Wonder and whimsy

Renew your spirit with a spring visit to these Bay Area sculpture gardens
Abigail Peterson

A visit to a sculpture garden offers a breath of fresh air, both in the literal sense and the figurative one. It's a chance to enjoy the outdoors while seeing how artists interpret our native landscape. In the Bay Area, sculpture garden experiences range from an Oakland refuge that is great for a lunch break to a guided tour of top-notch California art on a Napa Valley farm. So clear your schedule, clear your mind, and head out to be refreshed.

NAPA

Di Rosa Preserve

Newspaperman Rene di Rosa's family estate has been turned into the nonprofit home of a near-unrivaled collection of California and Bay Area contemporary art. Inside the house, there's art on every possible inch of wall space, including the ceiling, while outside, the sculpture park beckons with views of neighboring wineries.

NOT TO BE MISSED: Mark di Suvero's large-scale red steel abstract work in the back field is like pickup sticks and hula hoops in a blender.

QUIRKY FAVORITES: The world's tallest file cabinet. Sam Yates stacked 15 four-drawer cabinets on top of each other - a comment on the burden of paperwork? On your way out, be sure to turn your attention to the property's lake and Veronica di Rosa's Endless Summer - a polychrome steel cow that looks as if it's grazing right on the water.

DETAILS: Tours Tue-Sat (reserve in advance); $12. www.dirosapreserve.org or (707) 226-5991.

OAKLAND

Oakland Museum of California Sculpture Garden
This oasis of tranquility overlooks Lake Merritt and the Alameda County Courthouse. Sculptures are tucked in among a series of outdoor terraces and stairways, so there's always another piece to be discovered around the bend. A good spot for a relaxing lunch break.

NOT TO BE MISSED: Bay Area ceramist Viola Frey's massive 9-foot-tall businessman, painted in broad, voluptuous strokes of blue, green, and yellow.

QUIRKY FAVORITES: Michael Todd's welded-steel circle, square, and round tube painted canary yellow, with a view of boats on the lake in the distance. Also, Susan Leibovitz Steinman's shopping cart piled high with wire bicycle wheels.

DETAILS: Gardens open Wed-Sun; free. www.museumca.org or (510) 238-2200.

PALO ALTO

The B. Gerald Cantor Rodin Sculpture Garden, Stanford University

Adjacent to Stanford's art museum, this calm, formal space is dedicated to the work of French artist Auguste Rodin. Broad gravel pathways shaded by elegantly lean shrubbery wind among 20 massive bronzes of the human form in motion.

NOT TO BE MISSED: The Gates of Hell. Rodin worked on this immense doorway throughout his late career but never saw it completed. After his death, his molds were finally cast in bronze.

QUIRKY FAVORITE: The Walking Man, in which Rodin shows the progression of energy in a single step, with one leg much longer than the other and all the muscles clearly delineated.

DETAILS: Free tours 2 p.m. Wed, 11:30 a.m. Sat, and 3 p.m. Sun. Self-guided visits anytime. www.stanford.edu/dept/ccva or (650) 723-4177.

WOODSIDE

Djerassi Resident Artists Program
The works that dot this stunning landscape of rolling green hills and redwood trees are viewable only on guided walking tours, which run April through October. Most of the art has been created by the Djerassi Program's artists-in-residence, and many pieces make use of materials found at the preserve - redwood stumps, madrone branches, and even the earth itself.

NOT TO BE MISSED: Patrick Dougherty's St. Denis' Tower, a 25-foot-tall outdoor temple woven entirely of willow branches. Step inside and gaze upward through the lattice to the sky.

QUIRKY FAVORITE: Small cartoon figurines clustered atop a red fence post by local artist Heather Wilcoxon.

DETAILS: Half-day and 2 1/2-hour tours offered on selected dates from April to October (reserve well ahead); half-day tour $40, donations accepted for shorter tour. www.djerassi.org or (650) 747-1250.