Garden as gallery: Filoli displays 40 pieces of sculpture in its gardens


By Sheryl Nonnenberg

Whether it's tulips in spring, roses in summer or the elaborate decorations and festive programs at Christmastime, there is always beauty to savor at Filoli.

The early 20th century country estate, designated as a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, consists of a 36,000-square-foot residence surrounded by 654 acres of land. It's considered a must-see for visitors to the Peninsula.

Now, there's another reason to make the drive to Filoli: the 2015 Summer Sculpture Exhibit. Forty pieces of sculpture made of metal, stone and wood are situated around the meticulously tended gardens, and even inside the house. The works will be on view until Sept. 13.

The idea for the exhibition was conceived in 2013 when local sculptor Jeff Owen was asked to place his work in the garden. Jim Salyards, head of horticulture at Filoli, thought it was such a success that he suggested an annual show of sculpture around the grounds.

The inaugural exhibition was held last summer, with more than 100 works of art installed. It was subsequently decided that future exhibitions would feature fewer pieces, given the extraordinary amount of work involved in choosing and installing large-scale outdoor sculptures.

Unlike with a museum or gallery setting, a wide range of issues must be taken into consideration with outdoor installation, including the fragile nature of the vegetation, visitor traffic patterns and the exposure of the sculptures to the elements. For a show of this kind, there's also a need for close coordination among the artists, Filoli staff members and the many volunteer groups that keep the popular estate running.

Emily Newell, volunteer curator for the event, explained that the process of choosing work for this year's exhibition began in November 2014, when a group of volunteers began researching and visiting artist studios. Often, while visiting one sculptor they learned of others working close by. Sometimes one sculptor would recommend another.

Before long, the list had been established at nine artists, who were invited to submit a maximum of five pieces each. All of this year's selected artists live in the Bay Area, and a total of 40 sculptures are in the installation.

For the artists, creating the art was just half of the commitment. All transportation and installation costs are borne by the sculptors, with on-site assistance given by Filoli staff. Filoli receives a 30 percent commission if a sculpture is sold. Ms. Newell said 10 pieces were purchased last year.

"Since Filoli is such a prestigious venue, I was without hesitation in participating," said Santa Cruz-based artist Marilyn Kuksht, who works in welded steel. A former executive at Bank of America, she left her successful career, took some classes in welding and set up her own shop.

Working with recycled materials and "industrial detritus," Ms. Kuksht says she finds inspiration in "a piece of junk or a leftover remnant from an industrial job."

Visitors encounter "Carmel Karma," one of her six pieces, sited among the trees outside Filoli's Visitor and Education Center. The cool blue color is a result of the artist's love of beautiful finishes, which she calls "a signature of my work." Its ribbons of steel reach skyward, mimicking the branches of the trees in the surrounding olive orchard.

An exhibition catalog, complete with detailed map and a list of the sculptures, allows visitors to wander through the grounds at their own pace. Additionally, 12 specially trained docents will lead guided sculpture walks on select Saturdays and Thursdays throughout the summer. Reservations are required.

"Summer is the best season for a display such as this since we are in between major plantings," Ms. Newell said. The prolonged drought has also opened up opportunities to site sculptures in otherwise occupied locations. The lower terrace, formerly a lush green lawn, has been allowed to dry, making it the perfect spot for Karen Cusolito's "Tumble Leaf #6." The large steel piece, heart-shaped and intricately wrought, comes equipped with artificial-turf "pillows," which make for a great place to sit and contemplate the beauty of the estate and the nearby foothills.

Payson McNett was so inspired by the beauty of the grounds at Filoli that he decided to create a site-specific piece for the show. After viewing the orientation video that explains the history of the estate, he said, he was intrigued by the two families who have owned the property over the years.

The Bourn family bought the estate in 1907, held it until 1936 and gave it its name, a shortened version of Mr. Bourn's personal credo: "Fight for a just cause; Love your fellow man; Live a good life." In 1937, the Roth family bought the estate, maintaining it until 1975, when the family donated a significant part of the estate to the National Trust and the rest to the Filoli Center.

"I found myself looking at the imagery of gold mine shafts and sailing ships," Mr. McNett said (the Bourns owned the Empire gold mine, the Roths a shipping business, Matson Navigation). "So when I chose wood and rope as my materials, it was influenced by the two family businesses."

His "Foundations," located in the meadow behind the house, is a wood-encased "mine shaft," jutting above ground, that changes perspective as one walks around it. The top of the shaft is covered with very tightly strung rope: a nod to Matson Navigation.

Many of the pieces in the exhibition reflect the natural environment in which they are placed, with allusions to flora and fauna. Ms. Newell said the effort was to focus on the abstract, with no sculptures of the human figure. The selection committee also strove to avoid political statements. "Modern works as long as it's sort of sedate," Ms. Newell noted.

Though the pieces are not a permanent part of the estate, they've been made to look as if they belong. The warm, golden patina of the bronze works in particular melds seamlessly with the colorful flowers, vines and fruit-bearing trees.

In the middle of the vegetable garden, Ms. Kuksht's "Lifting" is perfectly poised atop an "herb spiral" that serves as a natural base. Dedicated to soldiers who have returned from combat with PTSD, the piece has steel "arms" that lift toward heaven, but the center piece is bent and twisted.

In the corner of the Chartres Garden stands Adon Valenziano's "Formicidae Stirpis," a giant, bronze, ant-like creature. It's the only piece in the show that is situated in a flower bed all other pieces are placed on bases and it seems to emerge from the ground. It sounds scary, but is actually quite fun to encounter in the midst of lush flowers and willowy trees.

Be sure to go inside the house to see the sensuous and carefully crafted sculptures in hardwood by Belmont artist Ruth Waters. And on your way out, take time to view the new exhibition in the Visitor and Education Center. "Angles, Lines and Curves," a show of photography that features notable and historic buildings around the world, is a perfect complement to the geometry and architectonic quality of the sculptures on display.

Freelance writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at nonnenberg@aol.com.

Event information

What: 2015 Summer Sculpture Exhibit

Where: Filoli, 86 Canada Road, Woodside

When: Through Sept. 13, with a reception Thursday, Aug. 13, 5-7 p.m.

Cost: Admission: Free for members, $18 for others. Guided walks: $10 for members, $20 for non-members (includes admission)

Info: Go to filoli.org/art-exhibits or call (650) 364-8300, ext. 263.

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