Media Life: NPR features Auburn artist, presidential music

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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A three-CD set of 43 songs highlighting each U.S. president and an examination of a wrangle over ownership of a rising artist’s work both made it onto the National Public Radio airwaves in October. Each story had a strong Auburn-area connection. First, the ambitious CD project, which was the subject of an “All Things Considered” report Oct. 8 by Joel Rose. Called “Of Legends and ‘Mortal Men': 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies,” the record set was a timely subject for a story as the presidential election moved into its last month. Songwriters Christian Kiefer, Jefferson Pitcher and Matthew Gerken did the heavy lifting, sharing the load to come up with sometimes-quirky takes on the famous, and not-so-famous. The songwriters were joined in their effort by a phalanx of more than 100 artists and musicians, including indie-rock originals like Califone, Smog and Alan Sparhawk of the band Low. Add in new portraits of each president, an educational component that allows teachers to use materials in the classroom at a deep discount, and just the sheer pugnacity of taking on Martin Van Buren and Herbert Hoover as tuneage material, and “All Things Considered” had some buzzworthy material to ruminate on. PLACER HIGH GRAD Kiefer, who was described on-air as a “California-based teacher” is actually a Rocklin resident who grew up in Auburn off Bell Road, strode the halls of Rock Creek, E.V. Cain and Placer High schools, and now teaches for Stanford University online in the English Department. The “Of Legends” collaboration was his seventh CD and the NPR exposure was a first on a national scale for the 1989 Placer High grad. “I’m lucky because each CD has been slightly more high profile,” Kiefer said. “This one was the culmination of lots and lots of work so I’m grateful to get significant national attention.” NPR was a good fit for Kiefer. He’s a regular “All Things Considered” listener. And the appearance turned out to be a good fit for the “Of Legends” CD. The site ranked the disc set as high as 91st in sales after the broadcast, although Kiefer said that ranking has diminished considerably since then. Up next is completion of the next song in the cycle, this one about Barack Obama. The demo is done and the tune-writing trio will go into the studio in the next three weeks to record a final version. It will be out the week of the president-elect’s inauguration Jan. 20. Kiefer says some special, guest artists are expected to be on the new song, but he’s keeping mum on names. The song will be made available to people buying the 43-song collection in an mp3 version. Also on the schedule is a Nov. 15 lecture at American River College on “Of Legends and ‘Mortal Men.’” MORE AUBURN PLAYERS Kiefer invited two Auburn musicians to be part of the project – keyboard player Scott Leftridge and drummer Chip Conrad, who now lives in Sacramento. The set, including a 106-page book, is available at, or iTunes for $30. NPR and “All Things Considered” were back delving into ‘things Auburn’ on Oct. 28, when the newly revived buzz on artist Martin Ramirez was the topic for a report by Jon Kalish. Ramirez, who is now being described by critics as one of the great artists of the 20th century, spent his last years in the DeWitt State Hospital mental institution. The North Auburn maze of buildings now make up part of the Placer Government Center, although several have been torn down in recent years as new structures have been put up. Kalish detailed the first efforts by his family– 44 years after the artist’s death at DeWitt – to reclaim his lost work, or receive a share from the sale of drawings and collages now being priced as high as $300,000. The NPR report discussed the legal issues surrounding a dispute pitting grandchildren of Ramirez against a Southern California woman who had been sent 17 Ramirez creations in 1961 as part of her graduate studies in art therapy. She held onto the drawings and was set to auction them off at Sotheby’s when two of Ramirez’s grandchildren intervened, with an attorney in tow. FAMILY INVOLVED The Ramirez family had taken a similar tact after the Dunievitz family in Auburn revealed last year that they had been storing 144 Ramirez works and were prepared to sell them. That’s taking place now at a New York gallery in tandem with an American Folk Art Museum exhibit nearby. The agreement with the Dunievitz family provides some of the proceeds to the newly organized Ramirez estate. The issues in the new dispute surround whether Ramirez was mentally capable of giving away his works. And it’s complicated. On one side, art experts are saying he may never have been mentally ill and could have been initially housed in a state facility in the early 1930s as a homeless person. On the other side, the argument is being made that he was admitted to a mental institution and was even re-admitted after escaping several times. There’s no disputing the greatness of his art these days. The NPR report gives Auburn and DeWitt Hospital its due – even interviewing 79-year-old Auburn resident Jim Durfee, who worked at the facility in the 1950s and told Kalish that much of the art ended up in garbage cans. No one saw the value of the pieces and – because Ramirez used spit to mix his colors and create glue – most people didn’t even want to touch them, he said. Podcasts of both programs are available for listening at the NPR Web site Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at