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The Grounds for Sculpture: Sapling Shelters, Surprises, and the Adventure of Art

Stuart Mitchner

Most artists work with the hope that their creations will live on indefinitely, to be enjoyed, admired, and talked and written about by future generations. Not so the creators of the Writers Block Follies, the unique little theme park on Paul Robeson Place that came and went somewhere between last summer and this fall. Not so sculptor Patrick Dougherty, who knows that his ongoing installation at the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton will ultimately "fall prey to the wood chipper" and be "reduced to compost."

According to a story in last week's Town Topics, the expense of the Writers Block project will probably never be recovered, but the creators took the chance, made it happen, and during its brief life-span it was there for the community to walk around in and marvel over.

At the Grounds for Sculpture the structures Patrick Dougherty is making out of maple tree saplings may remind you of Princeton's recently departed Follies. They, too, can be walked around in and marveled over and some of the pleasure is in knowing they were not formed for posterity; it's almost as if they simply, miraculously happened, one of those masterpieces of nature like the Petrified Forest. Your admiration for the artist comes at least partly from the feeling that his ego is submerged in the work, rather than the other way around. He calls his structures "shelters of transition." Climb up to the second level in the biggest of these massive nests and peer down and you get some idea what it would be like to live inside one of those "shelters of transition" that birds build.

Dougherty traces his affinity for trees as material to a childhood spent wandering the forest around Southern Pines, North Carolina, "a place," as he told an interviewer, "with thick underbrush and many intersecting lines evident in the bare winter branches of trees. When I turned to sculpture as an adult, I was drawn to sticks as a plentiful and renewable resource. I watched animals work and realized that saplings have an inherent method of joining – that is, sticks entangle easily."

In keeping with the spirit of the Grounds for Sculpture, where visitors become players in the element of art with all its shadings and surprises, Mr. Dougherty invites volunteers to help him with his work, finding "the relationship that develops with people who live and work nearby has turned out to be a very interesting secondary gain." Engaging the public "opens a door for the regular users of a space and helps to dispel some of the negative myths that surround artwork and artists." He finds that "people enjoy the drama of seeing something constructed over a period of time."

Getting Into Art

People also enjoy walking around in an environment free of walls and rooms and predictable contexts of display. The great thing about the Grounds for Sculpture is the way it brings you into an open, seemingly unbounded world of art. Anyone who has ever grown leg-weary touring museum exhibits may have daydreamed of ways that artworks could be released from segmented, labeled enclosures, opened up and filled with natural light so that we could imagine how it would feel to walk into one of Van Gogh's wheat fields, to smell the grain, listen to it rustle, hear the crows flying overhead.

We were at the Grounds for Sculpture on a recent Sunday when the wind was doing wonderful things with the vegetation, swaying branches and whole trees, rattling reeds and stalks of bamboo and turning fronds into fans, making music we could see and hear at the same time, with leaves blowing here and there and crackling underfoot all the while.

This place of open air and light and motion is a masterwork of surprise. It plays fast and loose with you, your expectations and preoccupations. You walk into an enclosed formal garden that seems to belong in an elegant Italian villa where the pollarded trees should lead to a fountain or a piece of classic statuary. What it leads to is a coal-black brick wall with five men grimly lined up in front of it. You thought you were in Bernard Berenson country. Instead you get George Segal's version of a Depression bread line. You thought it was 2004 and find yourself in the 1930s.

As crass and commercial as it may sound, it's hard not to think of the Grounds for Sculpture as a piece of superior showmanship, a land of Oz where the supreme wizard is J. Seward Johnson, Jr. No wonder the first space in the parking lot is reserved for him: he's the star of this show, and chances are you'll enter it through the outdoor cafe where one table is occupied by some Parisiens from the century before the previous century. In contrast to Johnson's Princeton people, like the boy eating the hamburger and reading a book in Palmer Square or the gent reading a newspaper near Borough Hall, these figures belong to a world of color and movement. Their clothes match the period. They might have stepped out of Impressionist paintings. In fact, most of them have done just that.

Those of you who may have lingered in front of an inviting Impressionist scene and fancied yourself walking into it can really do it here where Manet's "Déjeuner sur l'Herbe," becomes Johnson's "Déjeuner Déjà Vu." And instead of coming upon it indoors by way of some prescribed museum sequence, you stumble upon it as if you had caught this group of people unawares and they you. Suddenly there they are, and as with all of Johnson's creations, there is a second or two when you are almost literally taken in: your reality skewed. The museum mind-set of flat, static surfaces in a controlled environment is exploded. You're there – at least in the instant it surprises you. Johnson admitted as much to an interviewer: "I use my art to convince you of something that isn't real. You laugh at yourself because you were taken in, and in that change of your perception, you become vulnerable to the piece and intimate with it in a certain way."

"Taken in" says it well. The paths lead you on. You wander down toward the dance pavilion by the lake and find another painting come to life, Renoir's "The Luncheon of the Boating Party." Johnson's title plays on your intrusion on the scene: "Were You Invited?" To say the scene "comes to life" may be a stretch but that's how it seems when it first surprises you. Reality has nothing to do with it. Otherwise, how could these people from another century be sharing the same moment with the present-day characters seated a few steps away at another table, among them Johnson himself having a laugh with some fellow sculptors like Red Grooms, whose deliriously unreal piece "Henry Moore in a Sheep Meadow" will probably have caught your attention soon after you left the Dougherty exhibit.

But then all sorts of other works and surprises will have caught your attention. Besides the sculptures and posted poetry to be found along the way, there are peacocks and waterfalls, amphitheaters, warming huts, pergolas, lotus ponds, gazebos, cafes, shops, and one of the premier restraurants in the state. While too much can be made of Johnson's impact, his playful surprises are what people will find themselves talking about, after a first visit at any rate, and both Johnson and Patrick Dougherty express the dynamic at the Grounds for Sculpture: the sense of real-life involvement that makes art an adventure. Anyone wishing to actually take part in the making of art by helping Patrick Dougherty, who will be working on his projects from now until May 1, 2005, can call Amy Bent at (609) 689-9134 or Bonnie Brown at (609) 689-1089.

The "Grounds" in Grounds for Sculpture is also a reflection of the locale, once the site of the state Fairgrounds. You can get there by taking 1-295 south to exit 65B and following the signs to 18 Fairgrounds Road. The Grounds are open to the public Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., April to October, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., November to March.


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