The Djerassi Artists Retreat sits on the ridge of hills that cascade down to the Pacific Ocean, sloping deep into protected land and accessible only by a harrowing one and a half lane semi-paved road just wide enough that delivery trucks and yuppies in Priuses think they can barrel down it, stop short, and make unsuspecting strangers in difficult German-manufactured rental cars back up gingerly into narrow turnouts nestled between the road and a steep drop-off with no guardrail. In late summer, it is a landscape turned golden and brittle by the dry season, speckled by dusty gray-green conifers and some tenacious oaks, the sky clear and blue and wide. It is a landscape I have grown to love in my eight years of living in California, and as I found myself pulling back out of the turnout post-delivery truck run-in, I could feel the joy to be back in this place and away from the humidity of Washington, DC.
I was heading to Djerassi at the invitation of Barry Hessenius and the folks at WESTAF as part of a group of 12 next generation arts leaders pulled together to engage in a “Dinnervention”–a taped dinner conversation designed with the somewhat precocious goal of generating solutions to fix what was ailing the arts (“What would a new movement around the arts look like?”)–in particular, to shake up issues of supply, demand, engagement and public value in the field.
In a way, meeting at Djerassi was a perfect way to encapsulate the issues that the arts currently face. The ranch and retreat were founded by Carl Djerassi, the creator of the birth control pill, to honor his daughter, who committed suicide a bit down the road from the entrance, in a little house that now serves as the home of the retreat’s executive director, Margot Knight. Margot is herself indicative of the energy here. The former executive director of United Arts in Florida, Knight migrated West to take over leadership of the retreat a few years ago, and having met her when she was still in Florida, done up for a party, hair coiffed and dressed in black, it is safe to say her time at the retreat is written all over her. I found her, when I arrived, inside the octagonal barn that is one of three buildings of any size on the hundreds of acres of land, sitting in front of an expansive panoramic view in an armchair, hair curly and free in the heat, dressed California casual and working from her iPad. She set me up in my room, one of only twelve for guests on the Ranch, and after lunch, connection with some new friends and reconnection with old friends, Margot took a few of us on a hike through some of the woods and hills of Djerassi to view their large set of open-air art pieces.
The nature of Djerassi is that it exists as a pressure-free zone for artists to converge, converse and create. Six times each year, twelve artists of all disciplines are brought together to live on the ranch for thirty days with the only real obligation being that they eat dinner together each night. There is no obligation to create work, there is no obligation to conduct outreach, there is no obligation to leave on day 31 and proselytize about the magic of the place. It is an indulgent place, designed to unleash creativity in artists in a way that places them far from civilization, to create work that is sometimes carried back to society and is sometimes not, depending on the medium.
Along with the writers and composers and dancers and painters that come, create art, and take it with them there is also a strong contingent of site-specific artists who create temporary art on the ranch itself and leave it there as they go. Prior to my arrival, one artist had created a faux crop circle in the brown grass on the side of one of the hills that looked like the fast forward button on a VCR. One had created a faux adobe on the crest of one of the hills, very far away and which looked quite tiny.
The art here is required to be designed with decomposition in mind–the grass will grow, the rains will come, trees and floods will break the landscape. An artist had crafted a menagerie of what looked like cast concrete woodland creatures, Disney-style, that had probably once been set up in a scene but that had now been redistributed willy-nilly down an embankment because of a storm; another had built a human-sized bird nest that had slowly disintegrated down into the ground along the path.
There are many more pieces, but I, having braved the road and finding myself tired and wary of the strong sun, begged off the comprehensive tour of the collection. I peeled off with colleagues and fellow Dinnerventionists Laura Zabel and Margy Waller after two final, startling pieces:
The Japanese artist Yusuke Toda came to Djerassi in 2004 an artist who primarily did work in metal. He came with only a lathe, and over his month of residency he took a dead redwood trunk and honed it down into a pristine pale pillar that was then implanted back into a stump to be happened upon in a grove. It is called Contemplator, and it is that, quiet and quintessentially Asian, simple and calm. Further down the path, just as we were to turn away from the rest of the group to head back to the retreat, in a clearing between low hills, two giant gourd-like shapes, skeletal and open, twisted toward each other as though we were catching them in the midst of a whispered conversation or a wrestling match. This piece, called Dialog, is by a German artist named Roland Mayer, and per our little informational pamphlet, is meant to explore “the duplicity of public vs. private spaces.”
They are, together, indicative of the dichotomy of much of our field: moving, thought-provoking art at a great distance from most people. Whether that distance is economic or intellectual or physical, this enterprise, the non-profit arts, has receded in the distance over the decades since the founding of the NEA, and now finds itself scrambling back at great effort, and slowly.
As we wandered on our path with Margot and then left her, I kept asking questions, both out loud and to myself, about how Djerassi survived, what case was made for it, who came here and why. I found myself nagging at something I couldn’t quite figure out until Laura, Margy and I were heading down the path back to the retreat–a feeling that this place, so beautiful, so far from things, so exclusionary not by intention but simply by lack of access and accommodation, where artists came and made art in solitude, engaged in dinner conversation in intimate groups that disappeared into the air and left behind cryptic artworks in the woods and hills and valleys–a feeling that this place itself was indicative of the push-pull that is happening right now with the arts. Here, in this retreat that is visited by perhaps 1,000 people each year, artists are expressly nurtured with no further agenda and make art with no particular audience readily available. Which of course they should do–but there was something so retrograde about the model, the cloistering, the displacement of art outside of societal context, which seemed both counter to a successful future for the arts and their public value, and so extraordinarily appropriate to illustrating the reason this Dinnervention thing popped up in the first place.
A new movement in the arts must be one that grapples with the inaccessibility of many of our good intentions, and that recognizes and navigates the barriers that naturally exist or have been built around the art we seek to provide.