Mariah Nielson: Preserving the Legacy of J. B. Blunk

Mariah Nielson (photo by Leslie Williamson)View slideshow 

Hidden among the trees atop Inverness ridge, overlooking Tomales Bay in a little-trafficked corner of west Marin County, is a secluded artist's haven. You may be familiar with the place, but you may not know it as the former home of the prominent sculptor and woodworker J. B. Blunk. Today it is the site of the J. B. Blunk Residency program, founded and directed by Blunk's daughter—and CCA alumna—Mariah Nielson (BArch 2005).

The house and studio were designed and built by Blunk in 1959. The pastoral isolation provided (and enforced) by the location allows resident artists to focus entirely on their work. Inspired by the setting and completely uninterrupted, they are free to study and create anything from painting to installation art, creative writing, sculpture, and video.

"After completing a residency, we hope our artists will bring a renewed passion and fresh approaches to their teaching, exhibitions, and creative practice," says Nielson. "Spending two months in such a rural and stimulating environment gives us pause and reminds us of our values and intentions."
The program is a partnership with the Lucid Art Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes and supports grants for art projects. Since 2008, 11 artists in residence, six of them CCA alumni, have called the Blunk house home for two months and then contributed their work to a year-end exhibition. (The first annual exhibition took place in Los Angeles at Reform Gallery, and the second was at Triple Base Gallery in San Francisco, which happens to be run by CCA alumni Dina Pugh and Joyce Grimm).

In addition to running the program and continuing to work on maintaining her father's home and studio, Nielson is also a curator at the San Francisco Museum of Craft+Design, where her exhibition FourSite: 4 Materials | 4 Artists | 4 Sites is on view through September 18. It features four artists using four different materials (paper, fiber, metal, and wood) to create immersive installations. Other recent projects include the design of a new home for her mother in Helena, Montana, which involved a renovation of an 1893 apartment building.

Nielson was constantly inspired by, and immersed in, her father's work while she was growing up. Prior to attending CCA she worked in Paris for a year as an assistant to the film set designer Pierre-Francois Limbosch, and that experience solidified her ambition to pursue architecture. After obtaining her degree at CCA, she worked for several different Bay Area architecture firms, including Sagan Piechota and SOM.

In 2006, however, five years after her father passed away, Nielson decided to leave architecture and follow up full-time on Blunk's request that she convert his Inverness home into a place for artists to practice and spread the spirit of creativity. J. B. Blunk was very invested in sustainability, and his works often incorporated salvaged materials that revealed their natural origins. One of his best-known works locally is The Planet (1969), made of a redwood burl 13 feet in diameter, installed at the Oakland Museum of California.

The program encourages its residents to also be mindful of the natural world. "Our goal is to provide a serene environment for creative exploration that is inspired by living in nature," says Nielson. "Many of the artists who apply are already well established. We require applicants to have an MFA, because we want them to have demonstrated a particular level of commitment to their practice. We welcome passionate artists with an interest in place, material exploration, and discipline."

Nielson looks back very fondly on her time at CCA. "It was a very, very difficult decision for me to leave architecture," she says. "I was sure it would be my lifelong career. I miss the late nights in the studio and the excitement of beginning a new semester, when the particular project we would be developing for the next four months would be announced. I enjoyed meeting and becoming friends with furniture designers, fashion designers, painters, graphic designers. The cross-disciplinary aspect of the education was invaluable."

The program hosts four cycles of artists every year: two months each in the spring, summer, fall, and winter. The current J. B. Blunk artists in residence are Jay Nelson and Rachel Kaye; both are CCA alumni (Painting/Drawing 2004) and both are represented by Triple Base.

If you are interested in applying for a J. B. Blunk Residency in 2011, the deadline to submit your application is August 13. Visit for more information and an application.

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