News Column

Filoli's summertime Sculpture in the Gardens

August 18, 2014

By Angela Hill, The Oakland Tribune



Aug. 18--When it was first suggested I visit a sculpture garden exhibit at Filoli for this column, I beat back a muffled yawn. (Don't tell my editor.)

Oh, I love Filoli. Filoli is fabulous. The historic Woodside mansion built in the early 1900s was styled after an English country estate, surrounded by 16 acres of elegant gardens -- reflecting ponds loaded with lily pads, stoic yews ever erect in military formation, ivy-veiled archways, sweet-pea-shrouded pergolas and flowers, flowers, flowers. It's a glorious escape where I often meet my sister for soul refreshment. And for the buttery lemon cake in the cafe.

But ... a sculpture garden? I envisioned a collection of naked and bronzed Greek gods corralled in a clearing somewhere. No offense, gods, but ... yawn.

Not so. This exhibit (which ends Sept. 7, so you'd better hurry) is called Sculpture in the Gardens, with more than 60 works of contemporary sculpture by skilled local artists scattered throughout the grounds -- the sculpture, not the artists, that is. The works are placed so carefully, so thoughtfully, they become part of the environment as if they've grown right there, investigated by curious bees in search of, well, whatever it is bees search for. Pollen? The meaning of life?

Some works are massive and bold, set on a terrace or out in a field. Some are more delicate and whimsical -- small ceramic spheres with inspiring phrases like, "Live your dream," and "Creativity is contagious," are tucked under ferns and camellia trees in the woodland garden section, perhaps left behind by elves and fairies after a midnight game of croquet.

It's the first time Filoli has held such an exhibit, in part to show how art can enhance a garden experience. And it's not a bit boring. More like a fanciful Easter egg hunt. A challenge to find every piece. They even give you a map.

Go early

It's always a good time to go to Filoli, but it's really good to go early in the day just as it opens at 10 a.m. to avoid the crowds, especially in nice weather. Even the drive there is pleasant. Put on some classical music, tool along down CaÑada Road (keeping an eye out for bicyclists, because they like that road too) and soak in the scenery. Puffs of fog hang on the ridge above Crystal Springs Reservoir, trees reflect in the water. Surely Harry Potter might careen low over the lake on a highfalutin' hippogriff.

Hints of the sculpture to come are found along the driveway. A big hunk of bronze juts from the ground by the visitors center, like some rusty piece of an ancient alien spaceship that fell from the sky.

You can go straight into the gardens, but I always like to start with a walk-through of the beautiful brick mansion (you may remember it as the Carrington Mansion in the "Dynasty" series), and I'm glad I did because sculptures are stationed there, too, in the entry courtyard. One is a fountain, water sliding down the stainless-steel skin of a tall curvaceous pillar, "Inspire" by Archie Held.

Inside, friendly docents share the history of the 36,000-square-foot main house, furnished with an extensive collection of 17th- and 18th-century English antiques. Filoli was built for San Francisco's prominent Bourn family. The estate's name came from the first letters of key words from Mr. Bourn's credo, "Fight for a just cause; Love your fellow man; Live a good life." The property was later purchased by the Roth family, owners of the Matson Navigation Co. and its luxury ocean liners.

On the hunt

After a short tour of the house, head out to the gardens and inhale the sweet floral breath. A sculpture rises from the middle of the reflecting pond with tall, twisting leaves of steel -- another Archie Held piece called "Entice." From banks of red begonias grows a stocky, twisted piece of bronze titled "Strike Zone" by Richard Starks.

Suspend worries about drought in this oasis. Gardeners here are masters of drip irrigation and conservation. (In fact, read Filoli's detailed response to the drought: www.filoli.org/drought/.)

Totem sculptures are plentiful. Among the Chinese lace ferns, Nessy Barzilay's totems stand as playful stacks of ceramic orbs -- some like gourds, some like something from the bottom of sea. Henriette Ponte's versions employ vibrant oranges and yellows. Linda Hansen Mau's "Garden Sentinels" are shrouded and faceless but somehow convey a solemn presence.

There's even sculpture at my favorite Filoli spot, beneath the tent-like arms of the Camperdown elms. Next to the well-worn benches sits Starks' "Contiguous," a swirl of green metal, like large, green chain links, melted and stuck together.

As your visit ends, be sure to stop in the gift shop and linger over lavender lotions, fancy mints and apple-jalapeÑo jam, or buy some succulents and begonias. And pop in the cafe in the visitors center for artichoke-chicken Florentine soup and, of course, a slice of buttery lemon cake. On the drive out, listen to classical music to maintain your soul-refreshed mood. Spy a hippogriff flying low.

Follow Angela Hill on Twitter @GiveEmHill.

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(c)2014 The Oakland Tribune (Oakland, Calif.)

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