Open Studio

A peek inside California's Montalvo Arts Center ― the ultimate Western art colony

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Digital artist Isabelle Jenniches is working in her Adèle Naudé Santos-designed studio. "In some ways, being an artist seems so relaxing," she says. "But for the most part, you work from the moment you get out of bed. You never take time off."

On one large rear wall, Jenniches has mounted hundreds of images of Japan's Mt. Iwate, which she culled from a webcam over the space of nine months. The collage of photographs of a distant mountain ― taken day by day, month by month ― has a mesmerizing effect.

"We take our artists seriously," says Gordon Knox, whose job is to find creative talent from around the world who might benefit from three months at Montalvo. "It's not about a nice place to do watercolors. It's about a global intellectual exchange." His vision for the program includes interaction with the public: workshops in local high schools, on-site class visits, collaboration with local tech firms to discover new ways of creating art. "We tell the artists," Knox continues, " 'You're doing serious work, we'll give you a community and a place to work.' That can be a life-changing event."

For Jenniches and her partner, Mike Tyler, who was raised in Paso Robles, California, the Montalvo stay has been exactly that. When they moved to the U.S. from Amsterdam, they spent time living out of a VW van. Now they have ample space for her to work on her project, and for Tyler ― a visual artist turned filmmaker ― to write a screenplay. "It's been just amazing," Jenniches says. "The quietness. The concentration. The interactions with the other artists. Such a diverse group ― and it's always changing."

Higher up the hill, a pair of Indian artists are preparing works for a proposed Indian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which begins in June. "Bombay is a lot like Manhattan," says Nalini Malani, a filmmaker and visual artist whose current project ― drawings that will become part of a video installation ― occupies much of her studio floor. "Urban, cosmopolitan, but stressful. Here the landscape is so exquisite." In another studio, Gulammohammed Sheikh shows a still-to-be-completed series of gouaches depicting a journey through a gorgeously colored world. "I've always been interested in art you can step into," he explains. "And I've always been interested in journeys."

It's 10:30 now, the last of the panna cotta has been enjoyed, the last of Romana Ciubini's espresso sipped. Good-byes are being said, both for the night and for longer. Two of the artists ― the filmmaker from Rome and her partner from Los Angeles ― are leaving in the morning. It's hard to be booted out of paradise, they agree. Yet the hope is that they'll carry the best of this place with them, that somewhere ― in Bombay or Amsterdam or Paso Robles ― someone will create something unprecedented and wonderful, all because of time spent here.

About Montalvo Arts Center
The arts center is in Saratoga, California, approximately 10 miles west of San Jose. This month you can visit the new cottages created for the Lucas Artists Programs (presided over by Gordon Knox, photo) and see the work of Montalvo artists at the center's first Open Studios (10-4 May 14; free). For more information ― including Montalvo's extensive schedule of concerts, lectures, and art exhibits, and its 75th anniversary celebration October 15 ― visit www.montalvoarts.org or call 408/961-5800.

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