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Choses du Jardin

Outside, your incomprehensible art junk acquires new freshness



A couple of months ago, I spent an afternoon at the di Rosa Preserve, a private art collection housed on a lovely piece of land between Napa and Sonoma along the Sonoma Highway. The collector, Rene di Rosa, is almost 90 years old. His collection of modern art, which now totals over 1,700 pieces, fills the house he once lived in, a newer gallery space and the land surrounding it. The gardens around the house and gallery are beautiful, making it a worthwhile horticultural outing and picnic opportunity if you're burned out on wineries. (Hey, it happens. It's called a hangover.)

This is all modern art, mostly collected since 1950, and walking through the galleries made it clear to me how little I know about modern art. Some of the very biggest names in the art world were absent from the collection, leaving me to guess about the significance of the rest of the artists. Were these big names, important pieces, significant early works? I had no idea.

Mr. di Rosa insisted that no names or captions be attached to the art -- you have to find a little number on the wall next to each piece, then go look it up in a binder -- and this got wearying. Maybe I spotted a Diane Arbus here and there, but I lacked the energy to go look it up. Some of the art was a pure delight in that way that modern art can be -- nonsensical and brilliant and thought-provoking, even if you're not quite sure what it's provoked you to think about -- but I confess that a great deal of it just didn't resonate with me.

Outside was different. Put anything weird out in a field and I'm bound to like it. There were cars hanging from trees, ceramic arms sticking up out of the ground and plenty of big metal sculptures that turned lazily in the wind. I don't know what it is about putting art outside, but it seems to have a rejuvenating effect on the art itself, as if getting it out of the hospital-like gallery setting and taking it for walk around the grounds breathes a little life back into it.

My own attempts at putting art in the garden haven't amounted to much, but I have learned one thing: A coat of paint can turn any piece of junk into yard art. People like to give me metal sculptures of chickens -- I think my flock of metal birds outnumbers my flock of real birds at this point -- so one day I took a rickety wooden ladder, painted it bright blue, and perched the metal birds along the rungs of the ladder. I wedged it into one of the more boring spaces in my garden. Behold: art.

A coat of orange paint also made the chicken coop much more interesting, and I continue to nail odd bits of found art to it, some of which gets blown right off the wall during winter storms, but I usually replace it with something else come springtime.

So while we’re in this dry season, when outdoor projects are fairly easy to complete, I urge you to gather up some broken down junk and put a coat of paint on it. It's hard to mess up a project like this. Pick a really bright, garish color like fuchsia or chartreuse or turquoise or bright orange. If your piece of junk of choice is covered with cobwebs, you might want to blast it with the hose, but otherwise, no preparation is necessary. Just slop on a coat of paint, maybe two if you're feeling really industrious, and put your new piece of art outside. And if you want to hang a car from a tree, send me a photo. That's my kind of art.


Speaking of art, I hope you'll all stop by and take a look at the botanical art show we’re holding at Eureka Books as a benefit for the Humboldt Botanical Gardens Foundation on Aug. 1 and 2. If you are an HBGF member -- or if you'd like to become a member at the door -- we’re holding a preview party on Friday, Aug. 1, at 7 p.m.. I’ll give a short talk about the history and technology behind botanical art at that event. To RSVP, call 442-5139.

Otherwise, drop by on Saturday, Aug. 2, from 6-9 p.m., for Arts Alive. We'll have everything from 200-year-old hand colored botanical engravings to modern work from California artists, and 20 percent of proceeds are going to HBGF. The store is located at 426 Second St. in Old Town; for more information, visit


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