Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Dinner at Montalvo Proves an Enlightening Experience

A flock of flamingos visits 'Ramandu's Table,' one of 10 works in Bruce Munro's 'Stories in Light' at Montalvo. Photo by Mark Pickthall

For almost six months, the stunning light-based works of Bruce Munro have illuminated the nighttime spirits of Villa Montalvo. Ranging from enormous landscape installations to more intimate projects, the 10 exhibits, collectively titled Stories in Light, transform the Montalvo environs until March 17.

So far, several thousand visitors have parked at West Valley College and paid to ride a shuttle into the grounds, where the lawns, gardens, terraces and other structures now conjure up wonderlands based on C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, thanks to Munro.

When Stories in Light began to wind down its run few weeks ago, the anti-man-about-town showed up to witness a panel session inside the Carriage House Theatre, titled, "Artists on Light and Public Space," moderated by Barbara Goldstein, a leading national voice in public art planning and urban placemaking. Goldstein consults cities around the country and was the city of San Jose's public art director for years, during which she brought an outre contemporary art panache far beyond most people in that building. I say this not because she gave me a lift to the event, but because it's true.

Before the panel session, though, our visit necessitated a serious nosh-up because the Lucas Artists Residency Program at Montalvo is quite unique in the worldwide matrix of creative residencies. Right here in Silicon Valley, it's easy to take Montalvo for granted being that it's only a short drive away, yet every year about 60 artists from all over the world show up to live and work for a few months in any one of 10 different LEED-certified studio and living spaces. Teams of architects and artists designed each of the buildings with specific disciplines in mind, whether it's painting, music, film, design or creative writing. Each artist residency includes dinner Monday through Thursday and lunch on Friday, all conjured up in a professional kitchen by resident culinary artist Andrea Blum. Teams of artists, scientists and stray directionless newspaper columnists all show up on occasion to join the feasts.

That said, our particular spread put us at a long epicurean table just off the kitchen inside the Knight Ridder Commons Building. Current and former Lucas Program artists joined in for the meal. A few hailed from as far away as New Zealand. Another, Zeinab Alhashemi, a conceptual artist, designer and also a SETI artist in residence, had just flown in that day from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Still another, the painter Monica Lundy, who splits her time between Los Angeles and Italy, schooled me on Roman arches throughout our meal.

This is not an elite experience completely off limits to mere mortals, however. On the last Friday of each month, Montalvo offers the public a sneak peek behind the scenes into what transpires on the property, with one of the resident artists presenting either a lecture, performance or conversation about his or her work. Anyone can buy a ticket.

Later that night, cold weather descended over the property. Visitors bundled up and even shivered underneath their skin as they navigated the grounds to see the Munro exhibits before attending the panel session in the Carriage House Theatre, which included Jim Campbell, creator of the Salesforce tower illumination, and media artist Andrea Polli, as they both discussed their own work.

Campbell offered wondrous anecdotes from behind the scenes of the 11,000-LED display he orchestrated for the top floors of the Salesforce Tower, a display that changes depending on how he programs it. When he first tested the display from his laptop in a Potrero Hill bar, he realized that with his ability to alter an entire skyline at the press of a button, a serious degree of responsibility, and power, came along with the project.

Polli, on the other hand, recently lit up the Rachel Carson Bridge in Pittsburgh using 27,000 LEDs powered by wind turbines to create a temporary light display, altered in real time by weather data. Another of Polli's projects, Particle Falls, debuted right here in San Jose during the 2010 ZeroOne Biennial, a project Goldstein helped incubate and a project that went on to appear all over the world. The anti-man-about-town left the Montalvo grounds thoroughly illuminated.