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Visual raptures

Stanford's Windhover Meditation Center opens offers inspiration through art

The recent opening of the Anderson Collection at Stanford, next door to the Cantor Arts Center, attracted a great deal of press attention. The stunning aggregation of modernist American artworks collected over a span of fifty years by Harry and Mary Margaret Anderson is displayed to perfection in a contemporary new building that lives up to the credo that "form follows function" and serves the art without calling undue attention to itself. It is magical: a small jewel of a museum.

Less well known is the Windhover Meditation Center, which opened earlier this month. The Windhover is a smaller building, but no less considered in its uplifting architecture and landscaping (by Aidlin Darling Design of San Francisco and Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture, respectively). It is located not at the front of campus in the Stanford Arts District -- as the Anderson and Cantor are -- but at the rear, on Santa Teresa Street, near Roble Hall. The 4,000 square foot building is supervised by Stanford's Office of Religious Life and is open primarily to university faculty, staff and students, who gain admission with their electronically coded ID cards. Members of the public can visit the Windhover via docent-led tours, which are offered only on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. This intimate refuge, modernist in style with Japanese inflections, provides enchanting views of its surrounding oak grove, bamboo trees and reflecting pools, as well as the nearby Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden. It will serve as a refreshing retreat from the rigors of quotidian university life.

The name "Windhover" comes from the five semi-abstract paintings housed inside. Nathan Oliveira, a Stanford art professor from 1962 to 1995 and a lover of local wildlife, painted the works after a student presented him with a stuffed kestrel: a small falcon able to float motionless while searching for prey. The gift was meant as a metaphorical stand-in for artists or art-lovers seeking visual raptures. Professor John Seed, Professor of Art and Art History at Mt. San Jacinto College and a former student and friend of Oliveira, recently wrote online about what Windhover meant to the mentor and teacher who sensitively guided his own journey into the visual arts:

"Years of working in the silence of his own studio and also the solace he found during long walks in the peaceful Stanford hills -- where he delighted in watching soaring birds -- convinced Oliveira that each of us has an inner imaginative world that blossoms through observation and meditation," Seed wrote. "'If you persist and you believe in it your world opens up to you,' Oliveira once stated. 'Sometimes that takes an entire lifetime.'"

Oliveira's philosophical quest for meaning through paintings, printmaking and sculpture is exemplified in these large works, including two immersive diptychs spanning twenty feet. The diptychs evoke flight and exaltation -- and possibly spiritual elevation -- in modern, abstract, ecumenical terms: dappled grounds of rich color that read as both earth and sky; long symmetrical arcs that derive from the leading edge of the bird's wing, but also suggest the curvature of the earth.

As art historian Peter Selz noted in his catalog essay for Oliveira's 2002 San Jose Museum of Art retrospective, these arcs also call to mind the rainbow spanning one of Caspar David Friedrich's most famous paintings, treating the natural landscape as a kind of theater of divine mysteries.

Selz has long considered Oliveira a member of the art historical canon. In 1959, the young curator included the then 31-year-old artist's heavily painted, turbulent depictions of universalized human figures alongside older, established artists like Alberto Giacometti, Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon and Jean Dubuffet in a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York: "New Images of Man."

As a high-school student in San Francisco, Oliveira had stumbled into the Legion of Honor and been floored by a Rembrandt portrait, setting him on his future path.

"Rembrandt transmits his own energy, his own life, in the act of making a brushstroke," Oliveira later wrote.

The artist found other kindred spirits in Francisco Goya, Edvard Munch, Oskar Kokoschka and particularly Max Beckmann, with whom he studied in the summer of 1950, gaining little from the German's poor English but everything from his ferociously serious example. Oliveira's version of what Selz called "tragic humanism" garnered him early success with critics, collectors and other artists: Bruce Conner once called him the best painter in the Bay Area.

Arriving at The Farm in 1964 to begin his long teaching career, Oliveira found, in Seed's words "… an art department that was small and limited. Its facilities were scattered: some classes were taught in the Old Union, and his own painting and drawing classes met in a building behind the Stanford Chapel. In 1966 he moved into a workspace in a building on the corner of Emerson Street and Hamilton Avenue in Palo Alto. His studio, a large room with a bank of west-facing windows on the second floor, included an empty stage. Oliveira would invite his students there for drawing sessions, and the stage was soon set up with still-life materials, including bones and geometric forms. After attempting a few figure paintings in this new space, the artist 
had an epiphany that would end his dry spell as a painter: 'I turned around and I looked at the stage which is part of my studio and I said, Goddammit, this is what I am going to paint.'"

Seed's account captures the indomitable, questing character of the man. Oliveira's passionate belief in art as a vehicle -- the nonpareil vehicle -- for emotional exploration and intellectual growth bears remembrance and reflection, particularly now, as visual art is flourishing with such promise at Stanford. Oliveira's epic paintings at Windhover -- "Diptych," "Big Red," "White Wing" and "Sun Radiating" -- are accompanied by an excerpt from the 1887 Gerard Manley Hopkins poem celebrating his ordination as a priest. The poem envisions the kestrel as Christ, and the natural world as divine -- an idea so old by now as perhaps to be new again as we attempt to preserve the planet from further human depredation.

What: The Windhover Contemplative Center

Where: 370 Santa Teresa St., Stanford

When: Public tours on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. No reservations necessary; meet at the Windhover entrance.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-3469.

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