Filoli House and Garden, the historic 654-acre estate in Woodside that, since 1975, has been part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has always been a welcome respite from the frenetic pace of Silicon Valley life. With its restored Gilded Age mansion and acres of carefully tended gardens and trails, Filoli is a favorite for nature and history aficionados. Luckily, for those of us missing art museums and galleries, Filoli is also the backdrop for a fascinating exhibition of sculpture by San Francisco artist Kristine Mays. Entitled "Rich Soil," this installation of figurative works constructed out of wire is on display in the gardens through Nov. 9.
For the past several summers, Filoli has hosted sculpture exhibitions, either by groups or individual artists. Erika Frank, Filoli's director of education and interpretation, explained how Mays was selected for this year's show.
"We reached out to her a year ago after seeing her art online because we felt her work would be great for Filoli. She had never shown her sculptures in an outdoor setting."
As can be imagined, there are a multitude of considerations in placing art in formal gardens: traffic patterns, weather, health of the plantings, etc. Frank worked with the horticulture staff closely but had a strong feeling that Mays' work would fit right in.
"One of the things we love is that guests can walk right up to the sculptures, touch them and pose for pictures," she said. "It is important that our guests feel that they are part of the place."
Mays had similar feelings about how her art would work at Filoli. After being contacted by Frank, she visited the estate for the first time and was immediately inspired.
"I wanted my work to emerge from the scenery and to complement it in a harmonious way."
Mays describes herself as a self-taught artist who has always enjoyed sketching the people she would see while traveling on buses in San Francisco. She holds a degree in arts administration from DePaul University and worked at a nonprofit organization while making jewelry on the side. After losing her job, she began devoting more time to creating and soon found that she could make a living as a full-time artist. A chance encounter with wire at a bead store led her to try working with it alone. After experimenting with various techniques, she discovered a way to hook and overlap pieces of heavy gauge steel wire together. If this sounds a bit like the work of another San Francisco artist, Ruth Asawa, it is — to a degree. Mays explained that she grew up seeing Asawa's murals and public sculptures but discovered her wire work much later. "She's more of an inspiration to me now than ever before," said Mays.
Unlike Asawa, whose hanging sculptures often mimic organic shapes, Mays works in a figurative mode.
"My sculptures are created from hundreds of pieces of metal wire, looped and hooked together to create a form that reveals an invisible occupant, a soul, a life. I often say that I am 'breathing life into wire.' I love the idea of creating work where the focus reveals the essence of a person and that speaks to humanity as a whole."
For this exhibition, which took a full year of preparation (each sculpture requires anywhere from 60 to 100 hours to complete), Mays decided to create seven installation areas, each with multiple figures. Although Mays does not use models or molds, she has successfully captured bodies (some full figure, some partial torsos) in motion. That sense of movement was inspired, specifically, by "Revelations," a highly regarded dance performance choreographed by Alvin Ailey. Like the real dancers, Mays' figures twist, turn, gyrate and seem to rise, ethereally, from the landscape.
She explained, "The idea of dancing came forth with the notion of being released from the struggle of this earthy life. I wanted the dancers to have a certain soulful way about them and I knew the landscape called for the sculptures to be placed together and for the work to communicate in groups."
Mays further enhances the meaning of each installation area by providing a short narrative statement and title, each of which was inspired by African-American sayings, culture and folklore. In "All Night Worship Service," for example, the figures each reflect a moment of joyous exultation. Near the sunken gardens, six dresses, each a different style, swirl and sway to music that exists in the visitor's imagination. In the walled garden area, five figures rise up from the impatiens, poppies and salvia mix, as though they have always been a part of nature's plan.
Mays' ability to form and fold the wire into different patterns on each garment is amazing. One dress even has words woven into the bodice and skirt. She explained that it is a quote from Maya Angelou: "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." Mays said that she liked the idea of "a message hidden in plain sight, and also that you have to take time to search and discover, in order to decipher it."
One of the reasons that the figures blend so naturally into the various garden sites is Mays' careful choice of palette. "My greatest concern was how the sculptures would look as they weathered. In anticipation of this process, I coated each piece in a copper- colored paint so that, when the rust eroded through, there would be a smooth transition in the visual appearance of the work." Installed on oak tree-colored clothing stands, the figures are an uplifting addition to an already fabulous setting.
Mays had no way of knowing, one year ago when she created the sculptures, that the world would be in such a difficult and challenging place. She feels, however, that the work is "healing on many levels."
"In the exhaustion, the grief, the reckoning with oneself in the midst of this very turbulent time I hope that people will visit Filoli for a reprieve, for a chance to breathe, reflect and simply be. My hope is that people will leave feeling full, having experienced something (I dare say) extraordinary."
All of the sculptures are for sale. An online catalog of works can be found on the Filoli website.
Visitors to Filoli must make an online reservation in advance, wear a mask and adhere to safe distancing instructions.
Freelancer writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at [email protected]