Sometimes, even in the most apocalyptic of times, one can find little pockets of delight and creativity in the most unexpected places. All it takes a willingness to go outside (smoke permitting), slow down, and look around.
During September, there are small art treasures hidden near the paths at Live Oak and Cordornices parks, as part of a site-specific installation called Intersections. The event is co-sponsored by the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association (BPWA), which helped select the paths and is also leading small, socially-distanced walks to view and learn about the artwork. The walks are free, but pre-registration is required to keep the total number to 10 walkers.
“The pathways are special places that feel magical to me, and I wanted to create an experience that would use the paths as a canvas and a point of connection,” said Hadley Dynak, a creative consultant and founder of Peak68. “The paths were designed to be intersections between neighborhoods, and I wanted to see how art could relate to that.”
The project was conceived before COVID-19, and originally involved 11 East Bay artists as well as five Berkeley High School art students. There would have been an opening reception at the Berkeley Arts Center in May; plein air painting events; journaling; and pop up artist talks on the trails.
The pandemic scrapped plans for that larger event, but what remains feels even more special because of the current restrictions. Museums, art galleries and theaters are closed, as are other venues where people can enjoy art in community. Intersections provides a safe, outdoor setting where children and adults can engage with a diverse community of artists all grappling with a single question: what is the connection between nature and the environment, especially at a time of great environmental jeopardy?
While several of the artists walked the paths together in pre-pandemic times to select their sites, they did not know each other before joining the project and each of their pieces stands independent of the others. However, if one spends time with the art one can definitely see points of connection.
And the project — which was conceived of and developed by Hadley, with collaboration from BPWA — also reunited the Path Wanderers with the paths. “We haven’t been able to offer walks in six months,” BPWA President Alina Constantinescu said. “It’s so thrilling to be able to do this again, to have this feeling of togetherness. As much as we agonized about whether to do it now or not, at the end of the day we went for it. It’s a much smaller event than we originally envisioned, but it brings joy to people during very difficult times.” Ironically, Hadley had suggested re-staging the event in September, wanting to avoid fire season. It didn’t work out that way.
While the concept of public art often brings to mind very large installations, these art pieces are all modest in size. In fact, two are so small and subtle that one has to work hard to even find them. (Children might especially enjoy these pieces because they are almost hidden in the ivy and closer to children’s eye level than adults’).
Karin Dahl’s piece, “Ornamental Invasives,” is a series of about 100 painted fake silk ivy leaves, inserted among the actual ivy leaves along Tamalpais Path in Cordornices Park. If not for the two framed areas that Dahl set up among the ivy using wood and survey tape— she is also an archeologist and cartographer — one would never even notice these “invasive” leaves.
“I wanted to draw attention to how much ivy there is along the Berkeley pathways: it’s such a big part of the landscape that we take it for granted, but it is not native to this area,” Dahl said. So in order to draw attention to the “invasive” species, she decided to populate it with even more invasive material.
“I didn’t have an idea of the final piece until I got there,” she said. “I kept painting more and more of these fake leaves, and as I did that — and as we got closer to the installation date — I kept thinking about different ways that they could be displayed and presented.” She considered braiding the leaves into one long line of slightly differently-colored greens, or clustering them, or hanging them from the nearby trees.
In the end, she decided to integrate small bunches of leaves within the bed of ivy, so one has to really bend down and search to discern the invasives within the invasives. “If you spend enough time there, you will notice that one of the grids has more pieces than the other,” she said. And there are also some art leaves that escaped the grids and are hanging from nearby branches.
Connie Zheng’s work also hangs from branches, but it is very much at eye level and focuses on the 97 endangered native plants of Alameda County. She was inspired by the concept of wooden “spirit tablets” which are often located in temples or roadside shrines in East Asia. “I perceive spirit tablets as a way to not only honor the local deities of a place, but also to extend their ‘lives.’ For beings both material and immaterial, to be forgotten is to no longer exist,” Zheng wrote.
For this installation, Zheng cut 97 card-sized tablets out of reclaimed wood pallet boards to highlight the role that colonization and global trade played in ravaging indigenous plants and peoples. “I repeatedly asked myself two questions,” Zheng emailed. “How do I take up public space in a responsible way, with as small of an ecological footprint as possible? And how do I create something simultaneously site-specific, accessible to a wide audience, aesthetically pleasing, and conceptually interesting?”
Zheng added that she wants her piece to leave viewers “with a curiosity to learn more about the land that they inhabit — specifically, the quiet and diverse forms of plant life surrounding them, as well as the Indigenous histories of the Bay Area and the ongoing efforts of the Ohlone people to rematriate their traditional territory.”
After the show closes, Zheng would like to offer the pieces as part of a fundraiser, for purchase on a sliding scale, with 100% of the proceeds going toward the Sogorea Te Land Trust. “The price is still TBD, although I’d like to make the works accessible, especially to those for whom hand-made works of ‘fine art’ are often unaffordable,” she wrote. Zheng can be contacted via her website with any inquiries.
Kim Bennett’s piece, “Improve Each Shining Hour,” consists of about 100 monkey knots strung along Berryman Path in Live Oak Park, not far from Zheng’s installation. “I had a dream of these beads strung between the trees before I started this project,” she said. “Originally, I wanted the piece to zigzag back and forth, go into the trees and come back down.” As with all the other artists’ work, the project evolved and morphed due to the pandemic.
“I was trying to make a little bit of sense of time in a weird time, and knots have been used as a time-keeping method for centuries,” Bennett said. The knots are now hanging close to the ground, adding a burst of color and a woven texture into the natural landscape. “I was looking for a feeling of these knots being nestled into the trees,” Bennet said.
Dawline-Jane Oni-Eseleh’s piece, “Inside/Outside” is a series of four handmade natural object vignettes contained in acrylic cubes placed further along Berryman Path, just below Oxford Street. The pieces are tiny — they could fit in the palm of your hand. It takes quite a bit of hunting among the ivy to discover them.
“They reflect the tension between real and make-believe, what is indigenous and what is imported, and what is accessible and what is constrained,” Oni-Eseleh wrote. The pieces also evoke “the distinct feeling of being boxed in and isolated from our surroundings” during the pandemic.
Jessica Sabogal’s piece, “Whiteness Remains Invisible,” was designed before George Floyd’s murder galvanized the nation, and seems right on point now. While the sign looks as though it was commercially manufactured, it was actually made by hand, Hadley said.
This is the most obviously political of the projects, and the least connected to the natural environment. As such, it is placed high up on a light pole on Rose Walk.
“Her piece directly addresses the reality that white places of privilege protect and isolate residents from the race-based stress that non-white people experience,” Dynak wrote. “It encourages viewers to reflect on the construct of personal safety and the varying levels of comfort and connection people feel in different spaces. What does it mean to be white in a white space? ”
For those who want to learn more about the art and the artists, Intersections will be holding an online conversation with four of the artists on Sept. 24 at 5:30 p.m. The talk will be moderated by Susan Moffat.
Hadley has also videotaped conversations with the artists in lieu of the artist talks that would have been held on the paths, and those will be posted on the Intersections site in the coming days.