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MacArthur grant sculptor’s ’Air Garden’ takes shape in Sebastopol

Ned Kahn’s uniquely engineered kinetic artwork — all hinged squares, flapping chain mail, patterns, reflections and shapes — is displayed in public places around the globe and someday soon it could fly aboard the International Space Station.

Though usually constructed on a grand scale — resulting in huge, reflective expanses that respond to wind and shifting air currents — he’s treating Sebastopol neighbors to a temporary collection of smaller pieces right in downtown, on Depot Street.

Kahn and his “trusty right arm,” Santa Rosa artist and ceramicist Todd Barricklow, have been erecting sculptures on the future site of Hotel Sebastopol for the past several weeks, with plans to have a dozen or so installed by spring, when Kahn plans to reseed the weedy lot with native grasses or flowers to enhance the space.

They’ve come to call the 1¼-acre area the “Air Garden,” a tribute to Kahn’s fascination with structures that make air visible — and, he hopes, render it more vibrant in the consciousness of those who see his work.

The project came about when construction of the boutique hotel was put on hold amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Piazza Hospitality had hoped to break ground earlier this year on the 66-room facility, located on the former Diamond Lumber site, most recently used by Sebastopol Tractor Co.

But since they were waiting anyway, they turned the place over to Kahn “to help bridge the gap between downtown and The Barlow commercial center, and help draw people between the two districts,” the firm said on its website.

Kahn and Piazza already had been working together in preparation for an installation in the rooftop dining area of the planned hotel.

The more temporary exhibit is enclosed by a chain-link fence, for safety and security reasons, but Kahn and Piazza hope there will be opportunities to invite the public in at set times. Kahn hopes in spring, after his crew is done moving heavy equipment and cranes around the lot, to plant native grasses and flowing plants to enhance the space, creating “a little oasis of nature kind of embedded in the heart of the town.”

In the meantime, anyone can wander around the outside of the makeshift gallery and maybe even catch Kahn or Barricklow at work.

Already there’s a 30-foot twisting tower of white Teflon pieces, a large “wind hammock” that stretches across 44 feet, a series of sunset-colored panels and a smaller, suspended circular piece that looks like a dream catcher.

Passersby “have been so nice,” said Kahn, 59. “That’s been probably the funnest part of the whole thing. All the feedback has been super positive.”

Kahn studied environmental science in college before going on to create memorable installations as the artist in residence at the San Francisco Exploratorium. He is best known for huge, shimmering arrays of metal and other materials set in motion by the air.

He wants to do more than make strikingly vivid artwork, however. He hopes to inspire love for the air that animates it.

Though his work has always reflected a fascination with physics and movement — how fog and light, sand or even seeds can be coaxed and manipulated into intriguing scenes of beauty — he said he was still working at the Exploratorium decades ago when he read about the experience of astronauts who went to the moon and found themselves utterly altered by the experience of viewing the earth in all its fragility, a delicate, floating orb.

That idea of “shifted consciousness” had a profound impact on Kahn, and he has been inspired by it since.

“If you could make artwork that had even a tiny trace of that experience, that maybe you could affect people on a different level than kind of the thinking, rational-mind level — if you could alter people’s sense of stewardship and love for the Earth and the atmosphere and the air — then maybe you could change the way they feel about the air. Because the air, being invisible, it’s so easy to forget about it.”

Make it visible, and people remember, he said.

That idea continues to motivate many of his creations.

It was intrinsic to an art piece he proposed four years ago for the newly rebuilt Highway 12 bridge at the eastern entrance to town, across the Laguna de Santa Rosa.

Kahn imagined a 60-foot-tall tower of concentric stainless steel curtains of metal disc inspired by sunlight glistening off flowing water.

But after years of meetings with Caltrans and rewritten designs to try to win approval, the plan was recently abandoned, he said.

He’s now working on a proposal for a different public site in Sebastopol.

Kahn, who was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2003, winning what’s commonly known as MacArthur “genius” grant, said he has been invited to propose some work to send aboard the space station and has “boxes and boxes of little experiments” to be tested in zero gravity next year.

For now, he’s juggling a multitude of projects and plans.

“I guess my hope — and maybe it’s just a fantasy — is that some small number of people, when they see how air, how beautiful it is, it will shift their thinking, their relationship with the air and kind of fall in love with you. You love your kids so much you would do anything for your kid. If you had that same feeling, or even a trace of it, for the air …” he said, his voice trailing off.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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