The lilt of laughter can be heard cascading through the bright red door and down the front steps. It is light and beautiful; a pure manifestation of joy. This is the world of Dona Kopol Bonick and John Bonick, Napa Valley artists and recently-turned vintners with the launch of Art House Wines.
The levity of life can be felt in Dona and John. They are the couple you want to know; vibrant, engaging and compelling. Their story is balanced by a path of purpose and an outlet of creative expression. Theirs is a history of cultivated interests and nuanced expression.
Their Napa farmhouse rests deep in the Carneros AVA of the Napa Valley, just east of the Napa and Sonoma Border. On the small, winding country roads that weave through this appellation, it is easy to zip past this piece of land without a second glance. Its architecture and placement are in homage to the farmhouses of old, complemented with modern flourishes and enhancements.
On this land, visual and artistic expression are deeply rooted. Photojournalism, painting, sculpting, winemaking, and entertaining coexist in a symbiotic relationship. The curation of these mediums is a focal point.
In a society so encumbered by minutiae and daily concerns, their reality can appear fanciful, almost effortless. Yet 25 years since harnessing their artistic talents in a successful endeavor, they are examples of fortitude and resilience.
It is no small feat to be a viable artist in the 21st century; to have both partners in a marriage be professional artists is truly exceptional. The harmonization of the practicalities of life, with the aspirations of creative expression, can be a daunting path. It is a unique and courageous individual who can carve out a market for their talent, amidst the reality of obligations and responsibilities.
It is this hybrid of artistry and diligent oversight for which many yearn. To be one’s own boss. To be able to create a lasting product. To be able to direct one’s own fortunes. At the most basic level, this is the American dream. To flourish as an artist and creator is more than this. It is reminiscent of years past, when benefactors enabled artists to practice their craft unencumbered by the concerns or responsibilities of life. However, to become one’s own benefactor is the zenith of dreams.
The Migration West
The Bonick’s story begins in Chicago, in 1980, when a Southside girl married a boy from the southern suburbs. Having survived yet another blistering winter, they resolved to leave for warmer lands. A graduate of Notre Dame, John was dipping his toes in the professional world by pursuing journalism, while subsidizing his income by working for a local liquor distributor. Dona, having put herself through undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois, was poised for a different life than that of the Midwest. Both looked West.
Unsolicited, John sent letters to trade magazines across the country, with the hope that he could secure an interview. When a San Francisco-based publication responded positively, it was an easy decision. New dreams harnessed, the newlyweds embarked cross-country in their hatchback Chevrolet Chevette, Afghan Hound as co-pilot, and every worldly possession crammed inside the hatchback. This image is, in itself, endearing.
As California transplants, their first years were spent in San Francisco. With the addition of their firstborn, Dylan, they quickly outgrew their Cow Hollow flat and moved north to Marin County. Then, with the arrival of their second born, Max, they set their eyes further north, relocating yet again, but this time to wine country.
With this transition, John joined the wine industry, where he assumed a communications and marketing role at a local wine house. It was at this time that Dona picked up a camera. Having indulged in a photography course as an undergraduate, she had fallen in love with the craft. However, after a childhood in Chicago’s Southside, she firmly believed that photography was out of her reach. Consequently, her foray into photography ceased until moving to the valley and taking a photography course at the Napa Valley Community College. It was here that she recognized her capacity to make this more than a hobby.
“I loved going to that class. One day I walked in with my little camera slung over my shoulder. The teacher, Ron Zak, was such tease. He said, ‘Oh look at Dona, the photographer!’ It was the first time that someone had called me a photographer and it lifted me off my feet,” said Dona.
Dona’s transition to that of professional photographer was a natural evolution; an innate desire to create art married with a sequential response to life’s needs and demands. Her first commercial piece was for Lee Hodo at Round Hill Winery. From this, additional requests followed. She approached her subjects differently than her contemporaries. Before heading to her very first shoots, she read up furiously on various approaches to photography. Once executed, her approach was anything but the norm. Celebrated by clients for her unique eye, the requests mounted.
As she grew her portfolio, she became adamant about approaching her clients in a personal and highly supportive capacity. She was intimately connected to their experience in front of the camera.
“We have the philosophy that we are on our clients’ side. We do everything we can to make it easy and enjoyable for our clients. I took it really seriously. I had empathy,” said Dona.
As John saw his wife’s professional expansion flourish, he reflected on his personal artistic endeavors. His first foray into painting was as a twelve year-old. From this age, he had expanded his talents and study, only deciding upon college to expand into journalism versus the fine arts. However, these earlier years of creative expression followed him and he recognized that it was time to seriously explore them.
“In my role at the time, I wasn’t Picasso. I wasn’t Kerouac. And yet I wasn’t all that interested in marketing. I jumped off the train. Initially I wanted to start marketing Dona. Help her grow. Build the brand. I quickly learned it was more valuable for me to be a shooter, in addition to a marketer. We worked together on every aspect of the business,” said John.
Together, the husband and wife duo built their brand. Over time, they began exploring other avenues, chiefly painting. At the time, Auction Napa Valley – then called The Napa Valley Wine Auction – issued large canvases to local artists whose finished products were auctioned during the main event. Having attended and seen these displays, John was immediately drawn to the process. Together, he and Dona combined photography and painting. First, Dona printed their chosen image on watercolor, which was then bonded on canvas. After sealing it, John painted on it. Their creativity paid off as the first canvas was sold for $7,000. This was confirmation that their multi-discipline creations resonated with others.
“That first year was encouraging for future work,” said John.
For the second year, they built upon this creative process and became even more bold.
“I loved experimenting with alternative processes. I found liquid light and projected six times on a single sheet of watercolor in the dark room,” said Dona.
The end result? A canvas that auctioned for $14,000. They were on their way.
As their disciplines expanded, so did the valley. Other artists and creators established themselves. The community grew and diversified.
“Napa grew up as we grew up,” said John.
As time passed, John spun away from photography and focused more on painting. His current project includes a large heart that he’s painting for the San Francisco General Hospital’s annual fundraiser. Currently ten layers deep of paint, it is all free hand. The depth gives the paint feeling, for which he is using the working title Currents of the Heart. This heart will be auctioned in February at the hospital’s annual Heroes and Hearts event.
In the spring of 2016, the couple launched an exhibit at Robert Mondavi Winery. Titled Generate: One Family’s Painting, Photography and Music, it featured all four Bonicks – Dona and John have two sons who are both artists. This included John’s paintings, Dona’s photography, and their sons’ respective disciplines of music and photography. For this particular exhibit, Dona tapped into a body of work that she had long admired: film noir.
“It was such a fabulous time in the 1940’s. Color was just coming on the scene,” said Dona.
All photographs used for this show were printed and bonded on glass, a nod to the manner in which vintage photographic negatives were made. In addition, every location was only 10 to 15 minutes from their home and, as Dona emphasized, were intentionally scouted for a grittiness factor. It took six months to build this portfolio, but the results are arresting. This exhibit was well timed to acknowledge the evolution that this couple has undergone. In October, they celebrated 25 years of creating photography and art in the Napa Valley.
The Vintner Process
The Carneros property, their second purchase in the valley, was derelict when they acquired it in 2002. Six feet tall grass ran from the front steps to the road. Where the vineyards exist today, eight feet tall blackberry bushes engulfed the property.
The required work was overwhelming, but in the eight acres, they saw the future. Project-by-project, year-by-year, they carved out their vision. Their extensive personal gardens – intentional or not – became a nod to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. A glistening pool. Meandering trails. Two guests houses. And, most recently, vineyards to launch their deeply personal project, Art House Wines.
Their life, now, is one of storybooks. Their creativity is multi-faceted and always transforming. Their network is extensive. Their pursuits are varied. And their homestead is one of dreams. A delicate pathway weaves from the main house through fruit orchards to reach an artist’s studio nestled amongst the vineyards. A charming blue picnic table sits nearby, inviting visitors for warmer days.
Over the years, they have embraced the mantra: One foot in front of the other. One step at a time. One decision leads to another. In this vein, they recognized that they wanted to expand beyond the visual arts and define an additional outlet that would continue their creative passage.
The concept for wine production was always an undertone, but in recent years, momentum increased. To do this, they had to figure out how to build a label that would not be delayed by the many years required to plant grapes and then grow a successful product. To address this, they employed the support of Bob Mueller of McKenzie-Mueller. Concurrent to their planting of estate vineyards, they created a label and began using both Mueller’s winemaking skills and his grapes to release their first vintage of Art House Wines, a 2010 Pinot Noir from Carneros.
This fall, they had their first estate harvest. Given the youth of the vines, they sold their grapes, but future production is promising. The end goal is to have an annual production of 500 to 600 cases, which includes Pinot Gris, Pinot Rose, and two Pinot Noirs, one from their estate vineyards and one from Mueller’s grapes.
In keeping with their mindset, everything they do is about creating connection. Their vineyard is named Marvin Jack Vineyard, after Jack, Dona’s father, and Marvin, Jack’s best friend. Jack has since deceased, but Marvin came to plant the first vines. Everything has come full circle.
“The property teaches you. Gives you fruit. It teaches you the process and quality of things.” John
The Bonicks are a study in the celebration of life. A life of creativity. Joy. Community. The simplistic beauty of this is not lost on them.
“Growth. Connection. Community. Channels of energy. It’s what we are creating here,” said John.
And, perhaps most important, is that they cultivated this path as a team.
“We were fortunate that we had each other. Many others were on their own,” said Dona.
To live a creative life, one must abandon fear. Fear of failure. Fear of being wrong. Fear of starting over. The Bonick’s are a living testament of this.
Where to Find Them
Professional accolades for John include gallery representation at the Andrea Schwartz Gallery in San Francisco, the William Turner Gallery and Fresh Paint Art Advisors in Los Angeles, and Art Resource Boston. His pieces can be found in the permanent collection of Bloomingdales in New York, San Francisco and Chicago, as well as Visa Financial, Juniper Networks in Silicon Valley, and the di Rosa Preserve.
Dona’s award-winning work as a photojournalist has been featured in The New York Times, Time Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times, in addition to numerous wine industry publications. Her fine art images are in the collection at the di Rosa Preserve, as well as private collections worldwide.