A Sense of Place through Sculpture

This month’s ArtSmart Roundtable is all about sculpture, and this time I’m going local…What conveys a sense of place in California? In Sonoma County, one of the state’s most beautiful regions, the most typical sight on the rolling hills has become grape vines and more grape vines. The wine culture is strong here, and most people look at the vineyards with delight–the even rows of twisting roots and leaves that transform with the seasons are pleasing to the eye.


Grape vines covering the hills of Sonoma County, California

But, while vineyards now identify this region, few realize that the landscape heritage is quite different. What was here before the grapes? Wetlands, like these shown below, which provided homes for migrating birds:

Wetlands in Northern California

Preserved wetlands south of Sacramento

Cornerstone Gardens in Sonoma, California, explores nature and social issues through art. The walk-through gardens designed by landscape architects and artists from around the world use landscape design, architecture and sculpture to reflect on a variety of issues especially related to humans’ interaction with nature.

The question of Sonoma’s landscape heritage is addressed in a new garden installed last year by local artist Suzanne Biaggi with the help of New Zealand sculptor Regan Gentry. I had the opportunity to watch the artists at work on “Ecology of Place” and to interview them while they worked.

Sculpture at Cornerstone Sonoma

Suzanne Biaggi at work on “Ecology of Place”

Suzanne Biaggi is a native of this area; she works as a sculptor and landscape artist in Petaluma, one of my favorite small cities in Northern California. She’s been interested in ecology since the 1970s when such concern for the environment was a new trend. Since then her garden and sculpture designs have had an educational component. In this installation, the viewer is guided through a look at what was here before and what is here now. According to Biaggi, “It highlights the importance of ecological balance to the future of our planet, and is about restoring what was once here–wetlands.”

Sculpture at Cornerstone Sonoma

The installation in progress, and after:

Sculpture at Cornerstone Gardens

The garden cannot be viewed in one glance because plants partially obscure the overall view. This demands that the viewer walk through the garden, experiencing the landscape and contemplating the message along the way. First, the viewer zigzags through a twisting path lined with reeds and rushes that will grown 6-8 feet, symbolic of this area’s former wetlands. The wetland design is lined by Biaggi’s sculptures representing the vineyards that now occupy a great portion of the region. The silver shapes that represent the leaves blow in the breeze, creating soft sounds, adding an auditory component to the experience.

Sculpture at Cornerstone Sonoma

“Ecology of Place” got an extra dimension when Suzanne discovered the work of sculptor Regan Gentry in Sculpture Magazine. The New Zealand native’s work is always tied to the local place and situation; therefore, Suzanne recognized that he would be the perfect person to express a sense of place through a monumental sculpture. While Regan agreed to come to California for the project, he had not been in the U.S. before and was unfamiliar with the local landscape.

Sculpture at Cornerstone Sonoma

Suzanne’s vision was a large sculpture representing the native Buckeye tree as a focal point at the back of the garden, so Regan quickly envisioned the tree design and started with just 5 weeks to complete it. The task of joining and twisting long ropes of metal under the hot summer sun made working conditions difficult. In fact, the pressure was really on because this spot used to house the most recognizable symbol of Cornerstone Gardens, the Blue Tree, which was taken down for safety reasons.

Sculpture in Cornerstone Gardens

Blue Tree by artist Claude Cormier before it was taken down. Photo credit: Kellan on Flickr.

Sculpture at Cornerstone Sonoma

Regan Gentry at work on the tree sculpture on a hot summer day

Regan states that “It’s like a pencil drawing of a tree has released itself from the page and taken steroids.”  I can see that. 

Sculpture at Cornerstone SonomaThe creation of such a large sculpture was complicated work. Besides all the scaffolding Regan and his small crew used, there was hauling and lifting of the long pieces of metal, not to mention the artistic vision of being able to imagine the work’s overall shape from inside.

Sculpture at Cornerstone Sonoma

A close-up of the trunk

Just about two weeks later, the garden was opened to the public. Beautiful, isn’t it? You can see the contrast between the curving lines of both the wetlands and tree with the straight rows and angles in the grape vines.

Sculpture at Cornerstone Sonoma

Sculpture at Cornerstone Sonoma

Cornerstone Gardens is a special place that I highly recommend visiting. There are new installations of lanscape design and sculpture at Cornerstone Gardens every year. Entrance is free to all, and the gardens are kid and pet friendly, too!

For more about Cornerstone Gardens:

A Visit to Cornerstone Gardens

A quick look at artists at work at Cornerstone Gardens

Cornerstone Sonoma’s website

And the rest of April’s ArtSmart posts about sculpture:

Henry Moore and Francis Bacon from Culture Tripper

 The Overlooked Reliquary from A Sense of Place

Man and Myth: Statues of Abraham Lincoln from Daydream Tourist

The History & Highlights of Peggy Guggenheim’s Sculpture Garden, Venice from Wanderfull Traveler

8 exquisite sculptures at the Archaeological Museum in Florence from ArtTrav

Botero’s Voluminous Sculptures Around the World from Art Weekenders

Rodin’s Thinker from No Onions Extra Pickles


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