Open Studio

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

A writer's cottage

A writer's cottage by Hodgetts + Fung Design Associates plays with color and form.

Brown Cannon III

The painter from Bombay is sitting opposite the artist from Amsterdam, who in turn sits next to the fllmmaker from Rome. Conversation at the 20-person dinner has danced from art to politics and now ― perhaps because the grilled chicken with chutney has arrived ― to food.

Painter Gulammohammed Sheikh, who has just flown in from Baroda, India, praises the cuisine of Kashmir. "Heavenly," he says. "The best food in the world." Gordon Knox is discussing Fernet Branca, the Italian aperitif that, he says, Hemingway despised. From across the room, Knox's bulky but sweet setter-boxer mix, Puglia, looks on ― though whether or not Puglia likes Fernet Branca, it's hard to say.

Then chef Romana Ciubini brings out dessert: plates of panna cotta, shimmering, snow-white. "This was challenging for Romana," Knox explains. "To make it as she does in Umbria, she had to flnd fish-based gelatin ― not beef-based. But she did. Taste it." We taste. The panna cotta is perfect; it merits applause. This is a great dinner party.

Assembling flrst-rate dinner parties is not generally considered an artistic achievement. But that's one of the things Gordon Knox, the artist residency director, and the others behind Montalvo Arts Center are trying to do. Now, after the completion of a multimillion-dollar expansion, they've established a one-of-a-kind artistic haven ― the ultimate Western art colony ― in Northern California's Santa Cruz Mountains.

They're inviting some of the most promising visual artists, composers, and writers in the world to spend time here, drawing inspiration from the surroundings and each other. (You, too, can visit the grounds when Montalvo welcomes the public to its new art facilities this month at its flrst Open Studios.) If the convergence of so many creative minds in a beautiful place leads to flrst-rate dinner conversation, that's good. If it leads to world-changing art, even better.

 

In 1912, when California Senator James Phelan built his 175-acre estate, he named it Villa Montalvo, after the 16th-century Spaniard whose novel first gave the world the word California. Today the journey to Montalvo provides a nice cross section of the state. Start in the flatlands of the Silicon Valley, where the hopes of software engineers and venture capitalists are slowly coming back to life after five lean years. Then follow the road uphill to the expensively rustic suburb of Saratoga, and farther still to where the road narrows and winds between giant oaks. You could turn left now and admire Phelan's original Italianate mansion. Instead, turn right and come to a hillside, once a prune orchard and now ... something else.

What else? Think Tuscan hill town reimagined by Red Grooms. Or John Winthrop's "City Upon a Hill" if designed for The Incredibles. "We wanted to give the artists a sense of community," says Montalvo Arts Center's executive director, Elisbeth Challener. "And we wanted synergy between the artists and architects."

To accomplish this in a world-class artist residency program, the Montalvo board hired six leading Western architects and asked them to design 10 live/work studios in conjunction with an internationally renowned painter or writer or musician. Sally Lucas ― Montalvo trustee and the namesake, with husband Don, of the Lucas Artists Programs residencies ― says her friends were appalled. "They would tell me, 'We just had the worst experience with one architect! How can you work with six? And artists, too!' "

But that's what happened. San Francisco architect Jim Jennings collaborated with late Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz to create a cerebral writer's studio, and with sculptor Richard Serra to shape a luminous visual artist's space. The two composer's cottages by Daniel Solomon, another San Francisco architect, are designed for optimum acoustics. At the base of the hill, the commons building, by Portland architect Don Stastny, gives residents a place to hang out when they're tired of working in solitude. And a place to enjoy those fabulous dinners, cooked by culinary fellows like chef Romana Ciubini.

In the 75 years since Senator Phelan passed away, his home has become the arts center he dreamed of. A Bay Area cultural institution, Montalvo regularly hosts concerts, readings, and other arts events. Even so, expanding the existing artist residency program ― the oldest of its kind in the West ― to rival East Coast retreats like the legendary Yaddo was a major stretch, requiring five years of planning and building and a budget of $10.5 million. And fund-raising still isn't quite finished.

"For a while," Sally Lucas recalls of her own efforts, "people saw me coming on the sidewalk and crossed the street." Lucas even harbored a few doubts about whether the entire program would ever be completed. But last fall, the first of the artists arrived to begin their residencies. "When we actually had them living here," Lucas recalls, "they said, 'We like it, we really like it!' I felt just like Sally Field."

 

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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