Art and nature at Quarry Hill

When you plunk down massive sculptures amid the flora and fauna of a wild garden, it’s inevitable that some kind of critter will move in.

But that doesn’t bother Sonoma County sculptor Bruce Johnson, who installed six of his rugged redwood works at Quarryhill Botanical Garden in Glen Ellen this spring as the first of a series of art exhibits that will recur annually at the rustic, woodland preserve.

Johnson said he anticipated an insect incursion when creating his sculpture, “Five Elements,” which he designed for a competition in Japan.

“There is a bee door for a beehive,” said Johnson of the work, which blends the geolithic stackings of Stonehenge with the architectural form of a Japanese lantern.

Johnson’s sculptures, which are subtly Asian in feeling and form, provide an elegant foil for the Quarryhill garden, which features 20,000 rare, endangered and wild-origin plants grown from seed gathered all over East Asia, from China to Japan.

“Many of these plants are on the verge of extinction, and people look at this garden as a Noah’s Ark of species,” said Bill McNamara, director of Quarryhill. “We distribute the seeds to botanical gardens around the world.”

In staging the exhibit, Johnson enlisted the help of Bionic, a San Francisco landscape architecture firm experienced with collaborating with artists. Bionic curated the show and placed the sculptures without significantly altering the natural setting of the garden.

While the Quarryhill property totals 62 acres - including 16 acres of organic cabernet sauvignon vineyards - the wild garden rambles over 25 acres, roughly in the shape of a rectangle. The six sculptures are clustered together along a route that takes about 15 minutes to walk.

“The landscape architect asked, ‘How do you organize a show in the garden?’?” Johnson said. “We looked for unique sites with different characteristics, geometry or gestures.”

Although the garden is at its peak bloom in the spring, it offers enough variety to provide interesting color all year round, and there are lots of hidden nooks and pathways, picnic areas and water elements to discover.

“Because of the diversity of the terrain, which goes up and down, there’s a lot of micro-habitats,” McNamara said. “You get surprises around every corner, and new vistas.”

Water features include an upper lake and lower lake - where the former quarry was located - as well as a waterfall, a lotus pond and a stream that is recirculated so it gurgles all year long.

Now a nonprofit, the garden was launched by the late Jane Davenport Jansen of San Francisco, who purchased it in 1968, built a second home and planted the vineyard.

In 1987, she decided to start a garden focused on plant conservation, funding the first of 15 seed-collecting expeditions to Asia. The first seedlings were planted in the ground in 1990. The mature trees now include the deciduous dawn redwood, now extinct in North America, and an extremely rare maple, Acer pentaphyllum.

Johnson, whose sculptures can be found all over the world, has had several exhibits over the past 15 years at the Paradise Wood Sculpture Grove at Santa Rosa’s Paradise Ridge Winery, which boasts a fountain and doors by the artist.

Other works can be found at Matanzas Creek Winery and the Vineyard Creek Inn in Santa Rosa, the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and Oakland City Center.

Working from his home and studio on a remote ridge above Timber Cove, Johnson uses salvaged old-growth redwood chunks and roots as the base of his structures, then adorns them with worked and hammered copper.

“I live in the redwood quarries, so I work with redwood,” he said. “I find a piece and I figure out what has integrity and a presence.”

At the Quarryhill installation, a plinth-like sculpture known as “Offering” greets visitors at the entrance to the garden.

“It’s a marker and a portal,” he said. “You can enter it, and it leads the eye up into the garden.”

“Uprising,” a dramatic work symbolizing the connection between earth and sky, overcomes gravity by levitating a big copper boulder over a log from which another copper boulder hangs.

“It’s empirical engineering,” he said of the work’s intricate balancing act. “A bolt goes through the entire piece.”

“Olas de Paz,” which translates as “Waves of Peace,” is made from salvaged redwood entirely clad in copper. It expresses the abstract energy of water.

“Monkey Mind,” a piece that resembles a jungle gym for toddlers, features the abstract head form of a monkey.

“Void,” a sculpture that evolved over the past 30 years, is roughly in the shape of a globe, with an empty space in the middle pierced by a pole. It is reminiscent of works by Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese-American sculptor who had a strong influence on Johnson.

“It began as a solid convex form, but in 2013, it evolved into a vortex of empty space,” Johnson said. “I abandoned it, but resurrected it last year.”

Finally, there is “Five Elements,” the Stone-Age lantern that pays tribute to wood, known in Japan as the fifth element, after earth, air, fire and water.

The bees have not set up housekeeping yet, but at night, a glass door in the sculpture beckons them inside with a honey-gold light.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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