The year was 1999. Layla Fanucci, then a music teacher at the St. Helena Catholic School, decided she wanted a piece of art in her home.
“Not just a poster, but a real, live piece,” she said of what she was looking for. “I wanted it to be big – and colorful.”
Yet, days of searching through galleries in nearby towns proved fruitless. She couldn’t find what she was looking for. And, so, she decided she would paint the picture she had in mind herself.
The result, “Explosions,” was a creative hodge-podge of paints on a big board – she knew so little about the artform that she hadn’t even bought a canvas. (In fact, when she brought the finished product to her local frame shop, the salesman said to her, “maybe we should let it dry first?”).
Little did Layla know that this one simple act would change the course of her life.
It started out small. Friends would come over to her home for dinner and comment on the exquisite painting on the wall. “Where did you get it?” they would ask. When they found out she had done the painting herself, they would ask if she’d be willing to do one for them. Within a year of creating “Explosions,” Layla fulfilled nine requests for paintings, charging those around her a minimal amount for materials and labor.
And a lightbulb went off. The next year, Layla quit teaching and decided to focus on her painting full-time – a huge leap of faith.
“Friends asked me why I couldn’t start part-time, but I just couldn’t do it halfway – it would have been like being half pregnant,” she said of the decision. “I knew I had to jump right in.”
And, so, in her 40s, having never taken an art class before, Layla began painting everyday, working on putting together a portfolio. Her earliest works used her relatives as subjects. She painted for two years on her own before contacting an art consultant in New York.
The consultant was impressed, but emphasized the need for Layla to create something unique in order to be commercially successful.
“Essentially, she told me you need to paint something that no one in the world has ever done before,” said Layla.
Two years later, she had her concept, which has since become her signature style: the cityscapes, dream-like paintings that depict various cities throughout the world. In 2006, she sold nine out of 16 paintings on display at her first New York gallery showing at the Walter Wickiser Gallery in Chelsea. Today, she makes more painting than she did teaching.
And, what’s more important, not a day has gone by since she started painting that she has thought “I don’t want to do this today.”
For Layla, it’s a labor of love – and one that her family not only supports, but lives as well. In addition to viewing her paintings at her St. Helena studio, you can taste the award-winning small production wines made by her husband, Robert, and her son, David.
Charter Oak became a licensed winery in 1998, merely a year before Layla began on her painting journey. Robert learned to make wine from his grandfather, Guido Ragghianti, and to this day makes wine using the same principles – and tools – that his grandfather did (though he remains a tax attorney by day). The grapes are still pressed in the 100-year old press on the property, which was built in the 1880s. The Fanuccis have kept the cellar like a museum, essentially in its original condition (visitors can see the bottles of wine made by Guido still on display).
Layla gives tours of the property almost daily, two to three tours a day, allowing guests to taste through the wines – which currently include a Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, “The Zinfandel Mind” (which features Layla’s painting of the same name on the label) and the Sonoma Valley Monte Rosso Vineyard Zinfandel, which won young David “Best of Show” at the NextGen Wine Competition for Millenial Winemakers in 2010.
Guests also have the opportunity to view – and buy – her paintings.
It’s a unique offering the Fanuccis have, the combination of two arts, two passions, under one roof. For years, they have hidden under the radar, getting by simply by word of mouth. Yet, that’s about to change – CNN just did a piece on them, which will air in December and you can preview online: http://www.cnn.com/video/?/video/living/2010/11/12/mxp.sbs.family.winery.hln.
Yet, no matter how much success comes their way, the Fanuccis will stay true to their art – a quality which sets them apart from others who create similar products.
Returning to the topic of her painting, Layla acknowledges that she didn’t have the good and the bad of art lessons.
“When I first began, my housekeeper, Rosa, looked at my earliest pieces and asked if I really had never had a lesson. I assured her I hadn’t,” she said.
Rosa looked at the paintings again and said, “Don’t listen to nobody – they’re going to change you.”
It’s a good thing Layla took her advice.
To see Layla’s paintings – and taste the Charter Oak wines – visit them at:
831 Charter Oak Avenue
St. Helena, CA 94574