Feature Article - October 2018
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Get Inspired

Incorporating the Arts Into Parks

By Dave Ramont


As arts programs in schools are being eliminated or dramatically reduced, many park districts are helping to pick up the slack by offering a wide variety of educational arts programs and lessons. Other organizations are helping to fill this gap as well. The 1,700-acre Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., was founded in 1922 by Joy Morton, who also founded the Morton Salt Company in Chicago. His father, J. Sterling Morton, was the founder of Arbor Day. The Arboretum's mission is to collect and study trees, shrubs and plants from around the world for people to study and enjoy. It's a not-for-profit charitable organization, offering memberships and open to the public.

As arts programs in schools are being eliminated or dramatically reduced, many park districts are helping to pick up the slack by offering a wide variety of educational arts programs and lessons.

The Morton Arboretum has educational offerings for kids and adults, including nature photography and filming, watercolors, drawing nature, Japanese flower arranging and beginners nature-art workshops. Brooke Pudar coordinates learning programs at Morton, and she said the year-round programs are very popular. "Favorites include the "Under the Microscope" classes where students can draw or paint insect and plant specimens from the Arboretum's collections." As far as public parks looking to enhance their educational offerings, Pudar advises that they think of opportunities that are unique to their site and that participants can't easily do elsewhere.

Lesley Kolaya is manager of youth and family programs at the Arboretum, and she observed that art and nature seem to go hand-in-hand as nature often provides the inspiration for creativity. "We offer a lot of process-based craft projects in our Children's Garden. Kids are encouraged to express themselves artistically through various drop-in activities such as our current Build-A-Tree eco workshop. We place glue, scissors and a variety of recycled materials such as cereal boxes, plastic caps, scraps of yarn, egg cartons, etc., on the tables for kids to create their own imaginative masterpieces."

According to Jenelle Hardtke, special events manager at the Morton Arboretum, the Arboretum has a long history of nature and art; the Morton family collected fine art. "Art is a way for visitors of all ages to experience and engage with trees in a different and very approachable way."

The Arboretum hosts many art-related events, including a wine and art walk, winter chamber concerts, monthly book discussion group featuring works relating to natural history, ecology and gardens, a holiday exhibit of natural history art, culinary events, a visiting photographer series and Wednesday night summer concerts. The Glass Pumpkin Patch features glass-blown art. Thursday family nights in the summer feature crafts, live music and a bilingual sing-along.

You can also walk along with the action of your favorite literary tales during Walking Plays at the Morton Arboretum. "We typically see that at least 50 percent of our show's attendees are non-members," Hardtke said. "Visitors have shared with us that they really enjoy the combination of an outdoor natural setting paired with a quality theatre performance."

This year they partnered with ArranmoreArts Professional Ensemble on the Walking Plays, depicting the stories of the Brothers Grimm. The plays are written by the ensemble's executive director and performed by members of the organization. "We strive to present performances that appeal to a wide range of ages," said Hardtke, adding that many of their events and programs are good revenue-generators for the Arboretum.

In 1872, Yellowstone officially became the nation's first National Park, signed into law by President Grant. Ever since then, artists have found inspiration in the sights and sounds of these national treasures, helping to document and preserve them by sharing their creations. Today there are more than 400 units in the National Park Service (NPS) and more than 100 Artist-in-Residence (AIR) programs at NPS sites across the United States. Each site oversees its own unique program and application process. Residencies are typically two to four weeks and include on-site lodging. Some offer stipends or other incentives. Artists are often invited to participate in park programs by sharing their art with the public. There are programs for painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, printmakers, dancers, potters, photographers, videographers and poets.

One site offering the AIR program can be found in Connecticut at the Weir Farm National Historic Site (Weir Farm NHS), the only NPS unit dedicated to American painting. The park is named for Julian Alden Weir, America's most beloved Impressionist, who lived on the site from 1882 to 1919. Many art colleagues visited him here, painting numerous masterpieces of the rocky landscape. A long and arduous process was undertaken by preservation groups looking to protect the site from developers, and in 1990, Weir Farm NHS was officially established.

The 68-acre Weir Farm NHS includes a visitor center, trails, meadows, stone walls, historic gardens and the Weir house, studio and pond. Kristin Lessard is an employee of NPS, working at Weir Farm NHS as the chief of Interpretation, Education and Volunteer Services. She described how the artistic tradition started by Weir continues today through a variety of programs. "The park offers free-to-use art supplies during visitor center hours, hosts an annual Art in the Park contest and festival, offers Impressionist painting and photography workshops to the public and works with partners to offer art therapy programs."

Lessard said that due to the national park designation, Weir Farm NHS can attract a broader audience, with visitors coming from around the world, sharing their excitement for learning about American art history and the three generations of artists that called Weir Farm home. "From historic restoration work on the landscape and grounds to the work of the park rangers who share the stories and legacy of Weir Farm artists, visitors and artists are provided the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the artists in a preserved landscape."

The Weir Farm Art Center (WFAC) is a nonprofit organization that manages the adjacent Weir Preserve. They also partner with Weir Farm NHS to help return historic artwork to the site through donations and to run their Artist-in-Residence program. Michelle Stewart, digital outreach and alumni liaison at WFAC, said that since 1998, 220 alumni artists have participated in the AIR program from throughout the country, as well as from Tunisia, Germany, Australia, England, India, Ireland, South Africa and The Netherlands.