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Bonnie Sherk, Landscape Artist Full of Surprises, Dies at 76


On a Thursday in June 1970, a police officer in San Francisco was going nuts because motorists entering the busy Central Freeway near Market Street were jamming on their brakes, startled by an unusual sight. On what the day before had been a bare patch of ground, a young woman was sitting on a bale of hay, surrounded by potted palm trees and 4,000 square feet of green turf, patting a Guernsey calf that was tied to a railing.

“Keep those cars moving!” the anonymous officer shouted, according to an account in The Los Angeles Times.

“We could have a terrific pileup,” he added.

The woman on the hay bale was Bonnie Ora Sherk, and the temporary roadside attraction (created with the approval of highway officials) was the first in a series of conceptual art pieces she called “Portable Parks.”

“I like the element of surprise,” she told the newspaper, explaining that the idea was to reimagine empty spaces and inject a humanistic element into locations defined by anonymity and sterility.

“Freeways are beautiful, but they need to be softened,” she said. “Why use them just for cars?”

Ms. Sherk, an artist and landscape architect, went on to make a career out of unusual art projects that explored humanity’s relationship with nature. She died on Aug. 8 in hospice care in San Francisco, her sister Abby Kellner-Rode said. She was 76.

Ms. Kellner-Rode did not specify a cause. The death has not previously been widely reported.

Ms. Sherk, who lived in San Francisco, was among a group of artists in the late 1960s and early ’70s, many of them women, who sought to move the definition of art beyond painting and other traditional genres, creating momentary conceptual pieces that were site specific and performance based.

A few months after she and the Guernsey surprised motorists that June, she was outside the San Francisco Museum of Art with 80 sacks of crushed ice, which she and some helpers turned into a flurry of October snowballs; the performance ended with her handing raspberry-colored snow cones to passers-by. The next year, for a piece she called “Public Lunch,” she sat in a cage at the San Francisco Zoo, eating a meal at a nicely set table while jungle cats in the cage next door were being fed.

“Women artists working in the 1960s and ’70s like Bonnie Ora Sherk sought to interrupt and subvert how viewers perceived art, power, gender and place,” Jennifer McCabe, director and chief curator at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona, said by email. “She used performance as a way to investigate fragile and threatened environments and challenge the notion of audience through spontaneous performances.”

Dr. McCabe, who included Ms. Sherk’s work in an exhibition last year called “Counter-Landscapes: Performative Actions From the 1970s — Now,” said the 1970s work of Ms. Sherk and others continues to resonate.

“Artists who emerged in the 1980s and later incorporated these strategies of performance and place to address issues of social and environmental justice,” she said, “including borders, migration, climate crisis and economic disparities, as well as race and gender.”

One particularly ambitious project that Ms. Sherk spearheaded was called the Crossroads Community, often shortened to simply the Farm. It transformed a six-acre parcel amid the tangled Army Street (now Cesar Chavez Street) highway interchange in San Francisco into what Ms. Sherk described as an “environmental sculpture,” with crops, livestock and educational components; schools would bring students by to learn about agriculture.

“In the city, things tend to be very fragmented, and the freeway is a symbol of that fragmentation,” she told The Associated Press in 1977, two and a half years after the founding of the Farm, which lasted for years. “We’re attempting to reconnect people and humanize environments.”

Ms. Sherk saw growing vegetables and creating art as close cousins.

“Learning to be a farmer is sensitive, like learning to be an artist,” she said. “The growth process in life is like the creative process in art.”

Bonnie Ora Kellner was born on May 18, 1945, in New Bedford, Mass., and grew up primarily in Montclair, N.J. Her father, Sydney, was area director of the American Jewish Committee and a lecturer in art and archaeology, and her mother, Eleanor (Lipskin) Kellner, taught first grade.

Her father worked with various organizations promoting cooperation among people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds, which put him in contact with some important figures. One gathering brought Eleanor Roosevelt to Montclair, which made an impression on young Bonnie.

“After the meeting he had to drive her home,” Ms. Sherk recalled last year in an interview conducted as part of “My Life in Art,” a series organized by the art space SITE Sante Fee, “so my older sister sat in the front seat with her, and I sat in the back seat, and we drove her back to New York.”

She studied art at Rutgers University, where the artist Robert Watts, a professor there, schooled her in the avant-garde Fluxus movement. In the late 1960s, after graduating, she headed to San Francisco with her husband at the time, David Sherk. (The marriage ended in divorce.)

Another early art series came about in 1970 when, at the Army Street interchange she would later help transform, she noticed a plot strewn with water and soggy with storm runoff, with an overstuffed armchair plunked amid the debris.

“I immediately realized that this was a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate how a seated human figure could transform the environment by simply being there,” she said in an interview with the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. “I went home and changed into an evening gown and came back, waded into the water and sat in the chair for some time, facing the audience of people in the passing cars.”

She later sat in armchairs in the financial district and various other locations in the city, calling it her “Sitting Still Series.”

In her art and in her daily life, her sister Rachel Binah said, she was flashy, theatrical and unpredictable.

“She loved costumes — when performing and in daily life,” Ms. Binah said by email. “When she worked the night shift at Andy’s Donut Shop in San Francisco’s Castro district, she would wear a big bouffant wig and a pink waitress costume.” And, she added, “When women around her were, or were not, shaving their legs, Bonnie would shave one leg and one armpit.”

Ms. Sherk is survived by her sisters.

There was serious thought behind her work, especially regarding ecological themes. In the 1980s she began developing what she called Living Libraries and Think Parks, small parcels and nature trails in San Francisco and elsewhere that invited the community to learn about the past of a particular place and help cultivate its future. Many people, she said in a 2013 interview with the journal SFAQ, “don’t have the sense of wonder about the richness that surrounds them.”

“We have to learn how to uncover it,” she said.

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