I was captivated. It features Sam Comen’s stunning photograph of a couple dancing, and the emotional impact of that photo is just as the gallery describes, “full of all the hope and power of youth.” It made me want to learn more about a region that has remained mysterious and unknown to me. Sam Comen’s goal with his photo essay about the Valley is to “cement [his] subjects’ place in American History.”

Matt Black, Sheep at dawn. Firebaugh, California.
Matt Black, Sheep at dawn. Firebaugh, California; Courtesy of the Artist and SFAC Galleries

The Valley/El Valle highlights documentation from photographers who share Comen’s sentiment of wanting to capture the humanity of the region. In the exhibit, you will see excellent photographs of celebrations juxtaposed with hard work. You will see images of cracked earth, dancers, fighters, parades, backyards, borders, families, and immigration issues poignantly represented. You will see historical images of the farm labor movement, and a thorough portrait of life in the Central Valley today.

Despite growing most of the food we eat, farm workers in the Central Valley face food justice issues; many can’t afford the food they harvest. You can read more sobering facts about this crisis in the KQED News collection, Hunger in the Valley of Plenty. Hunger is just one of the insurmountable problems caused by the complicated politics in the region. Birth defects from pesticides, air pollution, fertile land destruction, environmental ruins, poverty… the list goes sickeningly on.

Francisco Dominguez, Pepper Spray, 2011
Francisco Dominguez, Pepper Spray, 2011; Courtesy of the artist and SFAC Galleries

The exhibition, curated by Rayko’s Ann Jastrab, features nine photo essays about the Central Valley, two of them historical, by nine photographers and a collection of images from the San Francisco Chronicle archive. There are 100 photos in the show that represent the diverse nature and culture of the state’s breadbasket.

The San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery programmed the exhibition on the ground floor of City Hall, and it can feel hidden away in the white-tiled hallway. Of the few people that cruise through the space while on other City Hall business, most don’t even realize they’re walking through an art exhibit. But, as evidenced in The Valley/El Valle, some of the most important and educational exhibits are mounted there. A few more large-scale landscape photos from the the show are hanging upstairs in City Hall’s North Light Court.

Lou Dematteis, UFW March, 1975
Lou Dematteis, UFW March, 1975; Courtesy of the artist and SFAC Galleries

Melanie and Ken Light spent five years documenting the region for their book Valley of Shadows and Dreams, which examines lasting, historical struggles. Her writing and his photos are featured in the exhibit. Melanie writes about Ken’s reaction to seeing a sign for man-made waterfront property “in a drought-stricken state where farmers are up in arms about decreased allotments of water.” The issue compelled the photographer to capture these “manifestations of the lack of any sustainable or sensible water policy in the valley.”

Photo by Antonio Olmos
Photo by Antonio Olmos; Courtesy of the artist and SFAC Galleries

Battles over water have been a constant in California, recently exacerbated by the drought. The Lights present their work as a call to action. Melanie sums it up when she asks, “How will the pressure between a growing population and the limits of the earth unfold?” She continues, “Already there are very few, if any workable solutions left… At the core of our citizenship, politicking and simple living, we must care for others’ well-being. We must care about creating opportunity for individuals most in need.”

If the art does its job, you’ll find a way to shout about injustices that we are all responsible for. You can no longer throw your groceries into your reusable shopping bags without considering where that food came from, and at what cost to human rights. The Valley/El Valle is an exhibit of political art that has the potential to affect change.

The Valley/El Valle is on view through September 19, 2014. For more information, visit

The Complex Life of ‘California’s Heartland’ On View at SF City Hall 9 July,2014Kristin Farr


Kristin Farr

Kristin Farr is the creator and producer of KQED’s Emmy Award-winning web video series, Art School, and she is also a contributing editor for Juxtapoz magazine. Her artwork has been exhibited at galleries around the Bay Area including YBCA, Fifty24SF, Anno Domini and The Bedford Gallery. Her FarrOut art app for iOS was released in 2013. She lives in the East Bay and her favorite color is all of them.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor