August 23, 2021

Art in the Garden: Summer Sculpture at National Trust Historic Sites

Summer at historic sites can be a meditative experience, where large-scale sculptures mingle with sunshine and the vast outdoors to bring a new perspective to the historic places where they are located. Sometimes art is an integral part of the historic site’s narrative, while in other cases artists are brought on to reflect the history of the site or architectural aesthetic of the broader landscape.

In this piece we look at three different sculptures and the way in which they activate the landscape and history at National Trust Historic Sites.

Tipping the Balance at Chesterwood (Massachusetts)

Caroline M. Welsh, guest curator and director emerita of the Adirondack Museum

“I think of many artists in the past that were able to use dangerous and uncertain times, and the isolation often imposed, as a catalyst to spur on their creativity. I believe my new works are an important and personal record that reflect this unusual time we are all facing; not only a time of pandemic but one of the most uncertain political situations in recent American history.” - John Van Alstine.

A woman in a red jumpsuit dancing to mirror a modern sculpture which consists of a red ball on a platform amidst a grassy space.

photo by: John Van Alstine

A dancer from the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company performs around the Van Alstine sculpture "Buoy" at Chesterwood.

For nearly 50 years, John Van Alstine’s restless inquisitiveness generated a monumental body of work that explores elemental questions in art and life. Balancing acts of stone and steel, Van Alstine’s outdoor sculptures’ swooping angular lines gesture expansively, belying the weight of their steel and stone parts and underscoring the kinetic energies inherent within them.

Van Alstine transforms his artistic vocabulary of stone, found industrial artifacts, and steel through intellectualized filters. The artist draws on ancient mythology, celestial navigation, tools, human figures, urban forms, and industrial shards to give meanings to his visions. Motion, balance, and inertia vie with the eternal forces of gravity, tension, and erosion.

The beautiful sylvan grounds of Chesterwood, Daniel Chester French’s sculpture studio and home, provide a harmonious site for these 20th- and 21st-century sculptures that at once reference nature, the works of man, and symbolic narrative.

Lincoln in Three Poses at The Gaylord Building (Illinois)

Pam Owens, executive director of the Gaylord Building

Lincoln in Three Poses is the focal point of Lincoln Landing. The sculpture sits at the original edge of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, giving viewers an indication of its former width.

Three sculptures of Abraham Lincoln that sit along a canal in Illinois. The three figures are placed amidst a multi-level stone space.

photo by: The Gaylord Building

David Ostro's "Lincoln in Three Poses" is situated in the broader landscape of the Gaylord Building.

Sculptor David Ostro sought to create both a traditional and contemporary statue of Abraham Lincoln. The first Lincoln pose is reaching to the ground at what was once the old canal wall. The second Lincoln pose is rising up from his seated position while clenching something in his hand. The third Lincoln pose is standing, with an implied forward movement. In this third pose, Lincoln has just slipped some unseen object into his shirt pocket, suggesting movement and growth.

Lincoln in Three Poses depicts a younger Lincoln, without his signature beard and stoic features. Ostro found that most Lincoln source material came from the earliest known photographic process, the daguerreotype. To take a photograph, the subject had to sit perfectly still for up to 15 minutes, a process Lincoln hated. Beyond that, it almost guaranteed somber-looking images. Ostro, like many historians, knew that Lincoln was a man of personality, and he wanted to show that in his work.

If you were to visit the Gaylord Building this summer, you would have the chance to take in a bonus sculpture as part of the city of Lockport’s Summer Art Series around the theme “Keep Our Small Businesses Afloat.” Twenty-two Chicagoland artists have decorated 3-foot tall fiberglass ducks on display outside of local businesses throughout the summer months. These fun masterpieces will sit in front of the businesses and commercial plazas hit hardest by the COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions of the past year. The Gaylord Building Historic Site sponsored the duck along its front walkway in support of the Public Landing Restaurant located within the Gaylord Building.

A sculpture of a duck with some painted design. It has a blue head with green wings and some white and brown detailing on the feathers.

photo by: The Gaylord Building

One of the sculptures shared around Lockport as part of the city's summer art series.

Dancing Children at Brucemore (Iowa)

Tara Richards, director of community engagement at Brucemore

In 1915, Irene Douglas commissioned aspiring Russian-born sculptor Bashka Paeff to create a statue for her garden. Paeff’s work, Dancing Children, has been a prominent feature of Brucemore’s formal garden ever since. While the statue is currently undergoing conservation following damage during a derecho storm with 140+ mile per hour winds that occurred in August 2020, its usual location is nestled in the northwest of the formal garden. A variety of natural understory and overstory elements form a geometrical square border that provides a secluded feeling. The organic and whimsical design of the statue blends in with the plantings in the surround while also being a visible centerpiece to the center aisle of the formal garden that leads from the roadway through the estate. A brick patio only a few feet away often featured chairs for passive enjoyment of the space.

An image of a sculpture of three dancing children surrounded by lush green foliage.

photo by: Brucemore

Brucemore's "Dancing Children" prior to the derecho in 2020.

A sepia toned image of a sculpture of three dancing children around a central pillar. This image also has three real life children surrounding the artwork by Bashka Paeff with a dog perched on top.

photo by: Brucemore

A historic photo of the "Dancing Children" at Brucemore with (L-R) Ellen, Margaret, Squiffy (their dog), and Barbara Douglas.

Paeff was a year old when her family immigrated to the U.S. in 1890. By 1915, she had recently graduated from Massachusetts College of Art and Design and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She had become well known in New York and Boston for her commissioned pieces and for sculptures she had created for the Park Street T Station.

In addition to her commission for the Douglas family, she was also hired to tutor Margaret Douglas, the eldest Douglas daughter, in sculpting. Paeff was also training other prominent society daughters like Helen Morton, daughter of Morton Salt Company co-founder Mark Morton, and Margarett Sargent, cousin of painter John Singer Sargent. Margaret Douglas traveled to Boston with Paeff in November of 1915 to spend a month in her studio studying modeling.

Paeff’s other notable works include the Maine Sailors and Soldiers Memorial, a statue of President Warren G. Harding’s pet Airdale at the Smithsonian, and Boy and Bird for the Boston Public Garden. Margaret Douglas continued her study of sculpture under Paeff and another prominent sculptor, Harriet Frishmuth.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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