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Decomposing Beauty

June 27, 2012

I've known about the Djerassi Resident Artists Program for quite a while.

Carl Djerassi, the scientist-turned-playwright who founded the residencies on his spectacular ranch in the Los Altos Hills about an hour south of San Francisco, showed me around the place briefly 11 years ago when I was writing a profile about him for American Theatre Magazine.

This past weekend, though, I got my first in-depth tour of the ranch and its artworks, of which there are many scattered around the grounds in both expected and unexpected places.

The tour was led by Margot Knight, the Executive Director Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Margot proved to be a jolly and knowledgeable guide.

Over the course of nearly four hours, we hiked all around the property, stopping to take in the views and the many pieces of art left by former residency participants.

The program encourages artists of all kinds, not just installation artists and sculptors, to use the surroundings as a setting for work.

During the typical month-long stay, a choreographer might choose to create a dance  in a nineteenth century barn lit by dappled light, a ceramicist might fill an old stump or copse of trees with clay-baked forms, and a writer might sit on a bench overlooking the colossal panorama that tumbles down to the Pacific Ocean and work on a volume of poetry or a novel. 

As such, on our hike, we often stumbled upon the flotsam and jetsam remains of works created recently or decades ago. (The program has been around for 33 years and has provided residencies to over 2000 artists, so there are a great many artifacts to be seen around the property at this point.)

I love this aspect of the residency program. The works that nestle amid the trees, stake out rocky outcrops or make their home in sheltered clearings, are slowly deteriorating. Nature is taking over. Some are collapsing, others are covered in moss and lichen, others yet have developed cracks in their formerly smooth surfaces. 

Nest, the piece photographed above, was created in 1997 by Cynthia Harper. Back then, I gather it was an imposing wooden structure, with pieces of wood carefully balanced on top of each other to form a giant symmetrical form. Now, little remains of the artist's original plan. The birds have come and stolen the pieces of wood to make their own nests. There's a kind of poetry to this steady disintegration.

Artists can come back to fix their work if they want to. But according to Knight, few do. It would be wonderful to come back to visit the works periodically and see how they are slowly becoming one with their surroundings.


  • One of the most important times of my life was the month I spent at Djerassi back in 1993 (or '94?) with my colleagues in TJT. Amazingly, the residency had absolutely no strings attached. Nothing to accomplish. It was truly, a retreat. Free from any sense of obligation to make anything, the month turned out to be one of the most creatively fertile of my life. It was there that I first started writing short stories, three of which were later published in The Sun (Chapel Hill, NC). Even more surprising was the work I did that became a solo performance, Forgiving Waters.

    See, my mother had died a month before the residency, and I'd had no time to grieve. I arrived in the Santa Cruz hills directly from cleaning out her effects and arranging care for my Alzheimer's-transformed father. Each morning I spent several hours alone in the studio in the Barn, talking to the empty space, the walls, the floor, telling the story of my mother's life and death over and over. Each time it came out different. At some point I started recording these sessions on audio cassettes. I later started transcribing them on a primitive laptop (with a whopping 128K of RAM!) I had rented for the month.

    At the end of the residency I gathered the other residents and showed them what I'd been doing. Only then did I grasp that I had made a piece of theatre. I had not set out to do that. All I knew was that everything I had learned about the process of creating stuff had come to my aid. "This," I remembered thinking, "is what improvisation, writing, acting is really for."

    Those mornings in that Barn studio saved me from a major depression. My "craft" or "art" in that expansive setting gave me a way to grieve that I don't imagine I'd have found in my everyday life.

    I went on to refine Forgiving Waters and perform it at TJT for a few weeks in 1996. I also did it at Green's at a Zen Hospice benefit and at the home of Carl Djerassi and Diane Middlebrook at a benefit for the Center. I will be forever grateful to Carl and Diane and all who make the residency program possible.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At June 27, 2012 at 2:54 PM  

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