Peace in the Hands of an Artist Amidst the Beauty of Sunnylands

Penny S. Tee Article

I was recently in Palm Springs for the weekend and I wrote about our unusual adventures in Birthday Celebration Part II: The Girls Weekend Adventures.  Our final impromptu visit was to go see Sunnyland’s gardens, which led me to some unanticipated thoughts about Peace…

What is Sunnylands?  Let me give you a bit of history about this famous retreat.  Sunnylands was originally Ambassador Walter and Leonore Annenberg’s winter home, yet they had a bold vision for turning it into the “Camp David of the West.”  This definitely was a nice Jewish boy, who had done well.  Having made his fortune as a publisher, he was also an extremely generous philanthropist and was the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1969 to 1974. His name first caught my attention many years ago, when I attended the University of Southern California for both undergraduate and graduate school.  He had established the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism on campus.  In 2012, Sunnylands Center & Gardens opened to the public.  Today’s mission for Sunnylands is to “promote world peace and facilitate international agreement.”   People who know me and read my blog would understand that this would touch my heart.  You’ll understand more, as you read on.

Sunnylands has been used by United States presidents for strategic policy meetings and hosting foreign dignitaries.  In fact, President Obama had just been here the prior week for the summit of Southeast Asian Nations, and the photos and references to his visit were prominently displayed.

San Jacinto Mountains from Sunnylands

San Jacinto Mountains from Sunnylands

We began walking through the cactus-laden desert gardens with the San Jacinto Mountains looming spectacularly in the distance.  This was the perfect time of year and the desert temperature was comfortably mild and sunny, and the air was refreshing.  Today we would just have time for the gardens and I made a mental note to myself to return to take a tour of the house, since I already had plans to come back to Palm Springs with my family during June.

An unexpected part of today’s visit was that it was Family Day:  Focus on Sculpture.  There were various kid-friendly activities, however, the first-class quality of the artists attending, matched the dignity of the venue. The artists were scattered throughout the garden area, working on their pieces and willing to speak about their art with the public.   There were several sculptors whose medium was stone, wood and glass.  Many of the completed sculptures displayed, and those that they were working on, would have seemed at home in art museums.

I was immediately drawn to an artist who was intently working on a stone sculpture, under the protective

Patrick Blythe working on "Reconciliation"

Patrick Blythe working on “Reconciliation”

shade of a tree.  His name is Patrick Blythe.  It was of two faceless, marble figures in flowing robes, coming toward each other, one, a many-hued brown and the other, a variegated white.  When I asked him what it was called, he said “Reconciliation.”  I was taken aback – synchronicity, the Universe, Divine intervention, whatever you choose to call it, had intervened again.  We chatted for a while as I told him about my book that I was writing and our experiences while on vacation in Israel when we found ourselves at war.  Touring by day; bomb shelters at night.  The experience had forever changed me, and many days I find myself consumed with the thought of Peace and what I might do today to take a small step forward.

I told him about my interest in working on Peace between Jews and Muslims.  I am organizing an event to bring two Peace Makers from an organization called Roots, operating in the West Bank, to speak in Orange County, California at the end of the year.  One is an Israeli, orthodox rabbi, Zionist and settler who has transformed his beliefs by openly listening and challenging his long-held convictions.  His partner is a Palestinian, who while in jail for four years, also transformed his viewpoint by reading Gandhi, Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. They both are positive examples of challenging themselves to change their own personal beliefs and creating a new unified reality.

As I watched the artist work, I realized how much what he was doing exemplified Peace work in my mind.  For most of us, it is so hard to see the possibility of beauty that lies underneath a solid block of rough, seemingly immovable stone.  However, as an artist, or Peace Maker, they bring extraordinary vision and intention of purpose to their work.  Looking at his piece, I saw that he had already made some parts beautiful and the sunlight shimmered on their forms seeming to bask in the warmth and glory of the day. This reminded me of the patches of triumph that Peace Makers have accomplished in Israel and even in the West Bank – one person at a time.  They introduce each, to the other.  We really all have the same needs – the right to live with dignity, respect and Peace.  With other unfinished parts, he was slowly sanding away the coarse, hardened surface, comparable to sloughing off the years of animosity of the people toughened by years of attacks and the need for retaliation.  It is a slow, pain-staking process requiring the utmost patience. The Peace process also takes an inordinate amount of measured, guided persistence – offering people the opportunity to question the reality of their beliefs and the possibility to see with fresh eyes.  Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi is quoted as saying:  “Three quarters of the miseries and misunderstandings in the world would finish if people were to put on the shoes of their adversaries and understood their points of view.”  Still other parts of the figures were unfinished – with so many different areas of the stone to tackle, this portion would have to wait to unlock its buried treasures, another day.  The need for Peace and the dire circumstances in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are so complex, that there is a huge chasm to be bridged, and parts remain untouched and festering.

We talked about how this was actually his second attempt. His first, after two loving years of work had accidentally come crashing down off the pedestal and broke into pieces. He was so shocked and devastated, that he covered it with a tarp and let it lay there, “like some dead body in a crime scene”, he painfully remembered. I couldn’t help but think of the analogy of our war-torn, beloved Israel.  So many false starts and stops to achieving Peace.  All of the dead bodies on both sides – when will enough be enough?  Retaliating for our losses will never bring back loved ones nor make right that we feel we were cruelly wronged – yet to some, nonviolence seems like permission, almost inviting more abuse.  Slowly, but surely though, he envisioned something more and was creating anew, a glimmering work of hope.

In Mr. Blythe’s words:  “The two stone figures are contrasting colors, shapes, and sizes. The dark Moroccan marble figure is studded with ancient fossils, to convey a sense of age and represent the scars from overcoming a life of challenges. The white Carerra marble figure is equally powerful, vigorous, innocent, graceful, and alive. They are coming together in a moment of reconciliation after a period of estrangement.”

His work was commissioned by the Coventry Cathedral, in England.  Coincidentally, their Peace work began after 500 Nazi planes had bombed the city and the Cathedral in 1940.   Coventry Cathedral is one of the world’s oldest religious-based centers for reconciliation.

The artist continues, “I’ve made a commitment to them to create a multiplatform “Art of Reconciliation”. Our belief is the art can speak in ways words cannot, and in a more universal language. We intend to use art to help remove the normal barriers to understanding created by national borders, religions, and personal bias, and seek common ground.  The figures have no faces, and could represent individuals, nations, ideas, or yin and yang. The figures contain every color of skin tone in the world.”



Indeed, it is a lesson for all humanity.  How many people look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and fear that there is no hope?  Yet there are Peace Makers who are making a difference. They are able to move forward – even amidst the crazy and tragic current circumstances.  Mr. Blythe can now celebrate having finished his masterpiece on the left.  We can only hope that someday, we will celebrate the splendor of Peace in Israel, as well.

We walked through the remainder of the artists’ spaces and through the manicured gardens.  There was an artist making vases and he described the intricate process of how he changed the natural, outer layers of his pieces with a unique firing process.  It resulted in a textured appearance that prompted me to think of a blackened and charred bark of a tree.

We watched a glass jewelry maker creating colorful glass beads from rods of molten glass.  Afterward, she

Tamara Coatsworth at Sunnylands

Tamara Coatsworth at Sunnylands

patiently melted individual, tiny, black glass dots, fusing them onto her colorfully formed glass bead which will become part of a vibrant bracelet or necklace. She also had some more playful art pieces made of glass.  One was an old-fashioned, movie popcorn box stuffed with glass kernels of popcorn and the other was a 12” x 4” replica of a Buffalo Diamond opened box of matches – the why of which I still wonder about : )  Undeniably, the creativity, talent and ability to replicate these objects in glass was very impressive.  The event also provided such a rare opportunity to see artists working on their craft, something that is usually a more private undertaking.  I loved being a voyeur as they lovingly produced their creations.


Labyrinth, Sunnylands

Labyrinth, Sunnylands

There was a labyrinth in the gardens that you could meditatively walk through.  I tried to do so, but with the little kids enjoying themselves in the park-like setting and chalk drawings on the walking path, it lost the quiet contemplative serenity that I was looking for, so I decided to enjoy that experience on another visit : )

Nine acres of gardens and 1.25 miles of walking paths have been carefully landscaped for visitors to enjoy.  There are also over 50,000 plants representing fifty arid-landscape species.

Gardens, Sunnylands

Gardens, Sunnylands

One thing that Leonore Annenberg and I share is the love of the color yellow, so I particularly liked the rows of yellow-spined, barrel cactus.  There are Sweet Acacia, Texas Ebony and Palo Verde trees and many different species of aloe, hesperaloe, agave, yucca, ocotillo, grasses and cacti.  Several types of flowers can be enjoyed and of course, our state flower, the California poppy.

After we walked through the gardens, we stopped in their gift shop perusing the unique items that were available.  I couldn’t resist buying myself and my son the same gift.  It was just a little box of 30 individually sealed, pop-open quote cards, called “Believe.”  Given the fact that it was on the same subject as my favorite meditation series from Oprah and Deepak Chopra – Become What You Believe, it spoke to me.  I loved the idea of a daily, positive, surprise quote for a month. I trusted that they would be insightful reminders to start my day with – besides at $7.50 a box, it was very low risk : )  As for my teenage son, I hoped that the fun of popping open the new surprise would be enough incentive to expose him to the  profound message inside.  As usual when dealing with this age group – it’s not happening quite as planned. Sporadically, with an occasional reminder, he’ll pop one open, read what it says, and hopefully the thought will get embedded somewhere in the convolutions of his brain – before he proceeds to play his favorite video game or watch another Star Trek rerun ad infinitum.  I know, I know, I’m just another parent confused by the latest generation’s idea of fun – that would be the video game, not Star Trek.  For that, we will always have my husband to thank : (  I mean : )

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