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‘Rethinking Loneliness’ With Montalvo Arts Center

In Culture
LONELY TOGETHER: Susan O'Malley's interactive art project 'A Healing Walk' remains accessible during the shelter-in-place order. (photo credit: Mike Huguenor)

LONELY TOGETHER: Susan O'Malley's interactive art project 'A Healing Walk' remains accessible during the shelter-in-place order. (photo credit: Mike Huguenor)

In the months before the sudden outbreak of COVID-19, Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga launched a new thematic that would prove eerily prophetic: “SOCIAL: Rethining Loneliness Together.”

“In 2017, the US surgeon general called loneliness, ‘the most common pathology,’” says Montalvo Program Director Kelly Sicat. “So we wanted to take the arts center, and our 175 acre grounds, and use it as a platform to create moments of deep connection.”

The program began last September with The Mending Project, an art installation which encouraged people of all walks of life to bring in items of clothing in need of repair, and sit with a volunteer as they sutured the garment in real time.

“It was really more about sitting together, spending time listening to, and sharing stories,” Sicat says. “We invited the public to share each garment’s story, and find the ways that they connected them with other people. Through that, we kept a journal, and started capturing what people wanted to share, what people were looking for in connection, but also how people were using their time alone.”

After ‘The Mending Project,’ Montalvo hosted a similarly community-minded exhibit by Bay Area artist Kija Lucas: ‘The Museum of Sentimental Taxonomy,’ which attempted to document and categorize the objects in regular people’s lives which had acquired sentimental value.

“For Kija, it was another way of lowering the hierarchy that might be found in a museum or institution, and really give a different sort of value to things that people found sacred,” Sicat says.

The exhibit’s run at Montalvo was unfortunately cut short by the shelter-in-place order, but at www.themst.org patrons can still view the collection online, and even search the database by object. A search for the word “ticket” pulls up movie tickets from a 17 year old in El Cerrito, a Russian bus ticket from an anonymous contributor, and a ticket for an Elliott Smith show from an Oakland man, all of which were submitted for their own sentimental reasons.

“And then,” Sicat says, “we’ve come to this moment where we’re all having to take on a real experience of loneliness: what it means to self-isolate. How do you keep connection when you’re so far apart?”

In June, Montalvo offers an answer to this question in the form of their newest exhibit: a lone, a multimedia campaign utilizing bus shelters, billboards, and other public spaces scattered throughout the Bay Area. Originally launched in Seattle in 2018, a lone is the work of curatorial duo Vignette, who sought to combat the assault of advertising by taking back public spaces and turning them into art. When relaunched by Montalvo, a lone will again use public spaces, this time in an attempt to reconnect a Bay Area which has become an archipelago of isolated cities sheltering in place.

“I think this notion of social distancing doesn’t mean social-disconnecting,” says Montalvo’s Executive Director Angela McConnell, “and I think these will offer some sort of message of hope around that.”

In the meantime, Santa Clara County residents can still visit Villa Montalvo’s 175 acre grounds. As a public park, the grounds remains open during the shelter-in-place order–though visitors are still cautioned to practice social-distancing. There, patrons in need of art (or just a break from the glowing screens), can take in a number of permanent installations, like the Belevedere Temple, a Greek-inspired domed structure dating back to 1912, and Susan O’Malley’s ‘A Healing Walk,’ which directs visitors to reflect as they pass through Montalvo’s redwood grove.

“It’s really about mindfulness,” McConnell says. “That’s an important aspect of how people can get through a crisis: to really take care of themselves by being mindful, practicing breath work, and finding ways to experience joy and solace. I think that’s one of the things that Montalvo is offering: a place to find moments of calm during this unsettling time.”

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