Sunday, August 19, 2012

Art Like Djerassi Art

You look into the Djerassi forest and there is a sprite looking back at you.
Or is this your forest reflection?
Faeries: Friend or Foe series, Derek Jackson, 2002
Because I got the days mixed up for the cats' vet visit, I was walking away from the recycling bin just when a ranger realized he couldn't go on the Djerassi sculpture tour. So the Pixie and I got the tickets instead. And there was more to that day. We checked a Sudden Oak Death research site, saw albino redwoods, hung out with cute dogs who gave us poison oak, heard the fledgling barn owls, and the Pixie showed off her cat whispering skills. Yep, that was a magical day. Was it the art or was it pixie dust?

The hills as neighbors looking at each other - a landscape painted on the cut end of a trunk reflects the hills of Djerassi and La Honda Open Space Preserve in the background.
untitled landscape, Alison Moritsugu, 1995
Djerassi is a private ranch west of the La Honda Open Space Preserve. Often while working in the La Honda preserve, I've paused at a high point, looked over at the Djerassi hills and wondered, "What's going on over there?" Djerassi has a Resident Artists Program where writers, visual and media artists, composers and choreographers spend about a month on the remote retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains. They create, think, collaborate, or relax. "Uninterrupted time for work" with acres of forests and air to wander. Since the Peninsula Open Space Trust funds a conservation easement on the Djerassi property, and they also fund land purchases for park agencies, I have been curious about this private approach to land conservation.

This giant egg resting at the base of a redwood stump is an art installation slowly disassembling in its environment.  How many years will it take until we discovery what's inside?
Skin of Dreams, Sung-Joon Hwang, 1999
The Djerassi sculpture tour features large or hidden sculptures tucked about the redwood forests and open meadows with distant views of the Pacific Ocean. Many of the sculptures have unique interactions with their environment. Go see for yourself - much better than reading about it.

Laura Amador, Program Assistant, describes the quandary on whether to preserve outdoor art installations in their original form or allow them to be shaped by their natural surroundings.
Orpheus Coyote and friends, William King, 1999
Usually at this point in my blog writing I dive into a long, researched description.  Guess what -  I am NOT going to define art.  Nope, not me, it is way out of my field of expertise. Furthermore, there was something refreshing about being naive about art as I was romping across the Djerassi grounds with the Pixie and I don't want to lose that. To see these colossal, manmade creations on a ridgetop at the edge of the continent among the ecological forces that I analyze and respond to on a daily basis was a breathtaking intersection of the commonplace and unusual.

Oak canopy as a stage
What were the artists thinking when they first came onto this ground? What foggy kiss, hawk screaming, leaf scraping the sky, determined bug crossing a trail stimulated them to create? While I am standing topside trying to figure out how snakes ambush prey in narrow underground tunnels, and wondering if tractor-pulled implements slice open soil mychorrizae, the artists' senses and brains are firing off in other directions. In these coastal hills of California, my hands pull weeds and plant acorns, their hands wind, paint and shape words. “Hands are to hearts what slaves are to kings!” I wanted to shout, but I was too overstimulated by the art-biology conjunction to hike and speak at the same time. 

A woodrat nest inside and poison oak vines outside add even more character to the creative story behind this sausage truck.
James Chinneck - State Certified Facts, 1999
As we hiked up another hill to another looming art installation, a tiny rattlesnake slipped into the stubble at the edge of the road - a cosmic sign or just a common grassland species utilizing the sunny trail exposure to modify its metabolism? It's stunning to think of all the creative and intellectual processes being fueled by the shared coastal air.

The old barn at Djerassi.  Tucked inside the brown and green La Honda preserve hills in the background, I know there are stubborn invasive plants, newts galore, bats nesting above the historic dance floor of the Rocking Martini Ranch, and more.
Art is emotional. That’s as analytical as I am willing to go for now. In the office and grocery store, I curb my emotions so that I can be more productive and quietly cloak myself as normal. Outside, it feels safer to be wild, to fantasize about heroes, to watch the young lovers bump into each other and predict their next fight.

A sighting by the Pixie in an East Bay Park.

In the last few weeks, the Pixie has been sending me photographs of outside art she sees in her constant ramblings. Each time we ask ourselves, “Is that art?”  Feathers stuck into a gate post are attractive but they don’t whack me into the emotional turmoil that the Djerassi sculptures did. The artists invited to Djerassi are accomplished in shaping the emotional context of their work. And undoubtably, it is also the stunning Djerassi environment. So now the Pixie and I ask, "But is it art like Djerassi art?"

Faeries: Friend or Foe series, Derek Jackson, 2002
Mirror Girl went to another Djerassi event a few weeks later. I sneakily asked her questions afterwards to see if she had a similar experience. On the surface, we were talking about common friends, the science of education and local politics, but finally I bursted out, “Wasn’t it like a refreshing slap in the face? Your world, your expertise tossed on its head?”  Her response was professional and uncharacteristically muted, but I know she will be visiting Djerassi again. Next time, I think the Pixie should go with her.

Cast-off redwood branches woven into a barbwire fence. I am not sure this is an official art installation but I like it.  While wandering, we kept seeing creative ways that the trails and facilities were maintained.  Trail duff raked up into undulating curves as if a humming maid had rearranged the nicknacks while dusting.  A playful approach to land management.
The Djerrassi website has info about tours here. The free monthly tours are filled up for the 2012 summer season, but there are some fund-raising events you can attend and you can always sign up early next year. The October Artful Harvest looks great. The ticket prices are hefty but it is a fundraiser and looks to be an exciting day. I highly recommend bringing wacky, creative companions.

Droog, Blane De St. Croix, 2003

Droog is the Djerassi piece I found most evocative. The boards are stuck in slots in a large stump. Perhaps these are the original slots used to cut down the former redwood tree. Before chainsaws, two men would stand on either side of the trunk and pull a long saw between them to cut the tree down.  Redwood trees grow to great heights and develop buttressed bases to support their hefty crowns, but this makes them harder to cut down.  Lumberjacks would carve slots above the swollen base on opposite sides of the tree,  insert tensioned boards into the slots, and stand on these "springboards" so they could saw down the big tree faster at the narrower trunk diameter.

Margot Knight, Djerassi Executive Director, kindly checked to make sure I identified the artists correctly and told me, "Droog means friendship in Russian and the two sets of wooden legs symbolize, among other things, the friendship and trust that must have existed between the two loggers undertaking that dangerous task." 

The carved wooden legs remind me of table legs and then all the other furniture and framing in our houses that are made out of wood. We live in houses of wood away from the forests and then go for hikes in the forests and are sad about the tree stumps. I am not sure how much redwood forest ecology and logging history this artist knew, but this piece is rich in ruminations about the conflicting ways we interact with natural lands. One of my co-workers looked at this photo and kept saying, "But the legs are cut off at the same height as the stump."  It didn't strike me until just now how eerily suggestive this is and now I look forward to my next opportunity to contemplate the Droog.


  1. Love Djerassi! Been going to the Open House/Art Trail tours for 4 years - The environmental art - art in the woods - is just totally awesome! (LOVE "Frank's Sausages"...)

  2. Me too. Djerassi is awesome, the land and the art spectacular. Even when you think the art isn't spectacular, it makes you think and that is what good art is about.


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