This is a NEW FEATURE. I will try to take you on a field trip every holiday. Starting with today, President’s Day.
Mark Bulwinkle introduced me to Susan Alexander who introduced me to Tom Tollefsen at the Quirky Berkeley Holiday Party. I am not name-dropping here, although I concede that I am capable of dropping names. I say this because the praise of Mark Bulwinkle is as high praise as exists in my world. He said that her home in Glen Ellen was “alarmingly charming” and that “her environment is very special and very real, not just food for the designer.com/ers.”
This is as good a place as any for this disclaimer – this post is long. I know it’s not about Berkeley. I know it is a field trip. But my oh my it shows two really hard-working and creative people and a quirky world that they have built. So – hang on!
Alexander’s directions to her home in Glen Ellen have you count the speed bumps (11) and then look for a sculpture in a wheelbarrow. Easy enough. There is a large pond or small lake that is maintained by a community association – dock and rope swing and small island in the center with a single tree – and enjoyed by a family of river otters. Otters!
The sculpture is not Just Any Sculpture in a Wheelbarrow – it is a Patrick Amiot “junk art” piece.
It was not made on commission, meaning that it is not as safe and happy as much of Amiot’s commissioned work.
There is a fence, gate, and art.
Among the pieces is a bright Bulwinkle.
There is a second Bulwinkle piece there:
Alexander commissioned this to hold the bungee cord that props the gate open.
Many of the pieces on fence are the work of the late Tracy Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald helped establish the Sawtooth Art Studio on 8th Street between Parker and Dwight. I want to know more about her.
To the left of the gate is a piece by Linda Raynsford.
Raynsford is a Bay Area metal sculptor. She uses a combination of new steel and found material. She is all about spatial relationships between her objects and their settings.
Through the gate – a slope down to Sonoma Creek. Alexander’s house is on the left, the bunkie that Tollefsen designed on the right.
Alexander was born in England and raised in Canada. She has owned and operated three galleries, the Eclipse Gallery in Sonoma, Oberon Gallery in Napa and Outside the Lines Gallery in Glen Ellen. Today, her gallery is online. She has curated exhibitions, developed art seminars, taught art marketing and assisted collectors in building their collections. And she collects art.
Tollefsen is an architect. In a separate home nearby he has a collection of 8,000 books. Art, architecture, history. Etc. Tollefsen was raised in Altadena (southern California). He came to Glen Ellen in 1976. He met Alexander in Sonoma and she came to Glen Ellen in 1979.
They travel. They don’t watch television. They work very hard and the house and garden show it. They love what they do and what they collect and what they make.
They have two cats, sometimes inside, sometimes in the yard. Inside at night though. Cougars and coyotes = cats stay inside at night.
Stepping inside the house – a warning. For most of us, nothing in our lives has prepared us for the beauty and glory inside the house. It is a small, rustic house, but the art and colors define the house, not the adjectives small or rustic.
First, Mr. DeMille, a few wide shots. CLICK ON THE PHOTOS – they will pop out to full screen. YOU NEED TO DO THIS!
I asked them if there is a central organizing principle behind their collection. Very quickly they both said no, and then rattled off adages that described their philosophy:
Nature abhors a vacuum. (Thank you Aristotle) And perhaps sensing my Episcopal Academy education and my four years of Latin, Horror vacui, or something like that.
Nothing exceeds like excess. (Thank you Scarface).
Toute le monde!
In other words – there is always room for more. Their art is almost all figurative – emphasis on animism, which attributes a spiritual sense to plants and inanimate objects and embraces a belief in an organizing and animating supernatural power. Some of the art is indigenous art from South and Central America, Haiti, Africa, and Asia. Some is by artists that Alexander has represented. Some is from artists she has met. It is really something. Still in the living room, it is time for Mr. DeMille’s close-ups:
Before we see the bedroom and bathroom, let’s wander through the living room out onto a sun porch where Alexander has her desk.
Eight Bulwinkles on the sun porch. Eight!
On the lower left, note the colons, carved colonial African figures purchased from Dick and Beany Wezelman.
I don’t get invited into many bedrooms in my Quirky Berkeley wanderings, but when I do they tend to be doozies. And – that is Very Much the case here. Let’s start with the bed.
Welding sculptor David Friedheim made this bed. When he made it, he was working in Oakland. In 1999 he was a founding member of The Crucible, a school devoted to linking the arts,industry and community. He has since moved to Maryland. Amazing.
There used to be a second, small bathroom off the bedroom. It is no longer a bathroom, instead serving as a Place to Keep More Stuff. Alexander calls it her Bling Room – her jewelry is there. But mostly stuff.
The bathroom that remains is spectacularly quirky. It has been added to the Quirky Bathroom post. They call it the Chamber of Horrors.
Holy cow. That’s a quirky bathroom!
I visited in the dead of winter. It was a sunny day, but, still the season of dormant plants. Even so, I can say that it was the neatest and most promising winter garden I have ever seen. It made me wonder if Chance the Gardener, a.k.a. Chauncey Gardiner, had been there.
There are two structures besides the main house.
First, an outdoor kitchen/potting shed near the large patio overlooking Sonoma Creek.
Tollefsen calls the second structure a “bunkie.” It is a term used in Canada for a small cabin, a term from Alexander’s youth and summers spent on the Georgian Bay. She wrote: “The cottage belonged to my uncle who was a professor at the University of Toronto. It was reached by boat and was on an island. No running water, outhouse and a little tiny cabin on the top of the island that my uncle went to be alone. It was a very special place which I loved.”
It is 10 by 12 – shed size, raised off the ground, with a triple roof evocative of a Thai wat.
How perfect is this? It is screened in, with some colored fiberglass on sections of the wall and the roof. It is near the stream. All night – breezes and the sound of the stream. A place near the river, where Suzanne takes you down. Wow – so perfect! Magnificent is the word for it. Really magnificent!
Next to the bunkie is a piece of transformative sculpture.
It is the work of Joe Kowalczyk, an Oakland sculptor (obviously) who is a ceramics instructor at the Creative Growth Art Center and who manages a kiln repair business. Alexander and Tollefsen admire him. Who wouldn’t?
And now the garden, and the garden art. Many pieces, which I don’t identify individually, were made by artists at the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland. It serves adult artists with developmental, mental and physical disabilities, providing a professional studio environment for artistic development, gallery exhibition and representation and a social atmosphere among peers.
Central to the garden is a huge, five-columned 21st century pergola designed and built by Tollefsen. It involves 2000 feet of PVS pipe. Tollefsen, a Burning Man veteran familiar with bending pipe for tens in the dessert, describes the math involved in making the curves on the pergolas as “pretty tricky.” I can see that.
The pati beneath has five colors of brick and mirrors the twin vortices of the pergola above. Tollefsen calls his pergola “Sizzlinghurst,” a nod to the famous garden at Sissinghurst by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson.
I didn’t get a good shot of the pergola which is too bad because the wisteria that covers it in summer is died back and you can really see the structure. Dang! This photo is obviously not from the dead of winter. It is from the summer.
Alexander sent me this photo of the more or less bare pergola.
Art within the garden includes:
A small John Abduljaami piece given Alexander by Amiot.
There are two more Amiot sculptures.
Again this is a non-commissioned Amiot sculpture, and thus a little less cheerful and little more chaotic than most of his commissioned work..
There is another Bulwinkle (who has been counting??):
Some gay and merry Tracy Fitzgerald people:
And a piece by Piper Snow.
Let’s leave the named artists and just wander.
The clown was a gift from Patrick Amiot.
There are two intertwining paths in the garden, one gravel and the other flagstone. They intersect at the camillia arch node, flow around the Turbo Garden, meet at another node, and end at the quatrefoil in the Mediterranean Garden..
Near the Mediterranean Garden is the Sixth Column.
“Sixth Column” sounds very political. It isn’t. The pergola took 5 columns. There was one left over. hey found a vent cap, painted it, wired it for light, and slapped it on. Sixth Column!
Above the slope from the Sixth Column:
They call this the 22nd Mission. Tollefsen launches into an oft-repeated story about there having been a largely unknown 22nd Mission and that this is indeed the mission bell from that unknown mission. And then explained that it is all styrofoam and not, in fact, an unknown mission bell.
I am proud, or at least aware of the fact that I have gotten this far in a post about Glen Ellen and not mentioned its most famous son, Jack London. There, though, I just did.
For me, Glen Ellen is not Jack London.
And it is not about a pretty little town that time sorta kinda forgot. It is Alexander and Tollefsen and the world of art and garden that they have built.
They have created magic. We mere mortals could not begin to replicate what they have done. But we can look at their world and be inspired and try to make our own worlds a little bit less rational and little bit more magical.
I will go back in the spring or summer and see the garden, report to follow.
My friend dallied over the photos. He was clearly moved. “That bunkie, with night breezes and the creek – yes, magnificent would be the word. I’d like to sleep there.”
On the whole, what was his impression of the house and garden?
Holy cow. Holy Toledo. Holy Allen Ginsburg. I’ve seen heaven. Take me with you when you go back. Pleeeease. Love the field trip addition.
Amazing, I too want that “Bunkie”
Wow! Lots of wonderful things there, in an idyllic setting. Thanks, Tom and John!
You’ve really captured the magic here.
And to think: these are my neighbors!
Noelle Oxenhandler (creator of the Trump Pinata)
Your pictures really capture the essence of Susie’s art collection and Tom’s architectural ingenuity. I have spent many days and evenings at Toad Hall and can attest to the fact that it is a magical place. My children grew up coming here and experienced ethereal feelings. I remember one time Colin, when he was about 6, asked Susie if she was ever afraid in the dark at her house with “all of those eyes watching her”.
Kudos to my brother and sister-in-law for being recognized sharing their whimsical, quirky, genuine lifestyle with others.
WOW! That’s all I have to say so I’ll say it again. WOW!
C’est magnifique ! Un jardin exceptionnel et une collection merveilleuse. Bravo Susan et Tom… Depuis la France, nous avons plaisir à découvrir une partie de votre paradis si joyeusement coloré.
A big smile.
Anne et Patrick Poiré Guallino
If the world out there is a poison snake bite, which for some of us it is, then Susan Alexander’s place is it’s antidote.
I have been to this overwhelmingly fun place quite a few times. Each time I am delighted and-yes-overwhelmed! So grateful Susan and Tom have added so much colorful charm to our neighborhood!
We are so fortunate that Susan and Tom have added such charming and colorful creativity to our neighborhood!
Thanks for capturing the beautiful, quirky art..and their personalities. Bravo!! Baby Face, and Coco Bunny (the cats) are even featured!! If Trump is elected POTUS status, Glen Ellen will be bombed for harboring, porn artwork from the Americas and beyond!!
Artist friend of Susan and Tom, I am continuously amazed and inspired by their incredibly alive collection / environment. It keeps growing, so there is always much that is new to discover. A treasure and absolute delight! So glad that you are sharing this with a larger audience.
What an amazing place, garden, home…and I’m commenting strictly from seeing the photos! WOW is right!(see other comments) Visual Ecstasy!! (umm, the feeling, never had the chemical…)
A major “bucket list” (strange term…bucket??) location and one house/garden I will hopefully see sooner than later. Congratulations for creating an environment incorporating so many artists. A visual and architectural marvel. Thank you!
Double you-OH-double you….WOW!
Hello I would like to get into contact Thomas Tollefsen, he designed that house that I live in Santa Rosa and I would love to see if he would be willing to give advise any some changes we plan to make in the future. As a bonus, it would be so lovely to meet him!
I forwarded your email to Tom and Susan – let me know if you don’t hear from them and I will try again. Tom Dalzell
Thank you so much!