Artists find inspiration at Djerassi compound near Woodside | May 30, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - May 30, 2012

Artists find inspiration at Djerassi compound near Woodside

by Barbara Wood Special to the Almanac

A few miles past the ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains above Woodside, within view of the ocean on a clear day, lies a magical place — a place that inspires artists to create even more magic.

It is also a place where visitors may come to view the magic.

The place is SMIP Ranch, home of, among other things, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Since 1979, when Dr. Carl Djerassi, one of the inventors of the birth control pill, began the program in his daughter's memory, more than 2,000 artists have spent at least four weeks at the ranch.

"It's a gift of time," says Margot Knight, who took over as executive director of the artists' program in November and now lives on the property. Just as scientists need labs and athletes need coaches to do their jobs, "artists need time," she says.

The program receives at least 10 applications for each residency.

Many of the artists who participate have left pieces of themselves behind — work inspired by the rolling hills, the endless vistas and the redwood groves of the 580-acre site.

Visitors can tour the artworks, and soak in the natural beauty of the site, on tours offered from mid-March through October.

Works seen on the tours range from an exuberant quartet of stick musicians cavorting on a hillside (William King's Orpheus Coyote and friends, 1999) to a series of graffiti-inspired drawings of imaginary creatures tucked into redwood groves and other locations that appear to be their natural habitats (Derek Jackson's Faeries, 2002).

Near the old barn visitors can see artist Alison Moritsugu's traditional-style landscape painting, with the actual view she painted right behind it.

Most of the artworks are left to weather, and deteriorate, where they were placed. Sung-Joon Hwang's 1999 piece, Skin of Dreams, is an egg-like object with something embedded inside. "Nobody knows what's inside" but the artist, says tour guide and Djerassi program assistant Laura Amador. But it wears away year by year and "one day it will emerge," she says.

Ms. Knight hopes to offer more tours so more local residents can see the property and art. "I get the sense sometimes that we are known better internationally than we are in our own backyard," she says.

Some visitors, like Randall Schwabacher, a telecommunications consultant for T-Mobile who lives in Woodside, are so impressed by their first visit they come back over and over again. Mr. Schwabacher, who is now vice chair of the artists program's board of trustees, said he was first invited on a tour to a place he'd never heard of by a friend about 10 years ago.

"I was shocked," he says. "I was just so surprised because I'd never heard of it." The art and the views "just really spoke to me," he says. "This was a beautiful place in our backyard."

As a child growing up in Atherton and attending Menlo-Atherton High School, he had loved that area, he said.

A few years later, Mr. Schwabacher was persuaded to join the Djerassi program's board, although he at first begged off because of work commitments. "It was important for me," said Mr. Schwabacher, whose wife, Kristine Elliott Schwabacher, is a former professional ballerina. "I'm not an artist, I can't create any art, but I love to support people who create art."

Almost as important to Mr. Schwabacher is the preservation of the Djerassi property. In 1999, the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) purchased a conservation easement on the property, which forever protects it from development and logging. The proceeds from the easement are in an endowment to maintain the property and buildings.

"That's kind of my emphasis ... the land and the buildings," says Mr. Schwabacher. Other board members who live in the Almanac coverage area include David Stanley, Margot Knight and Dale Djerassi of Woodside, and Gary Bridges and Lava Thomas of Menlo Park.

Dr. Carl Djerassi is no longer a member of the board of trustees, and in 1999 the program became an independent organization.

The group of artists who participate in the program is varied. A recent group included a playwright from Pasadena, a composer from Oakland, a visual artist from Poland, a media artist from Fargo (North Dakota), a choreographer from Korea, a writer from New York City, a visual artist from Germany, and a writer from Brooklyn, New York.

Soon, even more artists will be able to take part. A new building, built to honor the program's co-founder and Carl Djerassi's wife, Diane Middlebrook, who died in 2007, will house four writers. Ms. Middlebrook was a retired Stanford University English professor and biographer of Anne Sexton and others.

Solar panels over the cottages will provide nearly half the energy needed for the entire program, Ms. Knight said.

Once the new buildings are given a final occupancy permit by San Mateo County, a few artists who were friends and colleagues of Ms. Middlebrook will be invited to participate in the program, Ms. Knight said. She would also like to invite mathematicians and scientists who write about art.

The architect of the studios, Cass Calder Smith of CCS Architecture in San Francisco, spent time as a child at the nearby Star Hill Academy commune. After he was hired to design the studios, Mr. Smith also became a program trustee.

The program will probably not grow much more, however, Ms. Knight said, because its small size allows the artists to get to know each other and collaborate during their stay.

What does the SMIP in the name of the ranch signify? The program's website explains that when Dr. Djerassi purchased the property in the 1960s, with proceeds from stock from his employer, Syntex, it at first meant "Syntex Made It Possible" but he later changed it to: sic manebimus in pace, which translates to "thus we'll remain in peace."


The public may sign up for "Walk in the Wild" sculpture tours by calling 747-1250. Tours with the program's executive director are $50; other tours guided by program staff are free. Go to for more information.

Barbara Wood is a freelance writer, photographer and gardener who lives and works in an 1889 farmhouse in Woodside with her husband, and a Labrador retriever and a flock of chickens.