“There are 38,000 tulips here,” said Dwayne Otto, grinning, his skin tanned and creased from three decades of work at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska. Otto’s job is to make sure those tulips match the geometric patterning of sculptural art.
Outdoor sculptures and indoor art are increasingly part of the arboretum, mixing well with the natural abundance of its 1,200 acres of gardens, trees and trails.
“Art and gardens, that goes back to the ancient Greeks,” said the arboretum’s first-ever curator, Wendy DePaolis “It’s natural to have the two together.”
The Arb has grown into one of the nation’s top botanical gardens since its founding 60 years ago as a University of Minnesota research center. While art has been part of the mix for years, the center took a major step in 2013 when it added the Harrison Sculpture Garden along with an endowment to hire a curator and gardener to maintain the work. There also are two galleries in buildings on the grounds.
Having art at the arboretum is another way to get people to appreciate the natural environment.
“It is so much different if you see a Barbara Hepworth sculpture in nature, with crabapples behind it one month, and the next a blooming tree, and another season it might be snow,” said DePaolis. “That’s the way these sculptures are meant to be seen.”
Located at the highest point on the grounds, the 26-piece sculpture garden boasts works by such big names as Louise Nevelson and San Carlos Apache artist Craig Dan Goseyun, laid out atop three acres of rolling hills where nature and art meet in harmony.
Donated by Wayzata philathropists Alfred and Ingrid Harrison — who also have a photo gallery in their name at the Minneapolis Institute of Art — the sculptures aren’t the only art happening outdoors. “Origami in the Garden,” created by Santa Fe-based artists Kevin and Jennifer Box and on view through Oct. 21, is a trompe l’oeil-like array of 40 gigantic, folded sculptures of animals (cranes, birds, horses) and objects (rock, paper and scissors, for example) scattered throughout the grounds.
They may look like giant pieces of delicate paper folded origami-style, but they are cast in metal. “Master Peace,” a tower of 500 cranes that grow smaller as they reach into the sky, stands in the Perennial Garden. The cranes appear as a reflection in the adjacent pond, which was dyed black to make the image more visible. Counting the reflected versions, there are 1,000 paper cranes in all — and, as legend has it, if you make 1,000 paper cranes in a year, you’ll have a wish granted to you by the gods.
The two artists also have a companion exhibition indoors at the Reedy Gallery at the Oswald Visitor Center, which includes collaborations with origami masters and more information about the complexity of origami itself.
A showcase for local artists
The arboretum is embracing local artists as well. A recent group exhibition at the Reedy Gallery, “Somali Stories Through Art,” featured photographer Ridwan Omar, artist Ifrah Mansour and painter Aziz Osman; the latter two also were part of the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s first show of Somali art last year.
For Mansour’s piece “Floating Refugee Aqal,” the artist actually built an aqal soomaali, a Somali hut that can be easily dismantled and packed up when it’s time to move on in her historically nomadic society. The house was mounted so it floated two feet above the ground; visitors could lie underneath it and watch a video monitor as the poem “I am a refugee” was read aloud.
As a refugee, Mansour never learned how to make such a hut. In a previous incarnation of the work, Somali elders helped her. This time she was on her own, at times even resorting to Google to figure out how to do it — something that spoke to the realities of her own displacement. Placing this work at the arboretum added another layer of meaning.
“I knew the people who are going to consume this art piece are not immigrants or people of color,” said Mansour. “The arboretum is this beautiful place — you have to afford it (admission is $15), and a lot of people in my circles don’t know about it. It is in this place where art is a form of entertainment, or this surface education, and I wanted to really hit people in the head with my piece.”
Balancing art and nature
There’s a delicate artistic collaboration in reflecting all the cultures that make up Minnesota’s population. But bringing it together is a fine-tuned skill that curator DePaolis seems to excel at.
Along with a masters degree in art history, she has a unique pedigree: She grew up near Longwood Gardens in Delaware, one of the world’s most expansive gardens. Her mother went through the master gardener program at Longwood, and isalso a docent at the Brandywine Art Museum and Delaware Art Museum. The desire to marry art and nature obviously runs in the family.
With DePaolis aboard, the arboretum has received accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, so it’s better equipped to get loans of art and acquisitions, to secure grants from the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities — and to be more audacious in its programming.
In the meantime, however, the current sculptures need tending.
Gardener Erik Lemke, who oversees the Harrison Sculpture Garden, is always trying to figure out which plants will go best with each sculpture. He recently planted juniper around the iron sculpture “Sahara Variation” (2004), a circular spiral and a triangular spiral by Rene Küng that are connected, looping together like an infinity sign. The juniper adds a natural element while keeping visitors a healthy distance from the sculpture.
“Some people might come here for that peaceful nature walk,” said DePaolis. “Others might come here to see plants they want to plant for their garden. Others might come for the art. And all of these people might discover something else while they’re here.”