The Silicon Valley Sculpture fine art fair returns to the campus of Menlo College for a third year, opening this Friday, Sept. 23, and continuing through the weekend. As in past years, outdoor sculptures (a total of 36 pieces by 21 national and international artists) will be installed around the campus, all exploring this year’s theme, water.
Why would a small, private college that confers degrees in business and psychology open its grounds to a large-scale, temporary art exhibition? Menlo College president Steven Weiner approached Katharina Bernau, owner of Art Ventures Gallery in downtown Menlo Park, when he learned that she was trying to promote public art in the city of Menlo Park. This was in the early pandemic days in 2020, and the idea of holding any sort of art event seemed tenuous. But Bernau and Weiner joined forces, and the first iteration of the exhibition was a huge success.
“Engaging with art is essential to the human experience, which underlies our college’s core value of developing each person’s full potential,” Weiner said in an email. “It provides a chance for students and everyone to embrace the unknown, expand one’s world view, and be inspired. A balanced business education must include an exploration of the arts.”
Bernau, who founded the nonprofit foundation Menlo Park Public Art, realized that she needed to organize a significant event in order to raise both public awareness and funding. She oversees the annual Silicon Valley Sculpture exhibition, single-handedly serving as curator, installation manager and publicist. She begins in April, first deciding upon a theme. “I have a theme,” she says, “because I don’t want to just plop a sculpture down on the ground. I want the artists and the visitors to really think.” This year’s theme of water might imply water features and fountains, but that is not the case. “It is not about water,” she says, “but the opposite.” In our drought-conscious area, this is certainly a relevant and timely notion.
Interested artists submit an image of a sculpture (completed or proposed) and a statement, which are reviewed by Bernau. “It’s very subjective,” she acknowledges, “but that’s the fun of it.” Artists must be willing to absorb the costs of not only creating their work, but also the transportation and installation expenses. In exchange, each piece can be for sale, with the artist selling directly to the potential client. Bernau does ask that 10% of sales income be donated to Menlo Park Public Art, and she says that “all of the artists thus far have done so.”
Entering the campus from El Camino, the viewer is immediately greeted by a tall, honey-colored structure made of stacked and laminated pieces of pine entitled “Shifting Perspectives” by artist Foon Sham. Like a construction in a Jenga game, its pieces seem to defy gravity as they are stacked and twist and turn toward an apex. Continue along the path and you encounter a Rube Goldberg-type contraption with a gallon water jug, funnels and canisters that, according to artist Peter Richards, addresses “the concept of flow, the ability to move without resistance.” Nearby, a graceful swoop of stainless steel created by James Hill evokes the idea of a waterfall. In his statement, Hill wrote that, “Engaging with a material that is, by nature, cold, rigid and inflexible, challenges my creativity and expands my understanding of the world.”
First-time visitors may not realize that the 40-acre Menlo College campus extends back a great distance from its frontage on El Camino. A large, grassy common area surrounded by classroom buildings leads back to the student union. Bernau says that, while she has to work with some installation limitations placed by the college, there are excellent areas for siting, especially under the many oak trees that dot the campus. While some of the pieces require some explanation as to how they relate to the theme, there is no mistaking the association in Richard Starks’ humorous “Whale Tale” and “Shark Fins,” sited in a shady redwood grove. A student walking by stopped and asked, “Why are there shark fins here?” If one intention of art is to make the viewer think, Starks has been successful.
Bernau says that she likes to select art of varying sizes in order to stimulate sales to not only individuals but also corporations. The scale of “Red Wave,” by Chicago artist Ruth Aizuss Migdal, would certainly be at home in a corporate lobby. Standing over 8 feet in height and on a tall, square base, the bright red, powder-coated stainless-steel sculpture consists of overlapping layers of metal that look like the fins of a dolphin. Migdal has a second sculpture, installed on the other side of the common area entitled “Whirling Dervish.” Bernau said that it was inspired by the power of water and felt that this sculpture’s location, in a quiet area away from the bustle of the cafeteria, was perfect for its “overwhelming presence.”
What do the students think of the new additions to the campus, especially those that are sited near one of their most visited buildings, the student union? Bernau decided to place a figurative piece, Carrie Fischer’s “Invertadude,” in this busy area, perhaps thinking that a human figure in a headstand might spark some discussion over lunch. According to the artist, her “modern day dude” is acting “as if the world doesn’t matter.” However, she says that “Our upside-down world is a place to invert our thoughts as we adapt to issues with global warming and rising oceans.” When asked his reaction to the sculptures, a student named Christopher said, “I like it because it offers a different look on art and on Menlo as a whole.”
Visitors to the exhibition get a walking map and are free to wander around on their own. Sitings change each year, and it’s a good idea to look closely under trees and in natural alcoves created by buildings and landscaping. Says Bernau, “I don’t want to place them obviously. I place them so you have to discover them. There is a surprise element.”
According to Bernau, revenue from past sales of sculptures has enabled Menlo Park Public Art to purchase one piece of outdoor art that she hopes will be installed somewhere in the city by next summer. Although the idea of public art in Menlo Park seems to be an uphill climb, Bernau maintains that when it has happened, “People were amazed at how sculpture can transform an area.”
The sculptures are on display Sept. 23-25 on the Menlo College campus. On Saturday, Sept. 24, visitors can also check out a panel discussion on creating environmentally sustainable sculptures and a film screening of the documentary “Hot Water” at Art Ventures Gallery. Activities on Sunday, Sept. 25, include a silent auction.
Menlo College is located at 1000 El Camino Real, Atherton. Tickets are $25-$30. For more information, visit siliconvalleysculpture.com.