Water world: Woodside resident curates ‘California: The Art of Water' at the Cantor


By Kate Daly | Special to the Almanac

Claire Perry of Woodside raises a lot of topical questions in "California: The Art of Water," an exhibit she curated that's currently at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.

"And I didn't even talk about the drought," says Ms. Perry, who holds a Ph.D. in art history from Stanford and served as curator of American art at Cantor from 1999 to 2008.

As a guest curator, she has put together more than 50 works by artists such as Albert Bierstadt, Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams and David Hockney to illustrate how they have depicted and influenced the state's water story from the Gold Rush to the present day.

The blurbs she wrote for the show provide a narrative about early artists coming west and creating iconic images of the natural beauty found at Lake Tahoe and Yosemite in paintings and albumen prints, which in turn may have lured settlers.

William Keith's oil painting dating from 1907 to 1910, for example, presents Hetch Hetchy Valley as a green haven with snowcapped mountains in the background. (With John Muir, he fought unsuccessfully to prevent the valley from being flooded to serve as San Francisco's reservoir.)

The colorful canvas contrasts with the nearby display of photographer Ansel Adams' 1961 gelatin silver print, "Shasta Dam and Mount Shasta," one of several works that captures the harnessing of water to meet the needs of a growing population.

Then there's Peter Goin's color photograph, circa 2005, entitled, "Irrigated grid, new peach orchard; Sutter Buttes in background, Sutter County" a desert landscape dotted with verdant fruit trees. "It's about field irrigation, a very generous, extravagant use of water," Ms. Perry says.

In an interview, she quotes statistics that show agriculture uses 80 percent of the water in California yet represents 2 percent of the gross state product.

"I wanted to have a balance between the idyllic abundance in water in the wilderness scenes in the 1900s versus Owens Lake images that say we've done badly," she says. "They show some poor choices."

She grew up in Southern California, where, over a century ago, urbanization was made possible by diverting the Owens River into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The subject is immortalized in the movie, "Chinatown."

Today the dried up lakebed causes high levels of dust pollution. The desolation is palpable in "Owens Lake #1," the 2009 Edward Burtynsky black-and-white photograph Ms. Perry selected.

The one video on exhibit is Nicole Antebi's 2007 "Tilapia Jetty," where buckets of dead fish on the Salton Sea signal another environmental disaster.

"Between agriculture and urban communities, the problem is we can't sustain the ecosystems," Ms. Perry says.

"With 39 million people, we don't have enough water," she adds. "It's about water rights that were established during the Gold Rush; it's something we need to figure out."

She began "pondering" the subject of her exhibit three years ago, then started research the next year, including meeting with water experts at Stanford. She has worked on the project full time for the past year with help from assistant Jeanie Lawrence.

Works of art about California have been a longtime interest of hers. In putting together this exhibit, she ended up "cherry picking" from many lenders and private collectors she has gotten to know over the years.

Ms. Perry, who has also been a guest curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, says she could have added easily 30 pieces to her current show had space allowed.

She lobbied to have the rooms painted a swimming pool turquoise and preplanned mounting the exhibit by using a software design program that mocks up displays.

Getting the lights, signage, and positioning right took only a week, leading to an on-time opening of July 13.

One of Ms. Perry's favorite pieces is hanging near the exit. It's a privately owned oil painting by Ernest Narjot from the 1880s entitled "Leland Stanford's Picnic, Fountain Grove, Palo Alto, California." The former governor, founder of Stanford and railroad developer is drinking wine with four people: a geologist, a sociologist, a poet, and John Muir "in what may have been an imaginary place."

The exhibit

"California: The Art of Water" is on exhibit at the Cantor Arts Center through Nov. 28. The Cantor is open Wednesday through Monday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for Thursday when closing time is 8 p.m. Admission is free. The Cantor is located at 328 Lomita Drive at Stanford University.

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Be the first to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Downtown Palo Alto gets new Vietnamese eatery
By Elena Kadvany | 12 comments | 6,097 views

More Stupid Plastic Food Things
By Laura Stec | 22 comments | 3,015 views

Composting Works
By Sherry Listgarten | 2 comments | 1,693 views

On Metaphor and Mortality
By Aldis Petriceks | 0 comments | 959 views

No sand toys, no problem
By Cheryl Bac | 2 comments | 278 views