Heading out on a trip and seeking a unique combination of nature and culture? Looking for a way to get outside and experience something new close to home? Whether it’s an art park, sculpture park, sculpture garden, or outdoor museum, you might be surprised by how much there is to discover.
Artists have created works for outdoor spaces — both sacred and public — since antiquity, but art parks are a relatively recent addition to the U.S. landscape. South Carolina’s Brookgreen Gardens boasts the nation’s oldest public “sculpture garden,” dating to 1931. Since then, public and private art parks have become common sights in cities, small towns, and rural locales.
Many of these spaces, including those highlighted here, not only present novel and unintimidating opportunities to encounter art from around the world or around the corner, they also offer an active encounter with local flora and fauna.
Gateway to Art and Nature: Laumeier Sculpture Park
St. Louis, Mo.
When renowned public-art advocate Jack Becker visits his hometown, he often heads to Laumeier Sculpture Park. “It’s my go-to place to visit with relatives and simultaneously go for a walk,” says Becker, 66, founder of the St. Paul, Minn.–based Forecast Public Art. He loves seeing new things — especially art — when walking. “Laumeier has featured some of the greatest sculptors of our time, from this country and abroad. It’s a gem.”
The nonprofit contemporary outdoor museum was born in 1976 on 72 acres of land that Matilda Laumeier donated to St. Louis County in memory of her late husband. Local artist Ernest Trova contributed 40 of his sculptures, valued at $1 million, and encouraged the organization to build on his contribution to create a diverse collection. Laumeier now covers 105 wooded acres.
“Much of the experience is walking in the woods and open fields while experiencing nature through the many interactive works that we have,” says curator Dana Turkovic. Paved pathways and unpaved trails wind throughout the park, offering art lovers various routes for guided or unguided walking tours that range in duration from 10 minutes to one hour. It’s also dog-friendly, endearing it to locals.
The staff encourages visitors to engage with the sculptures in various ways. Among their tips: “Look at the artworks from different angles” and “Move your body to imitate the shapes of the sculptures.” Those who are visually impaired can experience the art through small-scale bronze replicas — called maquettes — placed beside many of the sculptures.
Through its residency programs, Laumeier regularly attracts artists and cultural leaders who offer visitors new ways of thinking about the art, the land, and contemporary issues. In 2013, environmental historian Jenny Price created Nature Trail, a scavenger hunt visitors still use to explore the history of the park’s landscape and infrastructure.
This year, as part of the park’s Cultural Thinkers In Residence program, three experts from St. Louis University are exploring art and global change — the theme of Laumeier’s 2020 programs and exhibitions.
Outdoor Fun Near the Big Apple: Storm King Art Center
Nora Lawrence knows it can be hard to escape the office. “But if you just do it, your whole day is dramatically altered,” says the senior curator at Storm King Art Center, a 500-acre site 60 miles north of New York City that’s best known for its large-scale works of art
“One thing we really prize is the idea of art viewing as an embodied and present experience,” says Lawrence. So she invites visitors to view Mark di Suvero’s nearly 93-feet-tall E=MC2 (bottom right) from afar, but also to get close, walk under the sculpture, and look up through it to the sky.
Many artworks encourage physical activity. Walking amid Maya Lin’s 11-acre Storm King Wavefield (middle right), in which undulating earth and grass replicate seven giant waves, can feel similar to floating in the middle of the ocean. Those visiting Mark Dion’s Storm King Environmental Field Station can head outside with jars to collect specimens and view them through microscopes.
To get to David Brooks’s Permanent Field Observations, which includes 30 bronze castings of ephemeral natural objects affixed next to their original subjects, you walk about a mile along the rushing waters of Moodna Creek.
Filling a whole day — or more — at Storm King is easy. More than 100 works of art are on view at any time, and the park also features a café, flat and mountainous paths through the woods, bikes to rent, guided walking tours, monthly moonlight walking tours, and weekly children’s and family programs.
Lawrence, the mother of two young children, has seen firsthand how Storm King’s grand scale offers a special experience for youngsters. “If you bring kids, they will just run into the distance,” she says. “They get the idea that there’s nothing stopping them. They get the freedom that is implicit with them just being here.”
Big Sky Surprise: Tippet Rise Art Center
Avid skiers, mountain bikers, hikers, and lovers of art and nature, Pete and Lindsey Hinmon were thrilled when founders Peter and Cathy Halstead invited them to help create and run Tippet Rise Art Center. This 12,000-acre working sheep and cattle ranch in Montana offers one of the most unique art-viewing experiences in the country.
To get to Tippet Rise, which opened in 2016, you leave the already remote town of Fishtail and drive seven miles down a bumpy dirt road. “After you pass through the gate, you get a panoramic view of the Beartooth Mountains to the south,” explains Pete, the center’s codirector. “And then all you see when you crest the top of the hill is Alexander Calder’s steel sculpture Two Discs.”
“One of the main principles of Tippet Rise is this experience of discovery throughout the day,” he adds. “You can only see one work at a time.” All the pieces are a half mile to three miles apart. The most recent installation is architect Francis Kéré’s Xylem (lower left), a wooden gathering pavilion inspired by traditional West African structures.
Whether exploring on foot, mountain bike, or guided van tour, “spending the whole day traipsing across the contours of this incredible landscape and geology is really interesting,” says Pete. “A sculpture disappears and reappears. It could be 20 or 60 feet tall. Every time you see it is from a different vantage point.”
The number of daily visitors is limited; when you arrive at an artwork, there’s a good chance you’ll visit it on your own. “Tippet Rise has been created for people to have an intimate experience of art, music, architecture, and nature,” says Lindsey.
The center also offers music concerts and screenings from the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Glyndebourne Opera, and the National Theater during shoulder or hunting seasons (usually May and October).
Georgia Peach: Atlanta BeltLine
A former railway corridor currently being transformed into a paved, multiuse trail, the Atlanta BeltLine surrounds the core of Georgia’s largest city. One of the nation’s most ambitious urban redevelopment projects, it will connect 45 neighborhoods in a 22-mile loop when complete. It will also be the largest linear space for public art in the country.
Forty works of art were initially exhibited in 2010 to encourage people to visit the nascent trail. The art was so popular that curators established the Art on the BeltLine program, which now features more than 100 works from local and international artists each season.
The exhibits include temporary pop-ups and long-term exhibitions, as well as sculptures, murals, music, dance, theater, and film. Site-line planning means artworks are spaced so visitors stopping at one piece of art can usually see another farther up the trail.
“As you’re feeding your own personal curiosity about these incredible works of art in this beautiful, natural setting, you’re also moving,” says Miranda Kyle, the BeltLine’s arts and culture project manager, noting that people travel along this nonmotorized, ADA-accessible corridor on foot, bicycles, rollerblades, and even unicycles and penny-farthings.
If you’re lucky, you might encounter ATLTVHEAD, a.k.a. Nate Damen, an artist and expert in interactive design, robotics, and wearable technology. Damen, 28, was attending college when he started visiting the BeltLine.
“What attracted me was getting to exercise, to see my family, and to walk to some of the amenities like the free skate park built with help from a generous donation by Tony Hawk,” he says. “By 2015 a lot of my friends had left the city. So, I started my art project as a way to connect with people around me. To have fun with them.”
To create ATLTVHEAD, Damen built a mask out of a 1960s-era television set that he places over his head. The screen glows with LED lights in the shape of a heart. He also wears a glove that detects whenever someone high-fives him and turns the mono-colored heart into a rainbow of hues.
Every week since 2017, whether on foot or rollerblades, Damen has taken ATLTVHEAD to the BeltLine, where he livestreams his interactions with people. It’s all about bringing positivity to others, he says. “If I’ve made one person smile or chuckle, I’ve done my job for the week.”
<em>This originally appeared as “Artful Adventures” in the June 2020 print issue of</em> Experience Life.