As the crow flies, it's about 55 miles from Burlingame to Sonoma. But for artist Manette Fairmont, who both owns and paints at the Fairmont Gallery on Sonoma Plaza's west side, the journey has taken a bit longer. "I was born and raised in Burlingame, and was actually Miss Burlingame in 1977, "Fairmont laughs. "Art came later, I was a business major who was told "you don't have any talent, forget it-you're not going to make it in the art world. "But I changed my major midway through collage, because I loved art and didn't care whether I had talent or not."
Fairmont's love of art suffuses her comfortable First Street West gallery, where a sign at the doorway invites the public to come in and browse without pressure.
"Lots of people feel that "art" means "I don't understand it," explains Fairmont. "They feel pressured that when they walk into a gallery they're expected to buy something, and that they have to be knowledgeable or else someone will laugh at them."
The gallery's mission is to "gently introduce" patrons to "a variety of fine art techniques and philosophies," and provide local artists an opportunity to exhibit their current work.
Fairmont says she also wanted a gallery that respected the artists and what the artists were doing, something that she feels the art business in general lacks.
And the art business is something Fairmont knows intimately, both as an artist - she has studied in England and Italy, holds ten national art awards, participated in major national and international exhibitions and is a signature member of the National Watercolor Society as well as past president of the Art Guild of Sonoma - and as a gallery owner, first in Carmel and now Sonoma.
Last year, Fairmont's career took another jump when her painting "Valley of the Moon" was published in "The Best of Watercolor Painting: Composition, "a book which includes the work 110 out of 5,000 invited artists and which Fairmont describes as "a dream."
"(The book)'s on painting design, which is the hardest part for me as a watercolorist-to not only be good at doing technique, but also how to design creatively with the use of watercolor," Fairmont explains.
"And the subject matter is unusual - it's not your normal realism. It's contemporary art, but it represents all the shapes I find in Sonoma Valley," she added.
Fairmont moved to the valley 15 years ago with her husband Mark, when the two decided that Sonoma was the perfect place to continue both careers - Manette as artist, Mark as financial planner.
Although Mark passed away three years ago from a heart attack, Fairmont says her art is part of the therapy helping her through that emotional upheaval. "My husband was a wonderful inspiration...I couldn't have my art be the way it is today if it hadn't been for his support. Everyone told me I couldn't make money at it, and he just said "Go for it."
"My artwork is not what they call avant-garde, "Fairmont emphasizes. "It's still optimistic, and primitive...it's really about taking the shapes of nature and then rearranging them so that they look like they're floating, and then they freeze into composition.
But although Fairmont also paints in other, more representational styles, her favorite by far is the style characterized by "Valley of the Moon" because of the intellectual challenge involved. "contemporary art appeals to most artists, because you're exploring new terrain with watercolor - I'm not just doing the typical romantic interpretation. Its actually brought Sonoma into a more contemporary circle, putting it on the map as a location which inspires that sort of work."
Fairmont says her paintings can take anywhere from "a couple of days to a week," but adds that they're never really completed - "I look for the place where I can say "Okay, Manette, that's the solution you were looking for - and it's okay to let it be."
And her approach to art, expressed through her gallery and body of work, seems to be making a difference as far as how non-artists see art, both as a process and as a finished product. "Art is for everyone."