Zeitgeist – it’s one of those German idioms that everyone understands intuitively but damn if it isn’t hard to describe. It literally translates to “spirit of the time,” but it can mean so much more. For some, it’s a motorcycle bar qua beer garden south of Market; for others it’s a Smashing Pumpkins album they bought for reasons they can no longer fathom. For the Petaluma Arts Center, however, “zeitgeist” is an exploration of the “interrelationship between the current thoughts and beliefs of our times…and how these beliefs and cultural trends affect us; how they are reflected in our lives and our work, and reflected and responded to in the arts.”

That’s just artspeak for “this is what’s happening now – we think.”

Designed by Katherine Plank, “The Zeitgeist Exhibition: Capturing the Times Through Art” opened mid-May and continues through July 10.

Among the exemplary work on display is sculptor Henry Washer’s “Pastoral Salt,” which makes a nod to Renaissance sculpture but in an unconventional medium – an animal salt lick of the sort one might find in one of our local pastures. The work is exquisitely carved, timeless in subject and expressiveness, and yet burdened by the intrinsic frailty of its substance. That it’s a man wearing a thorn of crowns suggests volumes or at least it’s a “brine of the times.”

Panel Speaks to Spirit of the Times, Petaluma Arts and Beyond

On Thursday, June 23, the arts center hosts what promises to be a lively and informative panel discussion between architect Claudia Cleaver, a long-time sustainable practices architect, engineer Ned Orrett (founder of Ecozoic Associates) and artist and master storyteller Craig Coss.

“Is exciting because it’s a combination of the subjective and temporary,” observes Petaluma Arts Center executive director Val Richman, who points to the challenge of defining an era while one is still in it.

If you say ‘the zeitgeist of the ’60s,’ for example, everybody kind of knows what that means.  As people are coming through the exhibition, and even those who put the work in the exhibition, it’s obvious that everybody relates to the zeitgeist of the first decade of this new millennium, and yet – it’s just like ‘wow’ – the perception of that ‘groupthink’ is different for every single person” she muses, then adds, “Can you identify it? Yes – and yet. It’s relative and ephemeral, and yet defining of an era.”

Petaluma Arts Center gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday through Monday. Open until 8:00 pm and free admission on Mondays May 23 and June 27. Located at  230 Lakeville Street, entrance on E. Washington. For more information, visit petalumaartscenter.org.