Eleanor Coppola glided easily through the Sonoma Valley Museum, eyes darting at everything at once, spiky silver hair sparkling above a bright blue jacket. All around her: 50 years of her artwork stared back, part of a new retrospective exhibit of her life in art.
Drawings, photographs, watercolors and installations engulfed the soft-spoken woman as she made her way through the gallery inspecting the placement of each item. “It’s like imagining going back and looking at your high school essay,” Coppola said.
The public largely knows Coppola as the wife of film director Francis Ford Coppola, and mother of director Sophia Coppola and her brother Roman Coppola. But, those in her circle, also know her as a consummate artisan who is compelled to create.
“The great thing about this amazing woman is that she is also a wonderful artist,” said Kate Eilertsen, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Museum.
Coppola has eked out her art in between the lines of her other lives: wife, mother, filmmaker and director of the family’s Napa Valley winery. Long ago, she figured out how to inject a life-long passion for the arts within the trajectory of her husband’s work, crafting pieces in the confines of hotel rooms and film locations.
“I’ve traveled to all of Francis’ locations,” she said. “And in those occasions I’ve tried to take smaller work and keep working on those things.”
Along on her travels, paper, pencils and other art supplies tucked into suitcases. One offspring of her travels are several large circle drawings defined by intricate lines. She finished one larger piece over two years.
The exhibit also features clothing designs Coppola created for the ODC Dance troupe. A side-room flickers with short videos she created, including one of a close-up of someone peeling a potato. Another shows a San Francisco Victorian house being hauled to a new location on a truck from the Western Addition during the 1970s.
Coppola famously took up a movie camera during her husband’s filming of "Apocalypse Now," creating the behind-the-scenes documentary "Hearts of Darkness."
One of the more elaborate of the exhibition, is an installation borne of the darkest period of her life. Circle of Memory is a large circular room constructed of straw bales and surrounded by dramatic photos of boulders in Ireland. The room is her version of ancient rooms where people would gather to remember the dead. Coppola’s son Gian Carlo Coppola died in a boating accident in 1986. Coppola discovered the type of room’s healing powers while sitting in one with a friend in Ireland, sharing names of people they’d lost.
“Finally at one point I said our son’s name, Gian Carlo Coppola,” she said. “I just had this unusual emotional experience of feeling connected to all the mothers, all the parents in history who had ever lost a child.”
Inside Coppola’s straw room, a steady stream of salt flowed from the ceiling, a symbol of tears and a baisc element that is required for life.
“It’s a place to reflect and commemorate and appreciate people we’ve lost,” Coppola said.
Coppola’s work is infused with the nature she soaked in at her home and studio in Napa Valley, where she and her family relocated decades ago from San Francisco. She said was initially in tears at the move, having left behind a bustling cultural city of art galleries and music. But then she came to discover the art all around her.
“Very shortly, I realized this enormous drama in nature,” Coppola said. “The skies and changing color of the grasses.”
Coppola said her art isn’t a byproduct of life among a famous family - it’s the sparks that’ve lived inside her since she was a child, smelling the oil paints from her father’s art studio.
As she glanced around the gallery, even she seemed surprised at the variety and depth.
“It’s really gratifying,” she said, “to see that i was able to get some work done during this busy life I’ve lived.”