Henry Homeyer: Visiting a sculpture garden in winter

Editor’s note: This article is from 2012.

By Henry Homeyer
©2024 Telegraph Publishing LLC

January is generally an all-white month in my garden, though this year the snow has been off to a slow start. I love the curves of drifts, the smoothness of open spaces, the contrast between snow and the outlines of my trees, shrubs, arbors and stonework. Snow can create free sculpture in the garden – even without making snowmen.

In many gardens, however, winter is a boring time: Without flowers, the garden is largely empty of interest. On a brilliant, blue-sky day I decided to visit an outdoor sculpture garden to enjoy a garden that is full of three-dimensional interest in winter. I wanted to see not only the sculpture, but the trees, shrubs and paths of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Mass.

Grasses and a doorway cut into a slab of marble led me into the garden.

Grasses and a doorway cut into a slab of marble led me into the garden.

The deCordova was once the summer home of Julian de Cordova (1851-1945), a Jamaican by birth, who made his money as a tea broker and president of Union Glass Co. It is now offers a 35-acre sculpture park with 60 works of art, a museum (once his brick castle), a store, café and classroom space.

I spent about three hours looking at the outdoor sculpture and studying the landscape to see what I might be able to do on my own property – or that you might on yours. I am not an artist and have no budget for sculpture, but I had a great experience looking at contemporary sculpture of New England artists – the focus of the deCordova – and the landscape.

Leaving the parking lot on foot, I was immediately drawn to a glade of trees and shrubs that had a lovely collection of decorative grasses and a stone entrance created by cutting a doorway into large piece of granite. Any arbor or entry catches my eye, and draws me to – and through – it. Passing through this doorway, I ascended a gentle hill that had natural ledge exposed and other cut stone pieces added. Evergreen rhododendrons and tall pines provided texture and color. It was lovely.

At the top of the incline was an open lawn surrounded by majestic oaks and populated with large sculptures. I continued on, climbing a rocky hillside, following a pathway. Paths are great for moving visitors along, particularly in a multi-level landscape – I always want to move forward to see what lies ahead.

A stepping stone walkway forces visitors to slow their pace.

A stepping stone walkway forces visitors to slow their pace.

In the course of my visit I walked on several types of paths – gravel, grass, stone and pavement. The most interesting to me, and one that can easily be copied without having a big budget, was quite simple: an arrangement of stepping stones. By that I mean that the stones were not flush to the ground, but a few inches above it; each stone was anywhere from 18-48 inches in width and/or length. Due to the irregularity in size and shape, and the fact that each stone was separated from the next by 6 to 12 inches, the visitor is required to slow down and step carefully.

I’d never seen a stepping stone walk like this in a public space. It is not wheelchair accessible (though wheelchairs could travel on the hard-packed smooth surface near the pathway), and it would be easy to trip and fall if not paying attention. Still, I liked the fact that I could not rush along it. If you have a garden with interesting small flowers, a stepping stone path would be one way to keep visitors moving through the garden slowly to see them – or your sculpture.

At the far end of one path was a 3-foot tall retaining wall on which visitors had made their own sculpture, which delighted me. The wall was decorated with small cairns – three to six small stones placed in a pile. I made one myself. this is something you can easily do on your own landscape – now, in winter.

Pine cone sculptures surprise and delight.

Pine cone sculptures surprise and delight.

For your cairn to survive, given the movement of the ground as it freezes and thaws, you need to build it on a stable base such as a stone wall. But if you accept that your stone sculpture may tumble down by spring, you can build one anywhere. I’ve seen cairns that are 3 feet or more feet tall but a nice collection of stones can be just a few inches. Place them carefully so that when you lightly touch the stones they don’t fall.

Sculptor Ronald Gonzalez created a site specific installation, a collection of human-like figures made of pine cones and steel. This is something that I could do, even though my artistic talents are (very) limited. He made simple stick figures of steel rebar, then attached (with wire) various sized cones to create heads and bodies. He created a tribe of them – a dozen or so – standing inside a circle of evergreen trees. I almost missed it when I walked by – but then let out a shout of glee when I saw it. Art? That’s for each viewer to say – but it was fun to see, and I might just create one – for winter interest.

So if your garden is flat and boring in winter, visit the deCordova to see what ideas you can bring home with you – and create something that will tickle your fancy and delight your eye next winter.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeHenry Homeyer's Notes from the Garden

About the Author: Henry Homeyer is a lifetime organic gardener living in Cornish Flat, N.H. He is the author of four gardening books including The Vermont Gardener's Companion. You may reach him by e-mail at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or by snail mail at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, N.H. 03746. Please include a SASE if you wish an answer to a question by mail.

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