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  • Contemporary Art in a Spectacular Setting

    In a quiet corner of Sonoma, on a private ranch, you’ll find some amazing works of art. It is not that easy to see these works because Oliver Ranch is a privately owned estate. Over the years the owner, Steve Oliver, commissioned  site-specific art installations, working with each artist to ensure the pieces fit well with the land. He allows nonprofit organizations access to the land for several weeks during the year. I was lucky enough to secure a spot on a fundraising tour for the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art.

    The two-and-a-half hour tour covers 18 artworks, from a very disturbing sound installation to a concrete tower/performance space whose interior consists of a double-helix staircase. 

    When I arrived, I was drawn in by the peacefulness of the small lake and the abundance of yellow flowers, but I was also disturbed on a visceral level. I sensed that Mother Earth was angry, as I heard intermittent grumbling from the ground, similar to the violent fumaroles in Yellowstone National Park. That sound turned out to be one of the art installations. Although a clever idea, I wished that the sound were more tonal and musical—something that soothed rather than disturbed.

    The other art pieces were unique and wonderful to experience. Each has a story of how the artist was commissioned by Steve Oliver and how the piece was constructed. Fortunately Mr. Oliver is in the construction business, so making white concrete or super dense steel or building a concrete tower were challenges that he was able to solve for the artists. This gave each artist tremendous freedom to create. (Photo: The reflection in the pool at the bottom of The Tower.)

    Because each piece is so unique, it’s difficult for me to rate one over he other. Rather, each allows you to explore the background of the artist and the artist’s perception of the ranch. It is difficult, though, not to be drawn in by the Tower, a piece you can experience inside and out. I hope to return one day for a performance in this space. 

    The ranch also as an award-winning guest house. The clever design gives maximum privacy to guests while still enabling them to experience the serenity of the outdoor landscape. (Photo: Looking inside the guest house, with reflection of the tour group.)

    I had the option to take the stairs to the main road or ride the bus. I, along with most of my fellow travelers, chose to take the 300 stairs of uneven height, and without a handrail. Like all the art at Oliver, the stairs are designed to complement the land. When the slope calls for a tall step, the step is tall. When the slope is more gentle, the stair height is shorter. The varying height made me focus on each step, slowing me down to appreciate the artistic aspect of the stairs as I was delighted by the verdant landscape.

    If you love contemporary art, find a way to secure a spot on an Oliver Ranch tour. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes, otherwise you might end up in the same position as this woman.