The city is a gallery
Three local artists let their work find you
Visual artist Joel Michael Smith was sitting in the Coffee Garden when he found the treasure: a glistening, gold peach pit with a strip of paper peeking out from its hollowed center.
The message written on the strip didn’t inspire any profound epiphanies. Actually, Smith can’t even recall what it said. Time didn’t stand still, the world didn’t stop turning. But Smith thought the little faux-gold nugget was special.
“I don’t want to say guerrilla art, because it’s not as provocative as that,” says Ianna Frisby, the artist who creates dozens of these peach pits. “It’s just something different happening during your mundane day, and it makes life a little more special that way.”
The concept is simple: Frisby bakes ceramic peach pits, paints them gold, sticks a message inside and waits for people to stumble across them on countertops and coffee tables across the city.
On one side of the paper strip is a message like the one Smith discovered; a saying such as “Be sure you’ll use it,” which may apply profoundly to various life situations. All the messages were culled from Sunset’s Household Handbook, published in 1941, a book that still speaks to Frisby’s interest in the artistic potential of antiquated things.
“Once you cut [the quotes] out and take them out of context … they’re kind of ambiguous,” Frisby says. “Some people are going to get mad. Some people are going to be like, ‘What the … ?!’”
And reaction is encouraged. A Web address on the back of the paper strips directs people to a survey. Frisby is curious to know how people interact with the gold peach pits. She asks participants to record everything from feelings about the pit’s message to the weather outside during the hour of discovery.
Frisby may compile the responses into a book, but the project isn’t forced. “Really, it just organically grew this way,” she says. “Once you make a few decisions about your art, you start to focus on what’s working and what’s not.”
Organic interaction with art outside gallery walls is a growing trend both nationally and locally. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently sent out objects similar to the peach pits: 4-inch, cherry-red replicas of Jeff Koons’ sculpture, “Cracked Egg (Red),” with a message inside announcing the opening of the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. On the East Coast, Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher’s Learning to Love You More project aims to “guide people towards their own experience,” giving the public random assignments (“Draw a constellation from someone’s freckles,” for example, or “Make a flier of your day”), then posting the resulting art on www.learningtoloveyoumore.com.
But while these projects buzz across the pages of glossy magazines, Sacramento artists have been distributing public art for years. Like Danny Scheible, who makes masking-tape robots and cones and castles for friends and strangers. Or Nathan Cordero, whose stencil-cut magnolia leaves and wood-whittled cigarette replicas have become fringe-art circuit collectibles. Or Frisby herself, whose peach pits have seen several color transformations. These three artists work separately but with a common purpose: to offer an impromptu experience. Their refusal to guide that experience is the point.
“Art is … more free when you come across it on the street or in a public setting,” Scheible says. “For me, displaying art in a gallery is as important as displaying it on the street.”
Scheible’s masking-tape sculptures have graced galleries across Sacramento. But he also offers his work to-go. It’s not unusual to spot Scheible making art in public, his arms adorned with rings of masking tape, weaving miniature cityscapes from the sticky green and white strips. These tiny sculptures have made their way into many unsuspecting hands.
Scheible is particularly influenced by the work of Andy Goldsworthy, a British environmentalist and artist famous for rock-balancing sculptures that produce art from and within nature.
Sacramento artist Nathan Cordero also makes art from the elements. Cordero reaches beyond the gallery walls that have housed his well-known carved “door skins” to spread his art to the public.
It started with magnolia leaves: Cordero would come home from his day job as a janitor at the Crocker Art Museum and stencil-cut letters and figures into dried leaves, then drop them around town.
When the museum’s then-events coordinator heard that Cordero’s work was going to be in a local show, she asked to see it.
“I showed her [the leaves] and she said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve found these. I have a collection of them,’” Cordero remembers. “And I was like, ‘That’s what I want; whenever you see them, take them.”
He has since moved on to whittling wooden cigarettes, perhaps a more provocative project in a city that restricts the act of smoking. Cordero recognizes the potential for controversy but does not hope to guide anyone’s thinking.
“The place I most imagine people putting them is on their refrigerators,” he says of the tiny creations. “That’s one of my goals, I guess. That would be cool.”
But despite his unwillingness to force any agenda on his audience, Cordero recognizes the unique opportunity that art outside gallery walls can provide. “There’s a certain crowd that isn’t in tune with the art world, what’s going on art-wise in Sacramento,” he says, “and I want to dip into their consciousness, too.”
While Ianna Frisby’s gold peach pits have not yet fully dipped into the public consciousness—or so the lack of Web survey responses during their first month of circulation suggests—her pink peach pits are well remembered by the arts community. Frisby’s fellow Tangent Art Gallery artist, Gioia Fonda, celebrates “Pink Week” once a year in November. It’s a holiday Fonda created, without any religious or political agenda, to celebrate the color itself. And this year, Frisby sprayed her peach pits a bright, flamingo shade in support.
Translucent red versions of the ceramic pits also have circulated—but, as Frisby explains, “Gold is working.”
It’s hard to say what work it’s doing. But there is something fun, exciting and magical about stumbling across one of those golden treasures.
Among other questions, Frisby’s survey asks what feeling the finder of the peach pit got from his or her discovery. “This is really kind of a special way to invite people to an art show,” says Joel Michael Smith, remembering how he first mistook the item for an invitation. “It’s better than postcards.”
They aren’t affiliated with any specific events, but the peach pits—like those masking-tape roses and stencil-cut magnolia leaves—do invite curiosity.
And if, as Frisby predicts, they’re just something different in your mundane day, a discovery that makes life a little more special, that counts as an artistic success.