California Scenario: Isamu Noguchi

It was 3 p.m. on a cloudy afternoon this past Saturday when I arrived at the “California Scenario” sculpture garden in Costa Mesa with my peers and Professor Bert Winther-Tamaki from my Art History 198 seminar class. For weeks I had anticipated this field trip to this sculpture garden that I had no previous knowledge of, for I would be able to experience one of the many artworks of Isamu Noguchi, widely considered one of the most celebrated and memorable artists of 20th-century American sculpture.

“California Scenario” is simply what it declares: a sculpture garden right in the middle of a bunch of office buildings. There is no nearby museum directly associated with it. Concealed by these tall office buildings and located near attractions like South Coast Plaza and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, this piece of landscape artwork has not received much public attention ever since it first opened in the early 1980s.

A strong, chilly wind blew and rustled the leaves of the trees as I gazed in awe at the 1.6-acre landscape right before me. My boots clicked and clacked on the cracked yet smooth sandstone floor as I walked further into the garden — I barely realized how spacious it was even if it was enclosed by a large, blank white wall and the glass-windowed buildings that towered overhead. Despite what sounded like speeding cars on the 405 freeway on the other side of the walls, I was able to hear the gentle trickling of water as my eyes followed a stream that gracefully meandered through the garden. As I slowly took in my surroundings, I wondered why hardly anyone is aware about the existence of “California Scenario.” Who knows if even the office workers, who walk through this sculpture garden every day, realize that this is a landscape artwork of a renowned Japanese-American artist?

I then learned from Professor Winther-Tamaki that the sculpture garden is privately owned and as a result, there is really no obligation to publicize the garden. “California Scenario” was commissioned by philanthropist Henry Segerstrom of C.J. Segerstrom & Sons. Segerstrom, who was an arts enthusiast and also deeply admired Noguchi’s work, asked the elderly Isamu Noguchi to create a garden in an empty lot between the office buildings of the South Coast Town Center; talk about a hidden gem within the surrounding hustle-and-bustle.

Similar to Noguchi’s other landscape works like the UNESCO garden in Paris or the “Sunken Gardens” at the Chase Manhattan building in New York, “California Scenario” is reflective of the artist’s signature organic aesthetic and philosophy. Although “California Scenario” may not look like a Japanese garden at first, it conveys the principles of one, as Professor Winther-Tamaki mentioned to us.

The garden consists of seven different components, each with their own title. One of these components include “Water Source,” a steep right-triangular water trough meant to symbolize the California water aqueducts. The piece right next to it, named “Desert Hill,” is a large mound composed of small desert rocks (like the ones found in Las Vegas) that includes various cacti and is supposed to appear as if it were emerging from the ground. To the side of the garden is “Forest Walk,” an elevated slope consisting of soft, uncut, meadow-like grass and lush pine trees that represent the landscape of the high Sierra Mountains. Other elements of the garden possess more familial implications. As we approached the last component of the garden, Professor Winther-Tamaki brought us to what seemed like a pile of tan-colored rocks that appeared to be softly compressed against each other. Carved and shaped by Noguchi in Mure, Japan, these rocks possess the quirky title, “The Spirit of the Lima Bean.” This standout title is a nod to the garden’s commissioner Segerstrom, whose ancestors farmed lima beans. As for Noguchi himself, this mere pile of rocks turns into an ode to the mixed origins of his half-Japanese, half-American heritage.

As my peers and I listened to our professor teach us about the garden, my fascination with “California Scenario,” as well as Isamu Noguchi himself, grew immensely in the short time period we were there. Though the materials in each component are manipulated under Noguchi’s direction, he never takes away the essence of the material he is working with. Considering the fact that Noguchi is extremely meticulous and selective in his work, one can see Noguchi’s skills through the way he effectively arranged and combined contrasting textures, shapes and materials to create insightful underlying connections in this cohesive panorama of the landscape of California.

Over the years, “California Scenario” has gained its own distinctive history and its presence has become increasingly valuable — even if hardly anyone knows about it. From facing past threats of being shut down, to serving as a space for gatherings from the local Japanese-American community, to receiving visits from close associates of Isamu Noguchi who travel long distances to see the garden — “California Scenario” exemplifies the relationship that places and people have with each other.

This secret garden nestled in the typical suburbia of Orange County is welcome to anyone who wishes to see the geography of California rendered into a fresh perspective. And of course, the garden is here for us to enjoy the unique calm and reflective atmosphere that it has to offer. It also never hurts to visit “California Scenario” multiple times; as Professor Winther-Tamaki said to me, “I always notice something new every time I visit.”