Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - January 21, 2011

A creative legacy

Retiring as curator of the Palo Alto Art Center, Signe Mayfield looks back on 21 years of diverse and traveling exhibitions

by Rebecca Wallace

Signe Mayfield has deep roots in the Palo Alto community. It's where she and her husband raised their two children, and where she has volunteered on playground projects, taken drawing classes and lived for decades.

Still, as Mayfield prepares to retire from the Palo Alto Art Center after 21 years as its curator, she finds herself reminiscing about Hawaii and Washington, D.C. Some of her proudest accomplishments as curator have been her exhibitions that started at the city's art center and ended up traveling west and east.

In a recent interview, Mayfield sounded especially nostalgic about 120 glazed ceramic maquettes. These pieces, studies for larger sculptures by the late sculptor and U.C. Davis professor Robert Arneson, were the big draw in the 2002 exhibition "Big Idea: The Maquettes of Robert Arneson."

"It was like organizing a retrospective," Mayfield said, then added with a grin, "You couldn't have fit in all the full-sized pieces."

When "Big Idea" headed for other galleries in 2002-04, Mayfield traveled with it. Destinations included The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, as well as stops in Chicago and Nebraska.

When the show went to Hawaii, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin wrote, "Many of the maquettes represent Arneson's first concepts for works, and their freshness and spontaneous execution illuminate the artist's free-wheeling creativity, offering glimpses of his thought process in clay."

During Mayfield's tenure, several other art-center exhibitions also traveled, including works by weaver Kay Sekimachi and woodturner Bob Stocksdale in 1994, and mixed-media artist Dominic Di Mare in 1997. Both exhibitions went to the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., among other locations.

"It was a real eye-opener" to see how various museums interacted with the community, or how different the same art looked in new places, Mayfield said. "Every installation designer interpreted the material in a new way."

Over the past 21 years, Mayfield has had a wealth of material to work with. The art center's exhibitions have featured objects as diverse as Javanese court dance masks, IDEO design prototypes and Haitian paintings.

"Signe has offered the community a unique and inspired glimpse into new worlds, novel forms of artmaking, and diverse cultural experiences," center director Karen Kienzle said in a press release.

Mayfield also clearly feels a strong connection to the educational programs at the center, which include art education for kids, adult classes and studio programs, docent tours and lectures. Many exhibitions have hands-on components.

"This is a place that can initiate audiences. It's not pretentious. It's inviting, welcoming and a great warm place," she said.

Mayfield grew up in New York, then earned a degree from University of California, Berkeley, in art history. Later, she was a gallery director in San Francisco and curated exhibitions at Sacred Heart Schools in Menlo Park. She joined the Palo Alto Art Center in 1989 as curator.

When asked about the artists she especially enjoyed working with, Mayfield said immediately, "Nathan Oliveira."

While many think of Oliveira, who was a longtime studio art professor at Stanford, as an influential painter, the art center's 2008 Oliveira exhibition focused on the artist's bronze sculptures from 1960 to 2008. Mayfield said it was the first show to comprehensively focus on his bronze sculpture. Oliveira died last year.

Another highlight, Mayfield said, was exhibiting Keith Haring's last work, "The Altar Piece," in 1994-95. She was also rather attached to the figurative paintings and works on paper in the 1994 exhibition "David Park: Fixed Subjects."

"I nearly cried when the David Park exhibition had to come down," she said.

After Mayfield retires at the end of this month, she will continue to follow several favorite projects. Artist Mildred Howard, who is now showing bottle-house sculptures at the art center, will unveil a new Eichler-inspired work in the spring.

On April 1, the art center will close for a year for extensive renovations that include adding a kids' wing with a new sculpture garden, and upgrading the exhibition spaces. During that time, a new art bus will come in handy, bringing art-education programs from place to place. The center is also launching a national search for Mayfield's replacement.

As for Mayfield herself, she expects that retirement will bring more time for travel, but she won't leave the art world entirely. "I might be interested in curating an exhibit a year," she said thoughtfully.

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