Napa Valley Winemaker has Life-stories of extraordinary women honored in wine; among them is Surreal Artist Cynthia Tom

SF Bay Area artist, Cynthia Tom is featured on a bottle of Cantadora Wines 2019. Photo courtesy of the artist and Cantadora Wines.

Winemaker Kira Ballotta made a special post on social media highlighting artist Cynthia Tom’s groundbreaking contribution to the SF Bay Area community through art. “I can’t let the celebration of Asian American-Pacific Islander Heritage for the month of May pass by without introducing this phenomenal woman, artist & healer, Cynthia Tom,” noted Ballotta.

Artist, Cynthia Tom with Cris Matos making preparations for the ‘Shifting Moments’ exhibit 2017. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Tom.

Ballotta also said that Cynthia is among significant artists in a permanent archive exhibit of American Art entitled ‘What is Feminist Art ?’ at the Smithsonian. Extolled in the Feminist Art collection at the world famous museum in Washington DC, Cynthia at the time when she learned of the honor, was taken aback. As Cynthia said. “This is the top for me.”

“So honored to be included in the company of these U.S. powerhouse feminist artists, who I’ve studied and admired.” Cynthia listed half a dozen with more on her website. “Tina Takemoto, Laura Kina, Yong Soon Min, Rita Mae Brown, Judy Chicago.”

Ballotta’s posting on Instagram also points to the immense impact Cynthia’s art has made as a “cultural surrealism” as Ballotta has described it.

“Empowerment,” part of the ‘Awakening The Feminine’ series. Photo by Joan Simon who purchased the painting considering it “a treasure,” and artist Cynthia Tom, “a dear friend.”

Leaving the world of finance in 2011, Ballotta set out to become a winemaker. To immerse herself into the new career direction, Ballotta traveled around Australia and Northern California’s Napa Valley gaining experience working grape harvests. She joined Alpha Omega in Rutherford, CA ultimately becoming Enology Research Manager. After four years, Ballotta left in 2019 to be the sole winemaker, she envision and ultimately owner of Olivia Brion Wines.

Olivia Brion shares the stories of trailblazing women from the turn of the 20th century on the labels.  As Ballotta sold those wines she realized those stories were meaningful to wine drinkers. She wanted to invite her wine drinking audience to learn about the heroic women she knew and that were here today, and not in the distant past. She envisioned something uniquely artistic and entrepreneurial, Cantadora Wines.

Painting at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Fine Art Museum, Cynthia Tom was once part of the ‘artist in residence’ program, more than 15 years ago.

Inspired by her volunteer work at La Casa Las Madres women’s shelter, in San Francisco 10 years earlier, Ballotta wanted to make an impact with her wines. With her career in finance Ballotta knew a profit margin could always be manipulated. So she immediately committed 10 percent of sales, not profits, as a way to meaningfully give back to the causes associated with each extraordinary woman on the bottle. Her goal is to share stories, as she sees wine and storytelling go hand in hand. And, in telling a story through wine, raise awareness around the organizations and women doing extraordinary things in our community today. Hence the name “Cantadora” which translates to ‘Storyteller.’

Instead of it being “wine, women and song” the typical hedonistic indulgence phrase, Ballotta turns it around eloquently empowering women through an agricultural artisan endeavor. Which in a way, is a story or song poured into a glass, as tribute.

The first three women to be featured on the inaugural release of the 2019 Cantadora wines are Cynthia Tom, Sonia Melara, and Marianne Page. What all these women share is a drive to better the futures of women and children.

Cantadora Wine featuring extraordinary women. Photo courtesy of Cantadora Wines 2019.

Sonia is dubbed “The Protector” on her bottle of Tempranillo for her work founding La Casa de las Madres and as Executive Director at Rally Family Visitation Services. Marianne Page is featured as “The Sage” on a bottle of Grenache/Syrah/Viognier blend for her work as an economist and professor of economics, co-founding the UC Davis Center for Poverty & Inequality – a multi-disciplinary think tank that provides research on the long term effects of government resources on poor and underserved communities. She advises economic policy on Gavin Newsom’s Economic Council. And finally, Cynthia Tom, on a bottle of 2019 Mourvèdre, who is a Smithsonian featured artist and founder of ‘A Place of Her Own.’

To take a few moments to look at the development and evolution of Cynthia’s work over the years is to see a genuinely unique person and perspective emerge. What Ballotta is seeing and honoring today in Cynthia as part of AAPI Heritage month, is actually decades of work and awareness coming to fruition through many struggles.

“Empowerment,” part of the ‘Awakening The Feminine’ series. Photo by Joan Simon who purchased the painting considering it “a treasure,” and artist Cynthia Tom, “a dear friend.”

Cynthia’s work is as intensely individual as it is collective. Cynthia’s shift to this “cultural surrealism” as is described happened when Cynthia was working with an Angel Island historic and cultural restoration project. Cynthia’s art and life since that project has shifted into a compelling focus.

Cynthia discovered that her grandmother had been among the millions of Chinese immigrants detained on Angel Island. Referred to as the “Ellis Island of the West Coast,” in the 19th Century immigrants from Guangdong Province in southern China began arriving. They were fleeing from a land stricken by both natural and man-made disasters and a collapsing rural economy.

As the nonprofit Angel Island immigration Station Foundation stated. “Though initially welcomed, to help build railroads and other manual labor tasks, conditions changed for the Chinese.”

“Hungry Ghosts” exhibit and workshop, 2017. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Tom.

“When the local San Francisco economy took a downturn in the 1870s, the nonprofit noted further, economic problems were laid at the feet of this highly visible minority by organized labor, newspapers, and in short order, politicians.”

A number of laws were passed at the local and state levels targeting the Chinese. As documented in the National Archives in Washington DC, there was the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress in 1882.

This eventually lead to tighter restrictions and dehumanizing treatment. Detainment on Angel Island could often become indefinite as many did not have sufficient funds to reach their eventual destinations.

From the “Stories to tell: Discards & Variances” exhibit 2016. Seen is the actual dress the village made for Cynthia’s grandmother when she voyaged by ship to San Francisco in 1923. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Tom.

Still, it was the support of sponsors via family members and relatives back home that initially paid for the long and arduous passage. While this could be fortuitous in some situations, Cynthia realized that for women like her grandmother it was an insidious outcome.

“It was human trafficking,” Cynthia told this reporter. “My grandmother was sent to the United States to be an indentured servant. Only, her servitude was unending. My grandmother was bought by a wealthy Chinese man in San Francisco and the village where my grandmother was from, they made the dress she was to wear when she arrived.”

Bridgewater State University Women’s Studies Dept. noted in 2000 that, for centuries women in China had low status. “Abusive practices and behaviors such as the sale and purchase of women, wife-beating, and female infanticide were not uncommon.“

This revelation and realization pushed Cynthia from what had been explorative, experimental and perhaps even whimsical art to profoundly deep and complex.

Coincidentally, around the time Ballotta was volunteering at La Casa las Madres, Cynthia was urged to create art to address pain. Especially as Cynthia calls it, “the ancestral pain of unwanted females.”

Surreal artist, Cynthia Tom at exhibit. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The disregard for women is damaging. As Cynthia points out. “Unspoken, this trauma morphs and evolves for generations.”

Her art then evolved into meditation and then retreats, where healing, reckoning and rebuilding of lives for women into ‘A Place of Her Own.’

Working with Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA) Cynthia was able to establish ‘A Place of Her Own’ an arts-based program of healing workshops and exhibitions using art making processes for self-reflection and group sharing to address ancestral and familial trauma.

As of now when Cynthia has an exhibit, it’s not a typical gallery showing. It is an experience, not just an art installation. Cynthia’s surrealist expression lends itself for the art viewer to participate in a healing process.

“Empowerment” by Cynthia Tom. Photo courtesy of Linda Cabellon Dever. “I am so happy with this of Cynthia’s work, said Dever. It makes me feel strong which is important as I go through cancer treatment,” she said.

Ballotta noted that Cynthia’s art “reaches out to guide me personally to be more present, meditative, forgiving and patient.” For Cynthia healing is empowerment in the best possible way. This is what her artwork seeks to achieve. To learn more about surrealist Cynthia Tom, visit her website.

Also, for more information about each of the wines and the women featured, visit the Cantadora website. The wines are available for purchase in the Fall of 2022.