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Shaping Contemporary Sculpture on the Central Coast

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Companions by Goran Konjevod, shorter.jpg
"Companions," a paper sculpture by Goran Konjevod, is one of the contemporary works featured in the California Sculpture Slam at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. | Courtesy of Central Coast Sculptors Group

A jewel-toned chandelier made of gummy bears. A pair of chocolate-hued porcelain figurines. A scarlet scarf wafted aloft by an antique aqua fan. These are images from the inaugural California Sculpture Slam.

With the second California Sculpture Slam, which runs Aug. 23 through Sept. 29 at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, the Central Coast Sculptors Group aims to showcase the work of contemporary artists from the Sierras to San Diego -- while raising the profile of San Luis Obispo County as a creative mecca.

"Our vision is to survey what's going on in the state in sculpture -- in three-dimensional art, generally," said Michael Reddell, the group's president and exhibition co-chair.

Exhibition co-chair Lucie Ryan said the goal of the biennial event is "to support and promote sculptures by living, (active) artists who are doing work right now that is unusual and original and trendsetting."

Affiliated with the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, the 45-member Central Coast Sculptors Group stages a major sculpture show every two years, in addition to smaller exhibitions, workshops, demonstrations and studio tours.

"Dead Hare" by Jenne Giles | Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Museum of Art
"Dead Hare" by Jenne Giles | Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Museum of Art

Last year, the group launched the Phantom Project, which features pop-up art exhibitions in otherwise unused spaces. "It was extremely well-received. It was the talk of the town, actually," Reddell said of the project, which is open to artists working in all disciplines, not just sculpture.

The first Phantom Project show, held in January 2012, drew more than 1,600 artists and art lovers to a vacant retail space in downtown San Luis Obispo. More than 4,000 people attended the second show held in May in a former furniture showroom in Paso Robles.

The Central Coast Sculptors Group is currently planning another Phantom Project exhibition this year. However, its highest profile show remains the California Sculptors Slam.

The inaugural California Sculpture Slam featured 64 pieces picked by Santa Monica artist Charles Arnoldi, including Glendale artist YaYa Chou's "Chandelier II," Los Angeles artist Linda Vallejo's "Little Boy Brown & Brownie," and Redding artist Belinda Hanson's "A Perfect Day." (Works were limited only by size and weight.) For this year's exhibition, Los Angeles sculptor Coleen Sterritt selected just 38 works from more than 300 submissions by 135 artists.

"I had to really focus on work I thought was done from a professional point of view, as opposed to a hobby," the juror said, selecting "genuine and authentic" pieces that reflected a "great range of materials and skill levels and approaches to sculpture making." "I tried to present works that was very contemporary to trends in current sculpture."

Those trends include "work that's strictly formal, work that's process driven and work that's more conceptual," Sterritt explained.

"Loxodonta Daliensis" by Adon Valenziano | Courtesy of Central Coast Sculptors Group

Her selections range from Livermore mathematician-turned-sculptor Goran Konjevod's elaborate origami piece "Companions" to Palm Springs sculptor Cathy L. Allen's "Bed Wax," which features wax dripping through a twisted wood-and-metal mattress frame, and Santa Cruz artist Adon Valenziano's "Loxodonta daliensis," featuring a pair of "biometamorphic" wood-and-metal insects with elephant-like glass tusks.

"The trend from the show this year is toward unconventional materials and more conceptual abstract work," Ryan said, pointing to Willits mixed-media sculptor Chris Beards' "Archive" - which utilizes nylon rope, powder-coated steel and more than 2,500 plastic zip-ties - as one example. "It's no longer 'If it's not bronze, it's not stone, it's not really art.'"

Central Coast Sculptors Group member and Arroyo Grande resident Robert Oblon described the California Sculpture Slam as "a very good spectrum of contemporary California art. There's a whole array from very sophisticated work to work that is very grassroots."

Oblon's sleek "Serengeti Sunset," made of powder-coated aluminum, redwood, lead and acrylic polymer, appears in this year's California Sculpture Slam. Other sculptors representing the Central Coast include Timo Beckwith, Marcia Harvey, Autumn Jennings, George Jercich and David Settino Scott.

Although Reddell and Ryan can't speak to whether the Central Coast has a specific sculptural style, the Cambria residents agree that the region offers "an environment that's very conducive to creative endeavors," Reddell said. "I don't know if it's the ... beautiful weather or the gorgeous landscape or the pot, but this is a very active art place now," Ryan added.

Fort Bragg artist John Fisher teaches a workshop at the California Sculptors Symposium in Cambria. | Courtesy of California Sculptors Symposium

When asked what attracts artists to the California Sculptors Symposium, held every spring at Camp Ocean Pines in Cambria, Burbank sculptor Vic Picou said, "The setting has a lot to do with it." He has served as the symposium's director since 2004.

The California Sculptors Symposium, which returns to Cambria for its 12th year in April 2014, began life as a five-day artists' retreat in 2002 created by Santa Barbara sculptor/painter Fayrene Parrish and members of the Central Coast Sculptors Group. (The two organizations are no longer affiliated.)

Now the annual event draws 60 to 75 participants from across the country and as far away as Europe, ranging in age from 18 to 80, Picou said.

"They like the camaraderie. They like the diverse program," he said, as well as the supportive environment. "They feel safe. They can come in and they're not going to be judged or criticized."

"A lot of the participants coming to us ... can't find the same thing in schools, so the demand on this board is to (provide) a sculpture school," he said, with five workshops per day covering everything from clay modeling and marble carving to fused glass and tool forging. There's also a silent auction and a sculpture exhibition, Sculpture by the Sea.

"We're not looking through the newspapers to see what the leading edge of sculptures is, or what the collectors are looking for," Picou said. "We take our cues from the participants and what they want to see ..."

The majority of symposium attendees are eager to work with stone, he said, as evidenced by the popularity of Fort Bragg artist John Fisher's monumental sculpture-in-progress, "Venus di Cambria." Formed from a 2.5-ton block of Italian marble, the graceful female figure has been in the works at Camp Ocean Pines for three years.

Participants are also looking to learn by trying new methods and new media, Picou added. "That is a common trend of people crossing over and expanding their skills in an entirely different media."

"Rooster" by Nancy Evans | Courtesy of Central Coast Sculptors Group

Indeed, Reddell and Ryan, the organizers of the California Sculpture Slam, said they've seen their own work involve in recent years -- as Reddell has migrated from tiny tableaux to life-size steel figures, and Ryan has gone from firing large-scale ceramic sculptures to layering epoxy clay over armatures. For his part, Oblon said he's moved gradually from figurative surrealist sculpture to abstract cutout paintings.

According to Ryan, the ever-evolving nature of artists is the main reason that the California Sculpture Slam is limited to works created in the past two years.

"We want people to see what sculptors are doing right now in California today," said Ryan, a member of the Central Coast Sculptors Group for about eight years. "Current working sculptors who are doing leading-edge stuff need to have a show where it is shown as such."

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