Guided Hike Lifts the Veil on Djerassi, an R&D Lab for Artists in the Santa Cruz Mountains

The innovators at the Djerassi research compound in the mountains above Palo Alto have little need for lab coats or goggles. You won’t find them crafting code in a bean bag chair or doing deals on napkins at Buck’s of Woodside. Djerassi is about innovation in art.

Spread across 583 acres of brushy hillsides and wooded canyons in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Djerassi provides work space and inspiration for sculptors, painters, choreographers, composers, writers and other artists intent on exploring new creative avenues.

About 70 artists a year spend a one-month residency on the grounds. We spent a sunny afternoon.

We first learned about Djerassi from a barfly on a neighboring stool during trivia night at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company. We were failing miserably at trivia so had decided to try our luck at conversation.

Intrigued by the opportunity to visit a mountaintop artists’ enclave, we decided to pay a visit. But you can’t just hike in. You actually have to plan ahead. Sometimes far ahead, which challenges our slacking principles.

Opportunities include an open house in the summer, when a limited number of paying guests get to mingle with the current artists in residence; the Artful Harvest dinner and silent auction, with performances by Djerassi alumni; and occasional guided sculpture hikes, which allow a guest to tour the grounds and enjoy the artistic R&D. Check out options here.

Our Director’s Tour of the dozens of installations that dot the grounds began at the gate with an introductory speech by Djerassi Director Margot Knight, who emphasized that we were indeed visiting a research space and not a gallery. The open-air installations are experiments, prototypes and tangible hypotheses created by sculptors looking to expand their artistic vision.

Sometimes that vision works. Other times it doesn’t. Sometimes it washes away when the creek rises. Nearly all of the installations are left to deteriorate naturally amid the rigors of fog, ocean air, bright sunshine and winter storms.

With expectations firmly in check, our band of two dozen hikers hopped back in their cars and drove through the gate and down a narrow winding road to the McElwee Family Artists Barn. There we enjoyed a peek at the residential and working space before spraying clove oil on our shoes and pant legs to repel ticks and moving into the sunshine for a roughly three-mile hike across the compound. Each guest packed in his or her own lunch.

The grounds are pretty standard for the Santa Cruz Mountains. They are lovely, with ocean views and rolling hills covered with coastal scrub and live oaks, and canyons cooled by murmuring creeks and the shade of soaring coastal redwoods.

A quick aside about the hike. The group moves very slowly, with frequent stops. Even with several steep-ish elevation changes, the speed at which we traversed the compound made this a very doable hike for most folks. A ride back up the hill from the picnic grounds at the Susan and John Diekman Old Barn toward the end of the hike was available for folks in need.

So, the visit really wasn’t about the hike – we barely recorded 7,000 steps – it was about the art.

Among our favorites:

  • Nurse Log (2017) by Susanna Mishler. Electrical conduit has been attached to a 19th century logging boiler so new life appears to be sprouting from the antique equipment.
  • Hear (2013) by Aristotle Georgiades, an interactive installation that makes a pretty good megaphone as well.
  • Nest (1997) by Cynthia Harper, a carefully crafted woodland installation that had deteriorated naturally over the past 20 years, as nests do.
  • Estaciones de Luz (1987-88) by Mark Reeves, an interactive sculpture that requires the viewer to walk through the work into a circular courtyard. One hallway was so dark the line of visitors passing through stopped dead for a time, until MontaraManDan realized he was causing the holdup. Oops.
  • The Work (2004) by Alfred Boschl, which would have blended well in a centuries-old European monestary.
  • Door Space (2006) by Peter Müller, an installation that reminded us a little bit of the seasons 4 and 5 intro of the television classic “The Twilight Zone.”
  • State Certified Facts (1999) by James Chinneck. The facts are fascinating but fictional.
  • Landscape Painting (1995) by Alison Moritsugu. A special piece that warrants staff efforts to protect the painting on the cut of a felled tree from the elements.
  • The Faeries (2002), by Derek Jackson. Five are scattered throughout woodlands on the grounds.
  • Red Hot Salt Room (2016) by Annie Albagli, essentially a tiny but finally crafted sauna with the best view of any structure on the Djerassi grounds. (See “Featured Image” of this post.)

And yet, perhaps not surprisingly, even at a retreat dedicated to artistic innovation Mother Nature isn’t shy about one-upping the imagination and vision of the resident artists. We think she left her heart in Djerassi.

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Djerassi. Dawn Page/CoastsideSlacking

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