The Arts
May 24-30, 2006

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Sculpture Shock

A 3-D summer and everything else in my head

By Gretchen Giles

If there's a conversational theme in Sonoma County right now, it strangely enough is about art. Proving to be a poorer canvas than that round-headed kid, a flock of Woodstocks has garishly settled around downtown Santa Rosa, prompting the daily paper to bravely question: Yes--but is it art?

Meanwhile, the Community Foundation used some of its James Irvine grant monies to fund three hugely attended Arts & Conversation series at Sonoma State University this spring. Such important art-world figures as collector and SFMOMA board president Steven Oliver, curator Renny Pritikin, artists Chris Finley and Ray Beldner and San Francisco gallery owner Catherine Clark sat on panels with North Bay artists, curators and gallery owners to discuss their individual roles vis-à-vis art, drawing near-SRO crowds and evoking in at least one instance a mood perhaps similar to that found at a longshoreman's union hall meeting.

The Community Foundation has further announced that it will suspend individual grants for the next three years, preferring instead to fund the Cultural Arts Council as it struggles both to "brand" the area for art and to build a 21st-century website that draws visitors and serves artists. While some in the art community worry that the word "brand" too closely evokes Kleenex or that horrendous new usage, Realtor®, most agree that being recognized as an area renowned for that which you can neither drink nor chew is a worthy goal.

While the Arts Council scratches its collective head trying to figure the best way to brand "art country" (one early suggestion), groups and individuals around the North Bay have been quietly moving forward with work of their own. The free First Friday Santa Rosa Downtown Art Walk launches on--wait for it--Friday, June 1, from 5pm to 8pm. Offering one-day-only installations and yummy free food in businesses, the event lingers mostly around the Fourth Street corridor but extends as far over as the Sonoma County Museum, with the trolley at visitors' service and reportedly strolling musicians to lighten the heavy art load.

Speaking of which, the Sonoma County Museum is reportedly set to take over the current Conklin Bros. carpet store at the east end of its block on Seventh Street for transformation into a "temporary" contemporary museum, merely waiting for the $1 million in funding to shake itself out. Some civic leaders want to move the museum site entirely, ending up blocks away at the site of the current city hall and establishing an "arts district" near the Juilliard Park area where the A Street Gallery and the studios of Barbara Elliott, Mary Vaughn and Mario Uribe already attract curious minds, creating an organic arts district just like in the way-old prebrand days.

Established with a handful of participants just last November, the Sonoma County Gallery Group is now 51 members strong. Offering a free stellar map of county galleries and the studios of member artists, the SCGG's website already serves as a calling card to those thinking of visiting Sonoma County and those already lucky enough to live here.

The bundling together of resources, a strategy brilliantly employed by area theater companies under the guide and goading of Arts Council adjunct John Moran, has proven the power of numbers.

None of which has anything to do with sculpture, except that sculpture this summer has everything to do with the discussion of and interest in fine art that is burbling up all over. Curator Gwenda Joyce, newly returned to Sonoma from Chicago, where she is a partner in the acclaimed Gwenda Jay/Addington Gallery, is a great part of that discussion.

Curating "Elegance and Energy," the 11th annual rotation at Paradise Ridge's five-acre pygmy-forest sculpture garden, Joyce pulled work from such area artists as Bruce Johnson, Robert Ellison, Ned Kahn, Riis Burwell and Chuck Ginnever. Newly introduced to the grove are sculptors David Kimball Anderson, Roger Berry and Matt Gill. This outdoor gallery has easily tolerated such conceptual sculpture as can be defined by mist lines and string.

Joyce's show is far more ready, featuring large organic forms that are easy to touch and presumably, to understand. Bruce Johnson's massive knuckle of redwood hammered over with greening copper throbs in the grove's center, the most ill-mannered and lively of the lot.

Joyce also operates Buckeye Nursery (2425 Old Adobe Road, Petaluma; 707.559.7081), a Petaluma spread that showcases large sculpture from a national roster of stars, all of which can be enjoyed while one also picks out a lemon tree. Work by such artists as Bruce Beasley--who enjoyed a one-man retrospective at the Oakland Museum last year--as well as by Tom Collins and our own Penny Michel and Nuala Creed are freely available for the public to admire and consider. New Mexico artist Stacey Neff's contribution, a curious graveyard of French limestone, rewards close scrutiny when small bird images are found drawn on some of the stones.

Further north, Healdsburg has caught the fever with the Voigt Family Sculpture Foundation's recent installation of five metal sculptures along the Foss Creek trail. In Windsor, designer Julian Cohen and his wife Marie Cohen are spearheading the newly revived Sonoma County Alliance for Contemporary Arts (SCACA), a nonprofit whose charter had almost elapsed when resuscitated earlier this year.

The SCACA is currently amid talks with SFMOMA to borrow at least six major works from the institution's collection for placement near Windsor's Town Green. Rejecting a Calder due to its delicacy ("Too much responsibility," Marie says with a laugh), Cohen is hoping to secure at least a Robert Arneson piece and certainly one by Mark di Suvero, who keeps a Petaluma studio in addition to those in New York and Paris, and so can be claimed as, ahem, a local. The Cohen's hope that the SCACA will entice urban tourists to search further afield by having such significant pieces in Windsor's new old-town district.

Not to be outdone, the city of Cloverdale launches its new rotation of civic sculpture in the downtown plaza between First and Second streets on Saturday, June 3, at 5pm. Look for large-scale work by Aileen Cormak, Robert Ellison, Jose Alfredo Garcia and Susandra Spicer, among others.

And perhaps finally, though that's a tricky one given this subject, SSU launches the "Commence" exhibit of public art by students Lillon Bandalin, Joey Casto, Greg Flood, Ann Greenwood, June Li, Maureen Mayes, Lauren Okon, Portia Sanborn and Alexander Treu on Thursday, May 25, at 4pm. A tour of the projects, which are scattered across campus, takes off promptly at 6pm from the art building's courtyard.

When asked to describe why this sculpture mania has gripped us so, Marie Cohen smiles brightly through the rain pounding down on a recent Sunday at the Paradise Ridge Sculpture Garden.

"It's so real," she says.

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