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California’s Natural Bounty at the Oakland Museum

By Marta Yamamoto Special to the Planet
Friday April 07, 2006

Nature as science or nature as art? There’s no need to choose. Left and right sides of the brain combine their efforts heralding California’s native landscapes and wildlife at the Oakland Museum. The Natural Sciences shine in the comprehensive Permanent Gallery, unique art exhibits and the museum’s multi-tiered outdoor gardens. 

The Oakland Museum has targeted the state of California for its collections in art, history and the environment. Each floor offers opportunities for hours of observation and enjoyment. Every tour leaves you with a deep appreciation of California’s past and present eras and artists, each significant to shaping the state in which we reside today.  

In need of an outdoor experience in spite of ever-present deluges, I focused my attentions on a recent visit to California’s natural world. Entering the Permanent Gallery exhibit, “A Walk Through California,” I was greeted with ceiling-high black and white photographs of diverse ecosystems and a series of quotes on nature above my head. The words of Voltaire, Emerson and Thoreau echoed environmental concerns of today. 

Immediately I was transported to the rugged coastline, listening to crashing waves amid the calls of sea birds and mammals. Dramatic photomurals, topographical models and dioramas set the scene, instructive and compelling. Traveling eastward I passed harbor seals at rest within a high coastal marsh and magnificent redwoods of the coastal mountains, so real I expected to see them extend beyond the roofline. A bird-egg treasure chest masqueraded as an innocuous filing cabinet, protecting over 500 eggs.  

The softness of mule deer hair belied its insulation qualities. A staged confrontation between coyote, marmot and wolverine looked ready to spring into action. In the desert I smiled at the gurgling mating call of a male sage grouse, hoping it would do the trick while I marveled at the quality of the exhibits. Dramatic in their size and lighting, life-size rocks, wildlife and interpretive panels created an accurate sense of place. The sounds of nature mingling with the excited voices of visiting school children vouched for the repeat value of this venue. 

The juried exhibit, “The Art of Seeing: Nature Revealed Through Illustration,” continued the theme of science as art while celebrating California’s biodiversity. “Art is born of the observation and investigation of nature.” As true today as when spoken by Cicero so long ago. How could one ignore the importance and beauty of a bristlecone pine or red fox after rendering them in pencil or watercolors? 

Fifty artworks representing forty artists are displayed. Some, like Lee McCaffree’s white trillium and Sharron O’Neil’s American robin, portray watercolor illustration at the highest level. Grace Smith’s miniature book drawings of Graceful Natives are exquisite. Lisa Holley reminds us of the predator-prey relationship in Osprey Packing a Lunch, her osprey-in-flight composite of finely detailed, pastel-hued fish. 

One of my favorite works were the beautifully carved and anatomically accurate grizzly bones in Joyce Clements’ All That Remains. The warm oak tones and smooth curves of skull and femur are ripe for touch. Texture is also explored in the weavings of George-Ann Bowers, her Madrone rich in yarns of red, rust, brown and beige. 

California’s unique landscapes are also well represented. Las Trampas, Elkhorn Slough, Marin Hills and Abbotts Lagoon in oils, colored pencils, pastels and acrylic in rich color- saturated tones remind us of the importance of preserving open spaces. 

Another display features the work of future environmentalists in a series of illustrated quilts created by Oakland elementary students. Using animal specimens supplied by the Lindsey Museum, photographs document the process students used, from pencil renderings, adding color and the final pen and ink biological illustrations formed into quilts. The rapt faces of the intent artists at work in their classrooms are worth the trip. 

Landscapes as seen through the lens of a camera, some using an f.64 aperture, are hung in the Art Special Gallery. “Edward Weston: Masterworks from the Collection” is an exhibit of fifty-eight photographs from one of the best in his field. Known for natural close-ups and nudes, Weston moved to Carmel in 1929 and, like myself, became enchanted with the coastal scenery. 

Point Lobos was the site of many of his darker, hard-edged and finely detailed photographs in black and white. Small in size but powerfully dramatic are his Rock and Hills and Whale Vertebrae. Sandstone Erosion resembles the fossil outline of a mythical sea monster while Cypress Detail displays the fine texture and sensuous curves of this organic form. 

Weston continued his portraiture of California landscapes in Crescent City, Stump On a Deserted Beach, the pastoral hills along the Eel River, the Bodega surf, Modoc Lava Flats and Oceano Dunes. His dunes series is luminous with sharp contrasts between light and dark and the surface so finely detailed that the ridges of sand stand out in sinuous curves. 

The ardor of his task is brought home in a portrait of his son and camera along a rocky shelf. While today we extol the convenience of digital cameras allowing hundreds of images, the size and heft of Weston’s box camera and wood tripod speak to the art behind individual shots carefully selected and timed for the perfect light. The beauty of Weston’s work inspires a return to the art of his craft. 

Landscape on a smaller scale is an integral part of the Oakland Museum’s outdoor gardens, terraces and patios, home to lush plantings. Unlike many urban museums, space and attention have been given to these outdoor environments as extensions of the galleries indoors. Concrete walkways between exhibit levels, some topped by marine blue awnings, showcase sculpture by California artists.  

Welded steel and cast bronze in works by David Anderson, Bruce Beasley and Peter Voulkos have weathered well as evidenced by rich surface patinas. Mature pines shade the Koi Pond, home to good size, multi-colored koi and sculptured hippos. Terraced gardens lead you from tier to tier, in a park-like setting, every pathway home to works of art, Oakland’s cityscape just beyond the walls. 

Search dioramas for camouflaged pigmy rabbits and whiptail lizards. Get up close and personal to a finely drawn grizzly and mountain lion. Stroll the garden and watch Alexander Calder’s red projections sway in the breeze. Sample a Bistro sandwich or Thai chicken salad from the Museum Café, listening to the quiet sounds of jazz or outdoors on the terrace. Celebrate the science and art of California’s rich natural diversity at the Oakland Museum.  


The Oakland Museum of California: 10th and Oak streets, 238-2200, www.museumca.org. Open Wed –Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. noon-5 p.m. Adults $8, seniors and students $5. Exhibits “Edward Weston” shows through June 11, and “The Art of Seeing” shows through June 4.  


Photo by Marta Yamamoto 

Sculptures by California artists share outdoor galleries with rich native plantings at the Oakland Museum..