Animating gardens with sculpture is an ancient art that was practiced by the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans. Today, modern public gardens are increasingly incorporating contemporary art into vistas. The latest is Yew Dell Gardens, just east of Louisville. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer went to the gardens to see why.
Among clusters of ferns and hostas under the shade of a pine tree at Yew Dell Gardens, Louisville artist Bryan Holden has just installed a towering sculpture. It’s made of steel and blue glass, and it surprises Karla Drover, Yew Dell’s assistant director.
“Where in your wildest imagination did you come up with this idea?” Drover asks Holden.
“Well, my current series of work is titled ‘Connecting Lives,'” Holden explains. “And it all started with…”
In Holden’s piece, a glass hand reaches up from the soil toward a gleaming silver hand hanging from an elevated pod. It’s just one of 60 pieces in Yew Dell’s “Sculpture in the Dell” that opens this weekend. The staff started this annual exhibit last year with outdoor sculpture by regional artists. Sculptures are now spread throughout the 33 acres here.
The idea for such a show actually came from regional sculptor Don Lawler. Drover says its success proved such an event was inevitable for this four-year old organization.
“Art in a garden — it was just a marriage just waiting to happen,” Drover says. “It’s the type of thing that gives you something else to admire and enjoy. And people make create some pretty incredible things.”
Paul Cappillo is Yew Dell’s executive director. He says this year’s exhibit is bigger.
“There are 60 pieces that range all the way from little portable, something you can just pick up and just move around, to seven or nine thousand-pound chunks of limestone that require a crane,” Cappillo says.
Mounting an exhibit of this scale has taught Cappillo and Drover how to place a wide variety of outdoor sculpture and that many sculptors in the region want more venues to show and sell their work, especially large pieces that are costly to transport to far-away venues. The first show expanded Yew Dell’s audience to art aficionados and turned garden enthusiasts onto art. It also attracted about 4,000 people, double the visitors from the same months during the previous year. And more than 15 sculptures were sold from the exhibit.
Those results don’t surprise Jep Bright.
“I’ve always said that sculpture is hugely popular, but only if you can get a lot of people to see it,” Bright says.
Bright is the son of one of Louisville’s most notable sculptors, Barney Bright. He died in 1997, but his work is front of the Mazzoli Federal Building in downtown Louisville and the Floyd County Public Library in Indiana. Bright also fostered other sculptors including Ed Hamilton, who made the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Jep Bright runs the Bright Foundry in Louisville’s Butchertown. For this year’s exhibit, the Bright family decided to create four pieces from molds their father made.
Locally large sculptures, especially those by Bright, have been popular for years. But only recently has the use of contemporary sculpture at botanical gardens become more widespread. Glen Harper, the editor of Sculpture magazine, says pairing contemporary art and gardens really took off after a 2001 installation by glass artist Dale Chihuly at Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory.
“It’s the first one that caught my attention and a lot of other people’s attention,” Harper says. “And they had a lot of success with it as a marriage of two different kinds of experiences for the visitor.”
Chihuly’s work went on to show in gardens nationwide.
In Kentucky, Karla Drover says Yew Dell has considered building the exhibit by inviting one nationally known artist, but she doesn’t want to stray too far afield.
“I think staying local is kind of what Yew Dell is all about,” Drover says. “We grow plants that thrive locally and we want to support the local economy and I think this is where we are going to stay for a bit.”
“Sculpture in the Dell” at Yew Dell Gardens: A sampling of some of the 60 works showing in Yew Dell Gardens’ 2009 exibit with comments by Yew Dell Gardens assistant director, Karla Drover.
Birth of a Bright Sculpture: Brad White, a sculptor who works at the Bright Foundry, explains how he and other staff smelt metal and pour it into a mold by the late sculptor Barney Bright. White along with Jep Bright (Barney’s son) and others are making a piece entitled “Gaea,” the name for the primal Greek godess of the Earth.