King City is a town with just under 15,000 residents at the southern end of the Salinas Valley in Monterey County. It’s an agricultural-focused community, with the Salinas River winding through and adjacent vast stretches of wine grapes and fields of celery and lettuces. But tucked away just south of King City is a 55-acre piece of property that’s an island of exuberant wildness amid so much cultivation.
The owner calls it a sanctuary of silence, and it’s the site of the Lesnini Field Project, intended to be a place where invited artists across mediums can come and create.
“I've been coming here my whole life,” said Erik Bakke, a teacher, artist and writer. “Often with my brother, we’d go down and just goof around down at the unused part of the farm, down by the river. But for many years I lived and worked as an artist and a writer in New York.”
He returned to California about ten years ago. The property just south of King City has been in Bakke’s family for over a century, he said, after some of his ancestors emigrated from southern Switzerland, near the Italian border.
“As mentioned in Steinbeck's ‘East of Eden,’ I think he talks about Swiss-Italians coming specifically to this area, to this little stretch here, and they worked for a bit,” Bakke said. “And then with the limited resources they had, they bought this farm, which is quite narrow—the reason I mentioned that it's because they couldn't afford a big swath of land, so it's just a narrow strip from the highway straight down to the river.”
On one section of the acreage is a compound near Highway 101, where Bakke is currently using an old dairy milking shed as an art studio. When he returned to the Central Coast, he once again resumed regular visits to the property, but then he started looking differently at another area of the property-a lower field near the Salinas River that had been in production in the past.
“[It] was flooded,I believe 1994, 1995—there were big floods here and it wasn't feasible to again and make it farmland,” Bakke said. “So it was just left to go wild.”
Bakke’s partner in this new project is Andre Dekker, co-founder of the Observatorium, a group in Europe that creates public arts and place-making. Last summer, Bakke and his wife Linda visited Dekker in Rotterdam and saw some of his public work. One in particular, a large project at the Port of Rotterdam, got the two talking about creating art together. Site specific art...at Bakke’s family property near King City.
At first, as Bakke explained as he drove the rough and rutted farm road towards Lesnini Field, they had all sorts of ideas about building an artists’ residence structure, or creating a permanent sculpture garden.
“And then towards the end of last year, Andre decided he'd come out and we'd start working,” Bakke said. “And one of the first things that we did was we invited ecologist Jennifer Berry and she pointed out to us how much wildlife is here.”
Everywhere were signs of the coyotes, foxes, rodents, birds of prey, wild boar and more that had moved back in since the floods and absence of farming.
“And we realized that we wanted to preserve the ecosystem more than we wanted to alter it,” Bakke said. “And that part of the project that would be valuable both to the visitors and to ourselves would be able to come down here and have a piece of land that was being continually taken over by the wild, without visible intervention by people.”
So instead, he and Dekker decided to create a place that served as inspiration.
Bakke said he envisions some overlap between the Lesnini project and the avant garde Situationist movement of the 1960s. That was a performance conceptual movement in France and elsewhere where, as Bakke explained, works were realized in the time they were performed, and not meant for an audience, they were simply actions that took place.
As he gave a tour of the site and the area’s notable wind picked up, Bakke says he hopes to invite artists to Lesnini Field to just be and do art—but all temporary and ephemeral to the land.
Bakke said Dekker came up with the idea of Lesnini Field being the eye of the storm.
“With the idea that you could from here—you could think about climate change, you could think about industrial farming, you could think about labor—you could think about so many other issues from this peaceful spot amidst an area that is experiencing a state, a world of great change,” Bakke said.