Fun & Games at Montalvo Art Center

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The party in full swing on the front lawn. Photo: Bahara Emami.

This past month Carolyn and I had the pleasure of visiting Montalvo Art Center, a residency for artists, musicians and writers, tucked away in the hills of Saratoga, in a repurposed Senator’s mansion.

Every year the Montalvo folks throw a big bash called Art on the Grounds to celebrate new installations and sculptures born of the creative minds selected for their program.  Between Montalvo’s reputation for cutting edge, contemporary work and the theme “Fun & Games”, I figured we were in for a good party. (And, as occasionally happens, I was right!)


A fierce little camper defends her treetop oasis. Photo: Bahara Emami.

The theme of playfulness in this year’s “Rock the Garden” party became immediately clear when we entered the compound and see the awesome treehouses the summer camp kids had built.  The bamboo structures looked right at home in the arid environment, like a fantasy from Robinson Crusoe’s desert island. 

Across the way we encounter our first installation, a huge, retro billboard sign with a flashing red arrow; an untitled work by Allison Wiese.  The text reads, “HERE I AM.  WHAT WERE YOUR OTHER TWO WISHES?” I’m thinking of getting it on a bumper sticker.  We giggle and hop out for a photo op, because if you don’t Instagram it, did it really happen?


Carolyn, pictured with the Allison Wiese installation and looking like a dream come true. 

As we inch up the winding drive, the rolling green lawn comes into view, covered in a horde of kids going mad!  Their insanity was sparked by the fact that the yard was full of big, colorful bouncy balls, some as enormous as 6 feet wide. One daredevil in pigtails had been hoisted up onto one by her peers, Lord of the Flies style, and was ill-advisedly standing precariously atop it. This made for exciting viewership for us…not so much her distressed mother who came quickly to her rescue.


Evil Knieval and her faithful assistants smiling for the camera.  

The balls were not in fact there to teach a lesson to adventurous children, but are part of artist Miguel Arzabe’s conceptual contribution to Lawn Games, a kit of activities that got people involved in playtime that evening, and can be enjoyed at Montalvo for the rest of the summer.  Decked out in gym shorts and soccer cleats, Arzabe did a performance with the balls and a satin parachute, which brought me nostalgic memories of the grade-school thrill of P.E…the golden years before they made you do the hard stuff, like run a mile.


Miguel Arzabe showMontalvo the fun side of P.E.

He also created pamphlets with suggestions for activities that encouraged us to interact with the toys, and changed our relationship to each other and to the grounds.  For instance: Carolyn and I learned the importance of timing and teamwork as we conquered Faceball, a game in which you toss a ball and your partner attempts to snap a picture right at the moment it’s covering your face. 


Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is faceball.

After a few goofy outtakes, we totally nailed it. Arzabe assured us it was the best one he’d ever seen, so we promptly uploaded it to Instagram with the caption “#faceball.” No big deal.


Victory is ours! #Faceball #Faceball #Faceball!

Bonus points that the lime green ball makes me look like René Magritte’s painting The Son of Man, of Thomas Crown Affair fame.


The resemblance is uncanny.

We stroll past an adorable group of elderly Mexican women teaching couples the traditional dance danzón to a cheerful tune. And after a quick pit stop for rice bowls and Diet Cokes at the MoBowl food truck, we park it by an installation where they seem to be outfitting children in hazmat suits. (I know it sounds like the event was putting kids in danger and that we were laughing at them, but I swear it was a family-friendly affair…and we were mostly laughing with them.)


Michael Hall explains his super fun, painter’s obstacle course.

Looking gleefully like Mike Teevee from the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, artist Michael Hall explained to participants how to run through his painting obstacle course.  When one of the adults questioned if a particular wall-climbing structure could support his weight, Michael assured him enthusiastically, “I’ve jumped over that thing tons of times!“

A little bitter and anxious that my passion for painting would be tainted by my extraordinary lack of athletic skill, I quickly lightened up watching folks paint a line while running down a balance beam, toss paint-filled balloons at a target, flop hilariously over a paint-covered wall, and attempt to draw a perfect circle before crashing through the curtained finish line.


An epic finish for one brave contestant.

Watching other people exert themselves tired us out, and we decided to seek out more nourishment in the form of the ice cream cart.  We’re on our way to dessert, passing the flamboyantly colorful Kenny Scharf picnic table, Pikaboom, when Carolyn spots the artist himself snapping a picture! We’d heard Scharf might be in attendance, and though he was a little incognito behind a cool fedora and jazzy shades, he was definitely recognizable.

Luckily for me my extroverted partner in crime, who could network with a brick wall if she had to, marches right up to him and introduces herself.  Once I catch up from trailing embarrassed 5 feet behind, we both strike up a conversation with Kenny who was immediately warm and seemed very down to earth. Like, wearing huarache sandals down to earth. No doubt influenced by his years spent living near the beach in Southern California, his beachy, laid-back attitude even put nervous little me at ease.


Kenny Scharf hanging out it front of his picnic table sculpture, Pikaboom.

Over ice cream tacos from Rocko’s Ice Cream Tacos, we chatted about art in the contemporary age.  We were thrilled to learn that Kenny shares Sartle’s passion for exposing people to art on the web.  He’s an avid Instagram user (@Kennyscharf) and thinks of his profile as a great way to get his art out to the people, sidestepping the bureaucracy of the museum.

“Museums want to control the art. They want big donors and galas. They aren’t about democratizing art.” –Kenny Scharf

Democratizing art is certainly a passion of Scharf’s. He let us in on a new project he’s been doing called “Karbombz.” After posting a photo of a friend’s car he spray-painted with one of his signature, bright, anamorphous faces, Kenny got tons of messages from people on IG who wanted the same treatment for their rides.  So he complied! He’s done dozens of original artworks on strangers’ cars, all for free. He said he sees it as a great way to add an element of artistic expression to a consumer product. We are on board with jazzing up our morning commutes!


Kenny poses with his own Prius, made infinitely cooler by Karbombz.

It becomes clear that Kenny is a little disenchanted with the politics of the art world.  Though he himself is famous and successful, he lamented that, “People only want to learn about art that costs like, a million dollars. But a lot of art is created with no price in mind. Why did you become an artist? To get rich?” He assures us that it was his passion for personal expression that drove his ambitions, and it’s uplifting to me that a successful artist can stay true to their ideals in the whirlwind of money and prestige that comes with “making it.”

In fact, Kenny was even taking pictures of groups of people sitting at his Pikaboom picnic table-a bright pink atomic cloud made of cartoon faces, the zigzag blast of which made up the benches. He seemed amused to see folks lounging, “in the shade of the bomb,” and commented how nice it was to see the sculpture outside for public use, rather in the sterile environment of the gallery. (Though funnily enough, the sculpture has to be moved everytime there’s a wedding at Montalvo. Guess some brides don’t want the psych-atomic vibe…) 


Pikaboom just doesn’t look as fun at his hip exhibit at the Honor Fraser gallery as it does on the lawn. 

We were so enamored by Kenny and his willingness to chat to us about his work that we offered to drive him to the airport.  Slightly embarrassed by my 2003 Jeep Liberty that was (OK, is) covered in bird sh*t and filled with empty wrappers and bottles, he assuages my worries and climbs in the backseat.  It then occurs to me that I am almost completely out of gas.  With the San Jose Airport about 20 minutes away and Kenny’s flight leaving in about 40, we decide to rely upon the power of positive thinking and a light touch on the brakes to get us there.

Then we make a wrong turn.

But somehow, while exchanging funny airport stories and with the yellow gas light shining in our hopeful faces, we get him there on time. And so gracious is Mr. Kenny Scharf, that he gives me his personal e-mail and tells me that I can visit his studio and he will Karbomb my trash car for me next time I’m in LA! Maybe something like his painting When the Worlds Collide?


But I’m really hoping he paints some of his signature donuts on my ride.

Giddy from our run-in with celebrity, our spiked blood sugar and a day of talking about art with the amazing, creative folks at Montalvo…we head on home. (After filling up the tank, that is.)

Cheers to the Montalvo Art Center for putting on an amazing event and for supporting the work of exciting contemporary artists through their residency program.

And here’s to more art with humour, light-heartedness, jokes and cartoons!  Art imitates life, so at least some of it should be fun.


These silly Sartlers were clearly having some.


By Angelica Jardini

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Angelica Jardini

Sr. Editor

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