Pass the oak trees and the camellias and you’ll find art

Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
The Sturt Haaga Gallery at Descanso Gardens, converted from an old garage by architectural firm Fred Fisher, is flanked by two vertical gardens. A tapestry sculpture by Pamela Burgess is on the right; the sculpture in the window is by Heather Carson. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

A contemporary art gallery in the woods? That’s what you’ll find if you take a walk on one of the glorious paths at the Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge. The latest art show in this unique space fits it perfectly. It’s a colorful, playful group exhibition titled Elemental: Seeing the Light.

The history of the space is just as intriguing as the new show and its natural setting. The gardens were once the home to the publishing magnate E. Manchester Boddy, an anti-corruption crusader whose legend somehow hasn’t had the staying power of the iconic Hearst and Chandler. Boddy owned the long-defunct Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, but as evidence of his softer side, and perhaps to balance out the muckraking, he also grew camellias on these 150 acres–after purchasing the plants from a Japanese family about to be interned during the War.

Boddy died in 1968; and the gardens have been open to the public for decades. When executive director David Brown was put in the charge of Descanso ten years ago, there was talk of tearing down an old chauffeur’s quarters and garage near Boddy’s mansion. Instead, Brown commissioned architect Frederick Fisher to build it out–into a gem of a contemporary art gallery, flanked by two vertical gardens, and topped with another.

There’s an element of surprise when exploring the space and that’s exactly what curator John David O’Brien enjoys about programming three shows a year here. “It’s a sneakier way of getting people into the arts,” he said before a recent opening during a rainy weekend. “What can we do to both be an outlet for the amazing contemporary art in L.A. but also to bring some level of education to people who might not otherwise got to a museum? They’re going to take a walk here and stop and say ‘What is this stuff?'”

The “stuff” in this particular show is quite beautiful and enhances the natural beauty of the gardens, rather than distracting from it. Even in the rain, it was worth the trek; you have till April yourself to see for yourself.

The Heather Carson work in the gallery's picture window Photo: Martha Benedict
Fluorescent light culpture by Heather Carson. Photo: Martha Benedict
Photo: Martha Benedict
Photo: Martha Benedict
Photo: Robert Wedemeyer
Works by Eric Zammitt, Yunhee Min, Fran Siegel, Mary Corse are just a few of the pieces on display in Elemental/Seeing the Light. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer