Feature Article - November 2006
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Open Invitation

Landscape design brings in visitors

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Elemental arts

In addition to educating visitors about the natural elements they find around them, you may want to add some unusual elements to spice things up or give the grounds a new life. Oldsmar, Fla., a Tampa Bay-area city of just nine square miles, contains three square miles of parks and preserves, making it the most green-space-laden city in the state. However, some of the sites that are now fabulous destinations had humble beginnings.

Take the Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve, for example. Back in the 1970s, current Mayor Jerry Beverland was a city council member, and he recalls the old sewer tanks at the edge of Mobbly Bayou being condemned. Some 30 years later, on Beverland's mayoral watch, the land was redeveloped as a fully stocked park with playgrounds, a skatepark and a splash play area. Yet the towers remained less-than-attractive and centrally located reminders of the area's previous use. But Beverland remembered something good about them: They offer a wondrous view of the surrounding wilderness from their tops. So, rather than having them demolished, Beverland and the Outdoor Arts Foundation worked with local artists—and local children—to transform the towers into circular murals showing an array of area wildlife.

"The biggest kid who painted a blue jay was me," Beverland said. "They painted dragonflies and lizards and birds. The kids had a big time." Not only are the towers much improved in appearance, they've raised the profile of the park, the mayor explained. "People go out there just to see them, and they realize what an incredible park it is while they're seeing the towers."

Other Outdoor Arts Foundation projects have included artist-created tables and benches for a small park outside a local library and an assortment of murals—some on garbage dumpsters.

"Why not have artists paint?" asks Executive Director Goulde. "Every bit of color helps." But it's not just color Goulde is after. "I'm big on incorporating art and education," he said. "Whenever we can we do things with indigenous wildlife or historical scenes, that really helps uplift the community."

And often, with a little planning, the foundation can help a city or park district create something really special, with little or no expansion of the project's original budget.

So it seems that adding art to an outdoor situation multiplies public interest, as well as opportunities for learning, and the Olympic Sculpture Park, a new facility soon to open in Seattle, is banking on both.

"The way the park is developing so far, there's a nice connection between art and landscape," explained Michael Darling, the John and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Seattle Art Museum. "Art helps make the landscape more dynamic, and this landscape is suited to the art."

Forget the staid, static layout in which visitors move from object to object, looking at the labels as they might inside a museum.

"This is dynamic," Darling said. "Visitors will explore the park actively. They'll see native plantings on their way to find art, and the [sculptures] are sited so you experience them on a multisensory level."

At one point, those perusing the park will come upon a huge abstract sculpture nearly 40 feet tall and 30 feet wide. It's called "Eagle" and was created by sculptor Alexander Calder. Eagle Street runs near the park grounds, and eagles are also part of the local ecosystem, tying the artwork to the community.

"[The sculpture] makes a good tool for talking about abstraction," Darling said. "It works to connect with the landscape and begin a dialogue about art. ...People may come to a park who would not have come to a museum, and art fans coming to see the sculpture may have an amazing outdoor experience."

And having an amazing experience—either as a park visitor, part of the community team who plans the landscape, or a volunteer who pulls weeds or gathers trash on a regular basis—is your ultimate goal for those in your area, right? It's the reason you started this quest for more beautiful and inviting outdoor grounds in the first place.

"What better way to develop enthusiasm?" said the Great Park's Hume about these sorts of outstanding, involving experiences. "People feel it is their park, and they're concerned about keeping it maintained so they have something to pass down. I can remember as a kid going on picnics with my family, then I took my young kids there, and I'm sure I'll take my grandkids there. It's intergenerational."