The Silicon Valley Sculpture Fine Art Fair returns to the Menlo College campus for a third year and opens this Friday, September 23 and runs through the weekend. As in previous years, outdoor sculptures (a total of 36 works by 21 national and international artists) will be installed around the campus, all of which deal with this year’s theme of “water”.
Why would a small, private college that awards degrees in business and psychology open its grounds to a large-scale, temporary art exhibition? Steven Weiner, President of Menlo College, approached Dr. Katharina Bernau, owner of the Art Ventures Gallery in downtown Menlo Park, upon learning she was trying to promote public art in the city of Menlo Park. This was in the early days of the 2020 pandemic, and the idea of holding any sort of arts event seemed tenuous. But Bernau and Weiner joined forces and the first iteration of the exhibition was well received.
Weiner said in an email interview, “Interaction with art is essential to the human experience that underlies our college’s core value of developing each person’s full potential.” In addition, he said, “It offers students and everyone an opportunity to embrace the unknown, expand their worldview and be inspired. A balanced business education must include exploration of the arts.”
Bernau, who founded the Menlo Park Public Art non-profit foundation, realized she needed to organize a meaningful event to raise both public awareness and funding. She oversees Silicon Valley’s annual sculpture exhibition and serves as a single-handed curator, installer, and publicist. It begins in April and initially decides on a topic. “I have a theme,” she said, “because I don’t want to just drop a sculpture on the floor. I want the artists and the visitors to really think.” This year’s water theme might imply water features and fountains, but that is not the case. “It’s not about water,” she remarked, “it’s quite the opposite.” In our drought-stricken area, this is certainly a relevant and timely notion.
Interested artists submit an image of a sculpture (completed or proposed) and a statement, which will be reviewed by Bernau. “It’s very subjective,” she conceded, “but that’s the fun part.” Artists must be willing to pay not only the cost of creating their work, but also the cost of transportation and installation. In turn, each piece can be put up for sale, with the artist selling directly to the potential customer. Bernau asks that 10% of sales proceeds be donated to Menlo Park Public Art, and she noted that “all the artists have done so so far.”
Upon entering the El Camino campus, the viewer is immediately greeted by a tall, honey-colored structure of stacked and laminated pine wood pieces titled “Shifting Perspectives” by artist Foon Sham. Like a construction in a Jenga game, its pieces seem to defy gravity as they stack and twist and turn toward an apex. Continuing down the path, you will encounter a Rube Goldberg-type device containing a gallon water jug, funnels and canisters, which artist Peter Richards says “addresses the concept of flow, the ability to move without resistance”. Nearby, a graceful stainless steel swoop created by James Hill resembles a waterfall. In his statement, Hill wrote, “Examining a material that is inherently cold, rigid and inflexible challenges my creativity and expands my understanding of the world.”
First-time visitors might not know that Menlo College’s 40-acre campus stretches far from its facade on El Camino. A large grassy common area surrounded by classrooms leads back to the student union. Bernau said that while she has to work with some college-imposed installation restrictions, there are excellent locations to choose from, particularly among the many oak trees that dot the campus. While some of the tracks require an explanation of how they relate to the subject, the association is unmistakable in Richard Stark’s humorous ‘Whale Tale’ and ‘Shark Fins’, set in a shady grove of redwoods. A passing student stopped and asked, “Why are there shark fins here?” If an intention of the art is to make the viewer think, Starks succeeds.
Bernau said she likes to select art of different sizes to boost sales not only to individuals but to businesses as well. The grandeur of Chicago artist Ruth Aizuss Migdal’s “Wave” would certainly fit a corporate lobby. The bright red, powder-coated, stainless steel sculpture stands over 8 feet tall and stands on a tall, square base. It consists of overlapping layers of metal that look like a dolphin’s fins. Migdal has a second sculpture entitled Whirling Dervish installed on the other side of the common area. Bernau said that it was inspired by the power of water and that the location of this sculpture in a quiet area away from the hustle and bustle of the cafeteria was perfect for its “overwhelming presence”.
What do students think of the new additions to campus, especially those located near one of their most visited buildings, the Studentenwerk? Bernau decided to place a figurative piece, Carrie Fischer’s Invertadude, in this busy area, perhaps because she thought a human figure standing on its head over lunch might spark discussion. According to the artist, her “modern guy” behaves “as if the world doesn’t matter.” However, Fischer said, “Our upside-down world is a place where we can reverse our minds as we adapt to issues of global warming and rising oceans.” When asked about his reaction to the sculptures, a student named Christopher said, “I like it because it offers a different look at the art and at Menlo as a whole.”
Visitors to the exhibition receive a hiking map and can move around freely. The locations change every year, and it’s a good idea to look closely under trees and in natural niches created by buildings and landscaping. Bernau remarked, “I don’t want to place them in an obvious way. I place them in such a way that you have to discover them. There’s an element of surprise.”
According to Bernau, proceeds from previous sculpture sales have enabled Menlo Park Public Art to purchase an outdoor artwork that she hopes will be installed somewhere in town by next summer. Though the idea of public art in Menlo Park seems like a steep climb, Bernau claimed that when it happened, “people were amazed at how sculpture could transform an area.” And she promised, “I will continue to advocate for public art in Menlo Park.”
The sculptures will be on display September 23-25 on the Menlo College campus. On Saturday 24 September, visitors can also attend a panel discussion on creating environmentally sustainable sculptures and a film screening of a water-themed documentary co-hosted by the United Nations Association Film Festival at the Art Ventures Gallery. Activities on Sunday 25 September include a silent auction.
Menlo College is located at 1000 El Camino Real, Atherton. Tickets cost $25 to $30. Visit www.siliconvalleysculpture.com for more information.