120 acres of art
Publication Date: Friday May 19, 1995

120 acres of art

A tour of the private Runnymede Sculpture Farm

by Jessica Werner

A 65-mile-per-hour glance is all most people get. Motorists driving through Woodside on Interstate 280 might catch, in the distance, a blurred glimpse of a large steel form jutting out of the grass. Or they might take their eyes off the road for a second or two to study the larger-than-life bronze horse atop an anvil.

These from-the-road glimpses of the Runnymede Sculpture Farm are but a tiny peek at the private estate and outdoor sculpture collection that stretches for 120 acres beyond the freeway, into the privacy of the nearby hills and meadows.

Privacy is a defining factor at Runnymede, which is usually open to the public only once or twice a year for benefits and tours. The San Jose Museum of Art will hold its annual fund-raiser there Sunday, May 21. "Art Al Fresco" will include a luncheon, live music, a silent auction--and most importantly, an opportunity for guests to wander Runnymede's grounds and view the sculpture collection.

The genesis of Runnymede actually has little to do with sculpture, and much more to do with the property's beautiful horse stables. The stables were built in 1930 for Alma Spreckels Rosekrans, granddaughter of the founder of the California sugar industry, Claus Spreckels. There, she housed her prized horses and established one of the finest jumper stables in the United States.

She took the name of her father's favorite stallion, Runnymede, for the property.

Eventually the estate passed down to the Rosekrans heirs, including her son, John N. Rosekrans Jr. Through his influence, the family estate evolved into the unique art space Runnymede is today. A serendipitous moment in his life heralded the focus on sculpture when he visited Storm King Sculpture Park in upstate New York in 1984. He was so inspired by the work he saw there and the harmony between the sculpture and its outdoor setting that he decided to create something similar back in Woodside.

Rosekrans and his wife, Dodie, soon began acquiring art and developing an eye for the work of young American sculptors. They decided to buy only works from living artists, and their earliest purchase was a 1969 Sol Lewitt.

The Runnymede collection has grown steadily ever since and now includes 160 pieces of sculpture from an international group of sculptors including Charles Ginnever, Mark di Suvero, Robert Arneson, Ilan Averbuch, Magdelena Abakanowicz and a recently installed work by the British "earth artist" Andy Goldsworthy.

Mary Maggini, Runnymede's curator since 1989, describes the collection as "both eclectic and intuitive." Unlike many art collectors, Maggini says, the Rosekranses don't buy works for their investment potential, but focus simply on work they like. And the most important factor in their choices is the farm itself. Maggini emphasizes that "the property is the most important piece of art here. The sculpture is in the service of the landscape, not the other way around."

The affinity between the sculpture and the property becomes apparent as one strolls through the farm. Oak trees dot the landscape and cast dramatic shadows over the grass, creating an imposing context for any work of art. These trees, many of which were chosen and planted by Alma Spreckels Rosekrans, are a constant reminder of the perfectibility of form, and they create a touchstone with which to view the art work.

"Good art can hold itself against an oak tree," Maggini says. This is the barometer I use for judging the works."

Charles Ginnever's "Ibis" stands atop one of Runnymede's distant hillsides, situated between two such striking oaks. A large steel-and-enamel sculpture resembling a sail or a wing, "Ibis" seems to balance on an impossibly small point when seen from a distance. From closer range, its true structure reveals itself. The steel is actually folded in large sheets, in the manner of Japanese origami, which gives it strength.

Caught in the afternoon light, the silhouettes of the sculpture and the trees are equally dramatic. The trees express a deep solidity and calm, while "Ibis" seems to move across the horizon, its tip reaching into the sky.

Scale is one of the important challenges of exhibiting work at Runnymede. Most works are large, as they must compete with their magnificent surroundings. Ginnever's "Didymous" deals directly with ideas of expectation and perception. Seen from across the valley, it seems to have a tremendous amount of volume and depth. But when it is approached and viewed from the side, one realizes the piece is actually quite flat.

Maggini comments on how crucial this process of realization is to viewing the collection: "Art is about teaching yourself about your environment and how your mind works," she says. "We all come to works with our own projections and then must confront them."

In a field not far from the original stables, a large metal form lies in the grass. It could be mistaken for a piece of discarded farm equipment, like the harrow stored nearby which tills Runnymede's soil. One gets closer and notices that the forms are actually female breasts--a subtle shade of pink and lined up in a neat row, 18 of them side by side. "American Beauties" is a recent work by Mia Westerlund Roosen, who has two other pieces at Runnymede. She named the sculpture for the American Beauty rose, a title which plays with the work's feminine associations.

A few yards up the hill, in front of the property's original milking barn, Celeste Roberge's "Walking Cairn" and "Rising Cairn" come into view. They are two female figures made of steel wire and filled with stones. One stands and the other kneels down beside her.

Maggini says that these are the most commented-upon works at Runnymede. "The figures seem to possess a certain dignity, and they also inspire immediate and visceral reactions."

Many artists visit Runnymede after their work has been purchased to choose an effective site. Goldsworthy took this process a step further by coming to Runnymede last year to create the first work ever commissioned for the collection. He chose a remote spot near the top of one of the farm's narrow horse trails where he constructed an abstract form, using clay he dug up on the Runnymede property, over a period of two months. The piece has been fired and embedded in the adjacent hillside where it will change over time in response to the area's landscape and weather.

Experiencing the variety of these many works and spaces is the real joy of visiting Runnymede. Rolling hillsides, now green from the spring rains, give way to dense thickets and then emerge again onto wide-open vistas. Some sculptures can be viewed against the backdrop of a wide view; others have a more intimate quality in the smaller spaces of shaded groves.

Maggini's face lights up toward the end of our tour. Looking at Stephen de Staebler's "Archangel," a haunting human figure in front of a wide, round hill, she explains that "John's (Rosekrans') original goal was to show the symbiotic relationship between man and nature." A light breeze sways the grass behind the sculpture and there is suddenly no question that he has succeeded.

Jessica Werner is a free-lance writer and a graduate of the art history program at Stanford University.

"Art Al Fresco" fund-raiser

Who: San Jose Museum of Art

Where: Runnymede Sculpture Farm, Woodside

When: Sunday, May 21

Information: (408) 271-6840 

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