Category Archives: Work

Cornerstone Sonoma: Gardens of Earthly Delights

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe 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.

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Posted by on December 13, 2013 in Art, California, Culture, Going out, Tourism, Work


No logical reason to bring cash abroad

This post is mostly targeted toward future auxiliares de conversacion trying to figure out how to get their money to Europe safely and effectively. But it also has some general rules for dealing with money and living abroad.

When you decide to travel or move abroad, you have to deal with annoying currency exchanges a lot. Also, you have to worry about transporting your cash, credit cards or traveler checks and finding ways to get money without racking up large fees.

So what’s the best way to go about this?

Simple. Use your debit card and Capital One credit card. If you don’t have a Capital One card, get one before you go abroad. To my knowledge, apart from fancy cards which require excellent credit and involve yearly fees, the Capital One card is the only one which does not charge you each time you use it outside of the country. A good credit card is a must for emergencies, especially when you move abroad.

As for day to day cash, if you are moving abroad, I see little logic in bringing more than 300 dollars cash with you in hand. Currency changes are notoriously bad, almost everywhere you go. People nowadays like to deal in digital money. There is no labor in making computer transactions, as opposed to cash shuffling. So, generally speaking, apart from a small ATM fee, you get the best exchange rates through withdrawing money directly in the foreign currency of your choice. With your debit card you can take out enough money to open a bank account and start depositing it. It’s also easier for you to keep on eye on the exchange rates because they usually follow a day behind what’s going on on the market. The day your currency is up, the following day go and take out a lot of money and bring it to your new bank account, or to spend.

Cash is bad. I made the mistake of moving to Europe with most my money in hand. First of all, forget the scam of cash exchange rates. It’s just dangerous. People can rip you off at your hotel or on the street. In Spain, where I moved, pickpocketing is common, as are hotel maids who will steal your money without so much as a flinch.

Banks are pretty bad in Europe, not because of charges or anything, which aren’t very bad, but because of their lack of working hours. This will be a continuous problem, so make sure that when you get an account you get an ATM card with it or else you’ll often be out of luck.


Americans need a break from work

Why do we have to work so much? If we’re the richest country in the world, we should be able to relax a little bit more. Overworking, anyway, is not healthy. Sayeth the article, 

It’s typical for Germans to take off three consecutive weeks in August when “most of the country kind of closes down,” Schimkat said. That’s the time for big trips, perhaps to other parts of Europe, or to Australia or North America. Germans might also book a ski holiday in the winter and take a week off during Easter.

Schimkat’s family back in the United States teases her that she’s spoiled. But when she tells Germans that workers in the U.S. usually get two weeks of vacation a year, they cringe.

“They kind of have this idea that Americans work like robots and if that’s the way they want to be, that’s up to them. But they don’t want to be like that,” Schimkat said.

“[Germans] work very hard, but then they take their holiday and really relax. … It’s more than just making money for Germans, it’s about having time for your family and it’s about having time to wind down.”

Weird, because Germans are a little bit less family oriented and traditional than Americans and yet it’s American politicians who always play up the family thing, but at the same time they don’t want to cut any hours and give middle class Americans more time to spend some time with their own. 

But there’s also cultural reasons for this, 

Working more makes Americans happier than Europeans, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Happiness Studies. That may be because Americans believe more than Europeans do that hard work is associated with success, wrote Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, the study’s author and an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“Americans maximize their… [happiness] by working, and Europeans maximize their [happiness] through leisure,” he found.

Yes, I like that we enjoy doing things… It’s a good attitude. So I think it should be that you get four weeks vacation by law and you can take them if you want to or work more for overtime if your firm allows. That way, we don’t go into six week terrain and scare away people who think we’re getting soft like the Euros and then, if you really want to bust your ass, you still can. 

Besides, it doesn’t do you much good to work too much. And we do need time for our families and to be able to see the world, exercise, explore and get out of the office. 

“There is simply no evidence that working people to death gives you a competitive advantage,” said John de Graaf, the national coordinator for Take Back Your Time, a group that researches the effects of overwork.

He noted that the United States came in fourth in the World Economic Forum’s 2010-2011 rankings of the most competitive economies, but Sweden — a country that by law offers workers five weeks of paid vacation — came in second. …
“You would have had the idea that we were calling for the end of Western civilization. Comments like, ‘Oh, they’re going to make America a 21st-century France,’ as if we were all going to have to eat snails,” de Graaf said.

“I’m in no way anti-capitalist, I think the market does a lot of good things, but the Europeans understand that the market also has its failings and that when simply left completely to its own devices, it doesn’t produce these perfect results.”

You mean the market isn’t always perfect? You mean to say a modicum of government interference might be necessary now and again?

In this case, the producing class should be let off their hamster wheels for a while and allowed to take vacations to enjoy the fruit of their labor a bit. There’s really no point to rush into retirement so that you can hobble around the south of France in the youth of your early 70s. Spread it out, see the world bit by bit, enjoy the freedom of time, probably the biggest freedom of all, and the one which we Americans lack the most.

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Posted by on May 26, 2011 in Career, Culture, Economics, Europe, Germany, USA, Work


Never pay to work

I just wasted some time looking into journalism internships in the US and Spain and had a hard time finding unpaid internships. And in this day and age, you’re often lucky to get an unpaid internship if you’re career is not in accounting or engineering. What they did have, in plenty, were internships for which you pay to be a fact-checking, coffee-getting peon, along with a slew of internships for which you pay to be able to volunteer your time, teaching English to children.

Ridiculous. You pay, sometimes 3k for a month or so, to be able to take a flight to a foreign country (another thou) and live in camp-style lodgings, pay for your own food and drink, and spend your days dealing with bratty, obnoxious, snotty-nosed kids. While I’m at the point where I’d take an unpaid internships for some sort of in to a job which I might immensely like, I’m not about to volunteer my services, especially for something I don’t enjoy (aka, work), and on top of that, pay bank to be able to do so.

Whoever set up this system is brilliant. I should probably open a school in Spain and do the same thing. Think about it. You can charge the kids’ parents a ton for summer camps, you can charge your foreign teachers to come and “volunteer” from abroad, while you just sit back with a rake and bag for the dough falling into your lap. Hell, why not put $50 application fees, so that way you can get something from all the people you reject.

Really, people. Make it your policy never to pay to work. Do a little research. You can have my job, working 16 hours a week, and make a livable (albeit, far from lavish) wage, or you can, at the very least, volunteer on a farm (wwoofing) and get free food and board, or find some kind of volunteer work that doesn’t send you to the poorhouse. And then, there’s always South Korea, where English teaching is an actual career.

But I’m sure I’ll continue to run into people, as I did the other night, squandering fortunes on these silly programs (scams) which should probably not even be legal. Some probably go by the exalted pseudonym of non-profit, but generally speaking there’s some dude at the top taking in a good 100k a year for all the effort he puts into his philanthropic work.