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Natural Beauties: Outdoor Art Springs Up Across the Northeast

June 24, 2016
Hespera Stone

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THE ARTIST

If one pine were placed in a town square, what admiration it would excite! Yet who is conscious of the pine-tree multitudes in the free woods, though open to everybody? —John Muir

Just off of College Avenue in Somerville, Mass., a cheerful yellow barn houses a virtual indoor playground.

Inside, Christopher Frost sifts through proposals for various projects, each decorated with sketches and collages. Beneath the angular shadows of a plywood tree, its branches filled with undulating birdhouses, a slate etching of Thoreau looks out stoically across the studio. Frost hums through the guitar solo of “Hotel California” as he works.

Frost studied sculpture in Maine and Paris, but, really, he’s more of an experimenter. His art combines paint, wood, resin, light, and words. He takes found objects, from toys to branches, and turns them into his artistic inspiration. The results usually evoke thoughts of play.

“I don’t feel like I have a specific style, but people say there’s a common thread that runs through [my work],” the 50-year-old artist muses

His work moves between boundaries, bringing the inside world outdoors and the outside in, drawing on natural narratives such as geography and botany. He describes his outdoor work as site-specific and incorporates the history and physical characteristics of the artwork’s intended location into his process.

“I don’t like my work to take away from its surroundings,” he says, his gray-blue eyes falling on a delicious row of red-topped, ceramic mushrooms he’s working on for a project near Walden Woods, in Concord, Mass. “They should work together and complement each other.”

Frost wanders downstairs to his workbench. He sifts through a seeming pile of rubble and pulls out three colorful rock forms. The rocks are made out of blue-dyed resin, cast from the forms of stones he found on the New England National Scenic Trail (NET), and embedded with LED lights. Each stone connected to a solar panel hidden in a tree near the trail, providing the power that kept the rocks glowing softly from dusk until dawn. Emblazoned on the rocks is a portion of Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Mountains Stood in Haze:” “So soft upon the scene / The act of evening fell / We felt how neighborly a thing / Was the invisible.”

The rocks are the remains of Hespera Stones, a 2012 sculpture installation on the NET commissioned by Charles Tracy of the National Park Service. The stones were placed along the Holyoke Range, in Skinner State Park near Hadley, Mass. The installation remained onsite for a year, part of the NET’s Artist on the Trails program, which has featured the work of both artists-in-residence and commissioned artists. Frost says the goal for his project was subtlety—reflecting the words and emotions of Dickinson, who lived in nearby Amherst, in a physical object that blended in with its surroundings.

“I know hikers are hiking because they want to be out there to enjoy nature and be surrounded by that tranquility and vastness of nature, so I didn’t want to put something out there that seemed out of place, loud, and disrespectful,” he says. “I didn’t want to use a color that was so drastically unnatural in that setting. Blue is an all-around perfect, natural color but also would stand out.”

“I consider any pieces outside to be public,” says Frost, whose CV includes projects for Forest Hills Cemetery, in Boston; Bradley Palmer State Park, in Hamilton and Topsfield, Mass.; and Maudslay State Park, in Newburyport, Mass. “Public art is a way to address issues important to a natural setting, whether [that’s] conservation or destruction,” he says. “It can also act simply as a way to better observe the environment around you. It can force you to see details you may have not seen before.

For Frost, working outside provides a level of freedom. He describes the desire to touch the great works in a museum; to run one’s hands down the canvas of a Picasso to feel its peaks, valleys, and eddies of oil paint, or stand in solace next to Auguste Rodin’s Thinker. An outdoor setting allows for uninhibited exploration and sensory immersion. “It’s not a gallery setting, and there’s no guard telling you what you can and can’t do. It’s out there. It’s the public’s.”

“It feeds a part of us that is really vital. We suffer when we don’t have a connection to the natural world.”

 

THE SUPERINTENDENT

The battle we have fought, and are still fighting for the forests is a part of the eternal conflict between right and wrong, and we cannot expect to see the end of it…. So we must count on watching and striving for these trees, and should always be glad to find anything so surely good and noble to strive for.  —John Muir

Under Charles Tracy’s watch, the 215-mile NET—already a picture-perfect New England landscape of river valleys, forests, and the echoes of Colonial America—has become its own gallery.

Tracy has been working with the National Park Service for 28 years, acting as both a landscape architect, and more recently as the NET trail administrator and the National Park Service’s arts partnership specialist. The Artists on the Trail program has hosted six individual artists, including Frost, and two additional group projects. Works have ranged from photography to sensorial walks—even a hip-hop music video.

“I saw that art is a great way to introduce the trail to new audiences and get people to think about the trail and experience the trail in different ways,” Tracy says. “Nationally, with the National Park Service, we are increasingly working with artists to have another lens to look at our parks and national trails.”

For Artists on the Trail, Tracy selects individuals interested in engaging visitors with the outdoors. As he notes, there is no one way. “I’m interested in exploring as many medias as possible,” he says. “I think different types of art connect to different types of people.” For his part, Frost describes Tracy as an enthusiastic and encouraging patron, with an obvious love for art, the environment, and the park system’s access-for-all mission.

Although Tracy refers to the art installations as a means of creative engagement, they are inherently public art. While for many the phrase “public art” may call to mind heroic memorials or expansive murals, public art can take on any medium, scale, and range, from temporary to permanent.

Through their public placement, works like the Hespera Stones evoke sensory and emotional responses. The art and its viewer are outdoors along of NET, occupying the same space, the same ecosystem.

“I’m interested in the impression it leaves, or the memories it leaves, on the people who experience it,” Tracy says of the art he chooses for Artists on the Trail. What he doesn’t want is for that art to leave an impact on the landscape. Before placing even a temporary work, he must consider the natural and cultural resources affected, as well as the potential visitor experience. “I approach art projects as I would any other project on the trail,” he says.

In other words, the guiding force behind Artists on the Trail is conservation. The projects are meant to be introspective rather than intrusive, to promote a sense of personal engagement. “If people feel a stronger connection to the land and environment, my hope is that it would increase personal stewardship,” Tracy says. “If no one goes out there, there is no stewardship. So the first step is really to get people outside.

“One of the things I’ve learned from artists: Trails are great for getting from point A to point B, but trails are also a great place to stop and look.”

 

THE PARKS AND THE TRUSTS

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.  —John Muir

In the summer of 2015, a project similar to “Artists on the Trail” came to the Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park. In an alcove of Fort Warren on George’s Island, one of 34 islands in Boston Harbor, Amy Archambault’s Traverse sat dappled by light beaming through the musket holes in the wall. The contraption of chairs, drawers, bungees, sleeping bags, strapped to two blue keels created a jury-rigged escape unit, as part of the Isles Art Initiative.

“I was interested in the functionality of the fort as a prison,” says Archambault, a 30-year-old resident of North Chelmsford, Mass. Fort Warren held Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, and was the site of multiple failed escapes. “Prisoners tried to escape through the musket holes and gather stuff to make boats,” she says, a narrative and location that sent the tone of her piece.

“It’s such a curious environment, and people almost play in it. The art and the space came together in this really beautiful way,” she says.

From a historical standpoint, artists have been creating art in National Parks and on other public lands since the 19th century. Members of the Hudson River School—Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Frederic Edwin Church, among others—created an iconic style of American landscape painting while focusing on the Catskills and venturing further afield to paint Niagara Falls and Acadia National Park. In the words of Durand, “one studio which you may freely enter and receive in liberal measure the most sure and safe instruction…the Studio of Nature.”

In May 2016, The Trustees of the Reservations, a Massachusetts conservation and preservation organization, announced its own outdoor public art initiative. “Art and the Landscape” will feature site-specific works by the Los Angeles-based artist Sam Durant at the Trustee’s Old Manse, in Concord, and by the Copenhagen-based artist Jeppe Hein at World’s End, in Hingham. Durant’s piece will be be on display for four months, from July through October, and Hein’s will be installed in August and remain up for a year.

“We hope these installations will create transformative experiences for our visitors—inspiring them to come visit one of our properties for the first time, or perhaps see it in a new light and gain a deeper appreciation of its significance,” Barbara Erickson, the Trustees’ president, said in her announcement.

As highlighted by both the Harbor Islands and the Trustees, Tracy has seen a growing interest nationally among land managers and conservation groups in staging public art projects. Another opportunity provided by the National Park Service is an Artist in Residence program, similar to the NET’s Artists on the Trail. Tracy says that these projects help to tell untold stories, including those which may be difficult to tell.

 

THE ART

The power of imagination makes us infinite.  —John Muir

Back to the beginning—where inspiration comes from. For Christopher Frost, the Somerville artist, childhood memories and musings fill the loft of his barn studio. A spray-painted cardboard crown and sword lie on the edge of a table otherwise cluttered with colorful 3D studies from his time in China. Nearby sits a wooden box of velvet cushions, the future home of what Frost calls the ultimate stick gun—a version of the boyhood classic cast in bronze and plated with nickel.

“Sometimes it’s just nice to make art for art’s sake,” he says. “You can’t get too caught up in it.”

Frost’s primary project at the moment—whose working name is Traces (Along a Forest Hymn)—incorporates four elements: a log, a branch, a maple leaf, and a stone. He plans to cast them in bronze and then silverplate them, similar to the stick gun. Each piece will be emblazoned with a single word on one side and imprinted with his name and contact information on the reverse should the objects be found in their future hiding spots.

The work is inspired by the Hudson River School and the seminal New England landscapes its members painted. “Along a Forest Hymn” references a poem by William Cullen Bryant, a school patron. Frost points out that the school had a strong influence on 19th-century conservation whose principles guide his own work. In honor of that tradition, the text on these new objects will read: Preservation, Salvation, Sanctuary, and Inspiration.

Frost says with a hint of frustration, that he has applied for funding for the work but has been unable to secure it as of yet. Instead, he’s just going to do it.

He intends to hide them in the wild, within an environment where you’d expect to find logs and branches and stones. He hopes that these pieces will become a permanent part of the landscape. “The outdoors is cool,” Frost says matter of factly. “I love the idea that, as a viewer, if you’re just walking along and you stumble upon something, it’s like finding a little treasure. I’ve done pieces out in the middle of nowhere, and you just hope someone stumbles upon it. I love that idea of exploration.”

“What a great feeling,” he says, mostly to himself.


 

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Alexandra Malloy

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.