Into the Woods

Michigan Legacy Art Park Sculpture

Fallen Comrade, 2009. Artist: David Greenwood. Photo courtesy of the Michigan Legacy Art Park

This sculpture park took shape around 14,000 years ago, when a retreating glacier raked out the vistas and hills that now comprise the rugged terrain of the Legacy Art Park, a thirty-acre patch of earth not far from Michigan’s famous Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.  But credit certainly also goes to the late David Barr, a visionary sculptor and poet, who had the tenacity to found an art park and educational center in which contemporary sculpture could unobtrusively integrate into nature. 

You certainly won’t experience anything like this on Fifth Avenue’s museum row.   Put on hiking boots and mosquito spray.  Walking sticks are thoughtfully provided by park management (best to take one; the descents can get precariously steep).  This park is unpretentious, but visitors should be prepared, on occasion, to round a corner and stumble upon a sculpture by an art-world heavyweight.

David Barr Sculpture

Sawpath 4, 1999. David Barr. Photo: Raffi Appel

Opened in 1995 on property belonging to Crystal Mountain Resort, this park’s vision is to celebrate local history and local beauty.  Its collection holds just under fifty sculptures, mostly by contemporary Michigan artists.  Some of these sculptures are difficult to find, and not just because they’re spread out along a curvaceous two mile pathway that ambles through thickly forested, hilly terrain, but because the sculptures are so organic, much like the earth-art of Andy Goldsworthy.

The earthen Serpent Mound by Patricia Innis, for example, respectfully mimics the much larger serpent mounds created by the Native Americans of the Mississippi Valley (there’s a particularly famous example in neighboring Ohio).  In the autumn, Serpent Mound gets entirely cloaked by fallen leaves.  Interestingly, the original mounds were never really meant to be seen by humans anyway, as the only way to appreciate them fully is from an aerial, divine perspective.

Among the collection’s highlights is David Greenwood’s Fallen Comrade, a stylized P-51 aircraft, its red tail associating it with the Tuskegee Airmen, the celebrated unit of African-American pilots who escorted bombers over Europe during the Second World War, many of whom later settled in Michigan.  David Barr’s Sawpath series references both Michigan’s 19th century logging industry and, interestingly, the Fibonacci sequence, a pattern equally prevalent in both art and nature (such as in the bracts of a pine cone).

Michael McGillis sculpture

Five Needles, 1996-1998 by Michael McGillis. Photo: Alan Newton

The forty-foot timbers of Five Needles, certainly the park’s most iconic sculpture (and the first one installed), seem to sprout organically from the earth, and reference the tall ships that once navigated Michigan’s Great Lakes.  There’s even a sculpture by Martyn Puryear (who earlier this year enjoyed a fine retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago).  Puryear’s Untitled 2, so characteristic of his reductive, basic forms, is a conical form of woven wooden boards which subtly pays tribute to the basket weaving tradition of the Woodland Indians.  

Patricia Innis Sculpture

Hemmingway Haunts, 2004-2005. Patricia Innis. Photo: Alan Newton

One of the Legacy Park’s emphatic missions is art education; admittedly, I tend to be, perhaps unfairly, a curmudgeon on this front, many times having had to grumpily navigate upstream through regional art museums against the interminable surge and din of busloads of schoolchildren (many preoccupied on their I-Phones).   So mark me well when I enthusiastically hail this park as an educator’s dream.  Along the paths are artist-benches, equiped with basic art supplies on hand for children (or anyone, really).  During my visit, a small display of children’s art was on view at the park’s open-air learning center, all produced during a recent field trip.   In several places, it appeared students created modest Goldsworthy-inspired earth art.  Hemmingway Haunts, on permanent view, is actually a collaborative effort by Patricia Innes and local schoolchildren, and, with natural pigments, offers us ghostlike silhouettes representing characters from stories by Ernest Hemmingway, who once frequented the region.

When John Muir, celebrated champion of America’s national parks, famously wrote that everyone “needs beauty as well as bread,” he was specifically referring to the beauty of nature, not necessarily the beauty of art.  But the creators of the Legacy Park manage to seamlessly bring both together.  It’s certainly a world apart from the polished, white cuboid and rectilinear gallery spaces in which we so frequently encounter contemporary art.  The park isn’t highbrow, nor does it aspire to be. The conventional gallery absolutely has its place (and an important one at that), but in the Legacy Park’s inclusive and emphatically hands-on approach to art, this park is a joyous breath of fresh, forest-scented air.

Much more information regarding the Legacy Park can be found on its excellent website, which includes a digital catalog of all works in its collection.

By Jonathan Rinck

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