This is an article I wrote for the Italian art magazine Look Lateral, which later decided to cancel their print version and my work along with it. Bummer, because it sounded like a great opportunity at the time. Having spent a fair amount of time preparing it, I’d feel it wasted effort to simply leave it filed away in a remote folder, so I’m sharing it with the world here. All pictures and text are my own copyright property.*
You see them, the huddled masses, bundled in their jackets, yearning to breathe clear air. Poor tourists, who voyaged so far to San Francisco, the pinnacle of California destinations, only to find that it’s not California. In summer, in particular, it’s smothered in an unending layer of dense fog. And, sad to say, it’s often like this during the other three seasons.
So where are Art Lovers, some of the most notorious visitants and bons vivants of San Francisco, to go for reprieve from the doldrums of a continuous white-gray existence and enjoy Artistic Experience, that essential to any life well lived?
The answer is to go north, to Cornerstone Sonoma.
I left just after breakfast. Getting out of The City was surprisingly harmless. Roaring over the Golden Gate I sped around the customary coterie of slow left-lane drivers, positioned just to annoy me. In no time I was rolling into the hills and valleys of the North Bay, a land known for its vineyards, climate, retirees, ample hiking and, last but not least, a population of well-to-do artists and intellectuals—not to mention their burnout hippie hangers-on.
The location was easy enough to find. Right on Highway 121 a large “Cornerstone Sonoma” sign appears, accompanied with a “Turn here” directional guide, for those too dense to read between the lines. An oversized blue chair also sits outside near the road and just at the entrance to the main plaza by the parking lot.
Shortly after arriving, I met Teresa Raffo, the co-founder. I immediately found her friendly, bubbly, warm and ready to tell me anything I wanted to know about Cornerstone.
What struck me first of all, as I basked in the warmth, was that the grounds were not limited to just the gardens; rather, it was almost like a small village, with shops, galleries, a restaurant and wine-tasting rooms. Telling her I was surprised all they had to offer, she said, “Yes, there’s something here for everyone. A lot of people get dragged along and don’t want to go to the gardens for some reason, and prefer to go wine tasting. A lot of people will also order lunch here and take it out to eat in the gardens to enjoy a picnic.”
Which is to say—don’t worry, you can even bring your philistine family members along and drop them off at the watering hole.
After heading out to explore gardens, Teresa cued me in to the history of Cornerstone.
Co-founded with her husband, Chris Hougie, the couple got their idea from a visit to the International Garden Festival at Chaumont during their honeymoon in ’96. Entranced by the spectacle of land art, they went on to buy a plot of desolate farmland and begin threading their way through the labyrinth of California’s zoning laws—a Borgesian process that lasted three years—while the artists were able to complete the first gardens in a couple of months.
Naturally, there were more than a few changes and bumps in the road. The idea of charging for an event and ripping out the gardens each year did not transplant from France to America very well. Instead, many gardens were left in place for several years, admission was free, and visitors would contribute simply through shopping, imbibing or making donations to the artists, as well as for usage in weddings and events. The grounds morphed into an embodiment of that Northern California ethos of “bourgeois bohemianism,” combining the contemporary art in the gardens and galleries with the entrepreneurial spirit in the artisanal shops.
However, I in no way want to dissuade the more anti-commercial or avant-garde among you from making a visit, as the gardens themselves are not a “commercialized” experience. Rather, as you stroll through them you are within the work of serious artists, recognized internationally for their exceptional craftsmanship, social consciousness and idiosyncratic artwork. I’ll touch on some of the current highlights and the impressions they made on me.
Red Lantern by Andy Cao and Xavier Perot features a gigantic lamp sunk into a pond with a railroad track leading down toward it. The garden symbolizes the exoticness of the Chinese in the old west and their role in constructing the American railroads. As I walked along the railroad toward the lamp, I felt as if I were descending a plank into the early American world as experienced by another culture.
Garden of Contrast by van Sweden and Associates meshes between three distinct environments, beginning with native, dry plants at the exterior, transitioning into semi-arid plants, and then, at the interior, to a moist, shaded environment. Over the course of a short walk, I felt a seamless alteration between the environments; once arrived, I felt peaceful, as if resting after a journey.
The Garden of Visceral Serenity by Yoji Sasaki, apparently styled on a very traditional Japanese design, is so simple and static that one can view the miniscule changes with ease. As I sat in the metal box in the interior—something all visitors should do, even if it feels a little like time-out—I viewed the feet of passers-by in relation to the trunks of trees, seeing both the rootedness of humans in the environment and their transitory existence in relation to trees.
And, of course, there was Ecology of Place for Phil Biaggi by Suzanne Biaggi, who gave me a personal tour.
Suzanne was radiant, a little shyer than Teresa at first, but talkative once we walked over to her garden and I posed her questions about her work.
Having started as a sculptor, how did you come to landscape architecture and what do you feel you can better express through this medium?
“I serendipitously found myself doing gardens a while after getting my MA in Sculpture. I enjoy the sculptural landscape you can create with gardens, as well as how interactive they are. I like that you can express ecological concerns more effectively and to a larger number of people through gardens, and that you have more elements at your disposal.”
Standing in her garden, she told me to listen in for a low sound in the background. I recognized it instantly. She told me it was a non-verbal track cycling through her deceased brother Phil’s voice, accompanied with Neil Young’s singing. She went on to say that the garden is dedicated to him and is her way of keeping him alive.
The garden also captures the importance of having a sense of place. Composed of two sections, the front contains the current ecology of the environs just around Cornerstone. A path curves over small puddles that represent the remaining wetlands. On both sides, amid a white terrain made of oyster shells, stand vineyards created with wire, which look gnarled and corrugated. Instead of grapes, rows of aluminum flaps, cut in identical rectangles, run over their tops in an equidistant, industrial pattern. When blown by the wind, they create a light sound that accompanies the low hum playing beneath.
Was your intention of the aluminum pieces to represent the effects of a massive monoculture imposed by the wine industry?
“You know, sometimes you do something and subconsciously it connects, but I was only thinking practically then—in terms of the sound. I should mention, though, that there are a lot of wineries that practice sustainable agriculture, and I think they should be recognized. My goal is to encourage us to move forward into a more sustainable future, which is represented by the second section of the garden.”
That area, hidden behind hedges, is oasis-like, with lush greenery abounding in it. At its center stands an enormous, stainless steel tree—product of the New Zealand artist Regan Gentry. Modeled on the California Buckeye, native to the area, the tree is a symbol of restoration as well as a sublime monument and superb work of craftsmanship.
The garden was still undergoing some changes. The brilliant plan to have a water pathway running along the sides of the walkway, 18 inches deep and capable of rising and falling in tune with the tide, had had to be filled in with rocks after visitors bumbling around with cameras fell into it on the first two days after opening. The only other option would be the usual clutter of bells, whistles, flashing warning lights and mandatory hazmat suits.
After the gardens, I went to A New Leaf Gallery where Brigitte MicMacker, the owner, gave me a walkthrough of the works in the current exhibit, Red, Black, White. Many works were from renowned artists, such as Mary Shaffer and Steve Maslach, though there were quite a few from upcoming artists as well. The only requirement was that they be “artists working in a contemporary mode, whether more experimental or classically inspired” and that they “demonstrate exceptional craftsmanship,” both of which were indeed true.
Having appreciated plenty of art, I found my stomach no less empty, so I decided it was time to wine and dine with Teresa and Suzanne.
Vegetarian and “light” options abounded at Park 121 restaurant, but I was feeling particularly sinful, so I went with a grass-fed hamburger and a glass of Pinot Noir, while Teresa and Suzanne nibbled on sushi rolls. It was pleasant to unwind after a few hours of discussing art and simply relax outside in the warmth.
All in all, I spent an extraordinary day at Cornerstone, a location that combines Northern California’s assortment of eco-consciousness, wine-drinking and bohemian funkiness. And not only was I away from the fog of Bay, I was among nature, art and some fascinating individuals, and enjoyed some spirits and food in the process—a trip well beyond the quotidian.
Daniel Bablinskas, August 2013
*Contact me at dbablin-at-gmail if you are interested in purchasing or republishing the article, or any of the content.