Adventures in the art world

Silicon Valley Open Studios offers a glimpse into artists' realms

Rusty tools with whimsical wooden handles. Video footage of a family solemnly humming hymns. Sweeping aerial photographs of the San Francisco Bay. What do such varied works of art have in common? They're all on view this weekend as part of the Silicon Valley Open Studios tour.

They're also being created by three artists whose studios are mere yards apart.

Now in its 29th year, SVOS invites the public to visit the working studios of more than 350 artists. Many will be selling their work, but SVOS is much more than a shopping opportunity. Whether you're a private collector, a gallerist, an art lover or simply a curious onlooker, SVOS offers a rare chance to speak with artists about their inspirations and working methods, check out their materials and tools and gain insight into the creative process.

The event is organized into three consecutive weekends focused on various regions of the South Bay: May 2-3 encompasses studios in Palo Alto and communities to the north, while May 9-10 centers on Mountain View, Los Altos, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale and the surrounding area. In its final weekend, SVOS moves down to San Jose, Los Gatos, Campbell and Cupertino, among other neighboring communities.

Given the extensive geographical reach of the event and the sheer number of artists involved, it's wise to get your hands on a directory or to visit the website -- svos.org -- to plan your outing. Physical copies of the directory are available at regional art museums, libraries, bookstores and coffee shops; a partial list of these locations is available online.

Here in Palo Alto, the Cubberley Community Center (4000 Middlefield Road) is a focal point for studio artists, thanks to the city's Cubberley Artist Studio Residency Program, founded in 1987 in order to help artists to live and work in the area despite the steeply climbing cost of rent. Artists based at Cubberley pay discounted rent for the 23 spaces; a new policy on term limits adopted last year aims to ensure a steady turnover of talent.

Among the Cubberley artists is painter and woodworker Ken Edwards. A former firefighter and search-and-rescue worker, Edwards' work has a distinct masculinity. His sculptures begin with antique rusty tool heads, each of which suggests to him a different handle. Using a lathe and band saw, he cuts, sands and glues each piece into being before painting them with primary hues and bold stripes for a vaguely Seussian effect.

"A lot of times, I pick up a rusty tool and I can see a shape that pops out to me," Edwards explained during a recent studio visit. "The shaping is straightforward; the painting, not so much."

From the organic grace of his abstract acrylic paintings, one wouldn't guess painting presented a challenge for Edwards. In one, flattened red circles rise like bubbles from a black ground; in another, a single orb hovers at the center of a web-like network of lines. No flimsy canvases here; Edwards builds his wooden panels himself, equipping each one with a "tuning system" of screws and wires to prevent warping.

It wouldn't be hard for the sawdust to drift from Edwards' studio into that of Mel Day, though it would look rather out of place. Day works primarily in new media; her spare studio is all clean lines: crisply presented video installations, light boxes and digital prints. A former fellow of Stanford's Experimental Media Arts Lab, her work dives headily into visual investigations of belief and doubt, performance and participation. In one series of digital prints, the artist herself appears wearing a bright yellow jacket and posed in unexpected places: stretched between church pews, balanced atop an outdoor shower, sitting in a bush. In a digital video projection, she presents members of her family in footage taken over the course of a decade. Her sisters, brothers and parents stare dispassionately into the lens as they hum Christian hymns.

A new artist in residence at Cubberley, Day spoke of the value of such a community to the work of the artist and to the larger culture of the region and praised the potential for interdisciplinary exchange.

"It's really important to support artists in their visual research," she noted. "The way artists will be able to create cultural impact is through doing their work." As part of her residency, Day is planning to co-host a discussion series with fellow Cubberley artist Christine Gray. Their aim is to welcome artists and the public to take part in an ongoing critical dialogue.

If Day's work tends toward the investigative and theoretical, her next-door neighbor is decidedly more literal. In her stunning large-scale photographs, Barbara Boissevain documents the people and environments she encounters, from Peruvian villagers to melting glaciers in Iceland to a cement factory in Cupertino. Her fascination with the environment and its degradation or restoration is evident in works like her Salt Flat series, which documents the gradual "greening" of the San Francisco Bay's salt marshes.

In "Big Dirty Secret," Boissevain presents a detailed aerial shot of the Hanson Cement Factory in Cupertino: a plant that's only visible from the air. Look closely, and the towers of the factory are superimposed with words and phrases drawn from news coverage and scientific reports documenting the health effects of toxic chemicals in the surrounding region.

A Silicon Valley native, Boissevain believes most residents of the Bay Area know little about the environmental contamination at places like Moffett Field, where soil and groundwater contain high levels of hazardous materials that qualify the region as an official EPA Superfund site.

Boissevain's father was a NASA scientist who passed away from a rare form of cancer that may have been caused by environmental factors, and that history charges her work with a quiet outrage that's at once deeply personal and widely relevant. At the same time, her shots have an undeniable formal beauty: an acknowledgment of the wondrousness of both the built and the natural world.

The privilege of dropping in to such different studios -- and learning about the inspiration behind such distinct and varied bodies of work -- is what makes SVOS an adventure. So get online, track down a directory and start planning your artistic journey; more than 350 worlds await you.

What: Silicon Valley Open Studios

Where: Throughout the Silicon Valley

When: Saturday-Sunday, May 2-3, 9-10 and 16-17, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Cost: Free. No reservations required.

Info: Go to svos.org.

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Like this comment
Posted by Christine Oliver
a resident of another community
on May 1, 2015 at 8:49 am

Silicon Valley Open Studios is an amazing event where you can get "up front and personal" with Bay Area and Coastal artists to learn more about their inspirations and how they create their work. It is well worth a few afternoons in local neighborhoods checking out your neighbors who are also amazing artists! It is held annually, the first three weekends in May - Saturday and Sundays from 11 am - to 5pm. Surprise yourself by discovering the artistic talent that exists in Silicon Valley!

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