By Sherwin Rio
When I stepped out of the small thirteen-row airplane on Monday morning I was in the Bluegrass state, in the Bluegrass airport, feeling admittedly a little blue. I had recently moved out of a memory-filled art studio space in San Francisco, just completed two jobs I loved, realized I forgot to water my plants at home, said goodbye to a close friend, and hadn’t eaten anything. Sleeping on the redeye flight would’ve also been nice.
Nonetheless, I was excited. I had a good reset button ahead: A four-week Residency with the International Sculpture Center (ISC) to research, wander, learn, and make at the Josephine Sculpture Park (JSP) in Frankfort, Kentucky. After a warm pick up from the airport and a quick stop to the nearby Waffle House, JSP intern Josh Trombley drove me to the park to give me the lay of the land. And so began my Residency.
I rushed into the bluegrass, walking the 30+ acre park to become familiar with the nearly 70 artworks on site. JSP Director Melanie VanHouten tells me that this used to be a tobacco farm her grandparents purchased in the 1960s for business purposes and she grew up exploring its ponds and fields.
Walking the trails of the park led me to sculptures of all different sizes and materials in the fields, trees, bushes, and grass clearances. Interactive works welcomed climbing, touching, and pressing. Other works stood stoically, silently— for pondering. The land is a droning buzz of sounds— cicadas chirping, cows mooing, wheels bounding down Highway 127, red cardinals chasing each other with wings flapping through leaves, tall corn stalks and grass rustling in the wind. The bluegrass springs back up from under my lifted feet.
The land is indeed a mode of inquiry and inspiration for me and I had the pleasure of meeting artist Lucy Azubuike who’s work Me in Me Sanctuary is one of the first to greet park visitors driving in the winding entrance road. Azubuike’s sculpture asks us to shift our perspective on our relationship with the land— particularly the trees— to recognize that “Nature is You” and that “You are Nature”. Me in Me Sanctuary is a solemn enclosure of telephone poles of varying heights and widths that display, in altar-like fashion, images of human-like trees found in the JSP landscape. Azubuike tells me that the installation is part of a larger body of work that focuses on ‘Agukata agba awahu’ or an uncountable/unlimited million to remind us that we are in context to the land, not the other way around.
Learning from Azubuike, once a visiting artist here, was just as impactful to me as learning from the artists who share the space with me. Both early-risers, I’ve been able to watch Josh Trombley work with steel, limestone, marble, found metal, and draw in the early morning. After a quick studio session, he’ll take care of the grounds before returning to the studio in the late afternoon to work until he closes up shop. Trombley works intuitively, responding to form and balance as he goes. He tells me that the most important advice he heard from his recent BFA program at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh was to, “Make, make… and then make some more”. Along with small sculptures that he challenges himself to create every day, Trombley is currently in the process of making a large sculpture to be placed on the grounds made with stone and metal found on-site.
Research has been integral to my previous work. In addition to becoming familiar with JSP, I’ve been driving into downtown Frankfort to conduct site visits: Spending time at the banks of the Kentucky River, at the Kentucky Historical Museum, the Capital City Museum, the Paul Sawyier Library, and at the St. Clair “Singing Bridge”.
Historian Russell Hatter shares with me that the Singing Bridge— Frankfort and Kentucky, too— has a past history of racial violence, subjugation, and death against the Black community here. Hatter tells me that this weekend there is a ceremony to mourn the deaths of John Maxey and Marshal Boston, both lynched from the bridge over a century ago, and to witness a partnership between the Paul Sawyier Public Library, Focus on Race Relations, and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to collect soil to be displayed at EJI in Montgomery, Alabama. JSP staff and I intend to attend. Increasing dialogue acknowledging Kentucky’s racially violent past is relevant to the community at present.
To read more about my research, planning, material testing, and art-making process, read up on my blog post next week. Also learn more about Josh Trombley’s work here, Lucy Azubuike’s work here, and the Josephine Sculpture Park here.