Volunteers help sculptors place artworks in Connemara’s great outdoors
by Deborah Bradley
The stark North Texas landscape at Connemara conservancy looks more like a place for camouflaged hunters peering from deer blinds than a retreat for artists.
And certainly not a place where volunteers can pound nails, paint, bolt, weld, apply clay, haul materials, and in general help artists create large-scale sculptures.
But for the last 15 years, artists from around the nation have bunked down in the old family farmhouse next to the conservancy, staying for 1O-day stints to create works for the annual sculpture exhibit. This year, the conservancy chose nine artists — from a field of 100 — based on past work.
And since 1990, the conservancy has extended an open invitation for the public to get its hands dirty helping artists with the grunt work.
On a recent morning, Texas’ unpredictable weather has brought whipping cold winds — a huge contrast from the previous day’s sunny 85 degrees. Consequently, only a few brave souls have bundled up for volunteer duty: a family of four; an elderly couple; students from Southern Methodist University; a stay-at-home dad.
Lydia and Peter Stenzel have been volunteering since the first show, long before the public began coming out. Today the couple is helping artist Kate Dodd install her rather untraditional and untitled work.
Ms. Dodd, who’s been dubbed the “glitter lady,” has tied hot-pink ribbons on the low bushes and prickly vines growing in a natural gully. Now, standing on a ladder and wielding a staple gun In her gloved hands, she hangs shiny silver ribbons high in the tree branches. A few yards down the gully, Mr. Stenzel, also on a ladder, does the same.
High winds make the work difficult. Ribbon ends flap like a flock of pigeons as the wind gathers momentum through the narrow draw.
Meanwhile, Ms. Stenzel finds a place on the side of the gully where she can sit with her back to the wind while she cuts strips of ribbon. With a cheerful smile, she explains that a longtime interest in art started her coming to Connemara.
“Back in the 1950s, I worked as a fashion artist for the New York Daily News . That’s back when we still cinched the waists and wore the skirts down to our ankles. … I knew the man who invented shocking pink,” she adds, pointing to one of the pink ribbons.
“This place is a wonderful expression of imagination and response.”
Just down the pasture from Ms. Dodd and the Stenzels, artist Judith Blankman of San Francisco reinforces the tip of a bright red sail for her 2,500-pound sculpture titled Carry Me Away From Here So I Can. … Ms. Blankman has engineered eight sails that will turn in circles when water is added to the piece’s large circular base.
“The sail is supposed to take you somewhere, but these keep going in a circle,” says Ms. Blankman. “It’s about thinking you have to be somewhere else to fulfill your dreams and goals. When the truth is, you can ‘be’ right where you are.”
Jesse Kendall, a stay at home father, has come out for the last five days to help Ms. Blankman with bolting, gluing and driving to get materials.
“I’m not doing anything while the kids are in school anyway other than laundry and things like that,” he says. “Plus, I’m kind of an artist myself. I do design work and logos for friends. And I do wood working. I sell at Coomers — those little craft stores.”
On this blustery day, not every artist has helpers. Up a gravel road at the family farmhouse, Connie Lowe from San Antonio tries to stay warm while she works on her installation, titled American Beauty, with her dog, Shelly.
Behind the house, the old wood and tin barn serves as a temporary workshop for Ruth Green of Massachusetts. She shares the hay-filled space with woodland creatures that can be heard but not seen.
“Have you seen the owl?” asks Amy W. Monier, founder of Connemara’s annual sculpture show, as she treks through the hay, kicking it up.
“No, but I’ve heard squeaks, like maybe bats or birds,” says Ms. Green.
Ms. Green is working on Red Roses, a disturbing installation of beech saplings planted in 12 portable pine beds, representing both garden and children’s beds. Instead of soft, plump mattresses, these doll size beds have jagged and broken pine edges sticking up ominously.
Ms. Green, wearing paint-splattered jeans, colors the ends of the branches blood red with her fingers. “Beds are usually about comfort, but these are anything but.”
In the beginning
The concept of Connemara began a couple of decades ago. According to Ms. Monier, her mother, Frances Williams, began worrying that nothing would be left of the area’s natural resources. So she turned 72 acres of the nearly 500-acre family farm into a land trust.
“Once the land trust was in place,” says Ms. Monier, “I began trying to figure out how to get people out here.” With her visual arts background (she studied at Wellesley College In Massachusetts and was the first director of Dallas’ 500X Gallery) and an interest in three dimensional works, she decided on an annual sculpture exhibit
“In the last four or five years, the public has really caught on,” she says. “A lot of people come here who would never go to a museum. Here kids can yell, run and touch without being told to hush. Art becomes fun.”
Six-year-old Isaac Harp and 7-year-old brother Rory, for example, gravitate to Ms. Dodd’s beribboned gully, where they chase after silver ribbons whisked away by the wind. Their mother, Peggy Harp, brought the boys out yesterday as part of their home schooling. Today, father Randy has joined them.
“I wanted the boys to see artists working, and not just the final project,” says Ms. Harp. “The boys asked me to come back out today.
Kids so often are treated like they’re not there or asked questions like, ‘So, you’re out of school?’ I think they really responded to being treated like people.”
Rory says he didn’t expect to find anything like Ms. Dodd’s ribbons. “I thought art would be a big model out of clay or pots as big as a tree,” he says.
Up the pasture a little later, the Harps stop to chat with Sue Wink, a tall, imposing artist from Michigan. Working under the spreading arms of an aged pecan tree, she bends, shapes and attaches a wire mesh to an iron frame, which will serve as the piece’s skeletal structure. At her feet lie thousands of miniature examples of what she’s creating in large scale: a giant pecan hull. The next day she’s scheduled to start applying a stucco mix of clay, cement, sand and acrylic that will give the work texture and color.
“Right now, It looks very medieval,” says Ms; Harp. Her husband sees it as the pope’s hat, suggesting that perhaps the pope was sleeping under a pecan tree one day and a pecan hit him on the head. “Ha, that’d make a nice hat.”
Isaac tugs at his father’s hand. “Can we go see the cemetery?”
The four head for the far corner of Connemara, toward what looks from a distance like a traditIonal rural cemetery. But this burial ground, by artist Carolann Haggard of Dallas, marks the Death of Modern Sculpture.
Each headstone bears the name of a deceased sculptor: Hepworth (1903-1975); Moore (1898-1986); Brancusi (1876-1957); Noguchi (1904-1988). Each has been carved out of Texas limestone in the artist’s style. Noguchi’s stone is tall and slender, Moore’s carved In the shape of a reclining woman.
If the point of Connemara is to bring the public into intimate contact with art, it seems to be working for Isaac Harp. He points with his foot at the Moore gravestone. “Look, they’re breasts.”
“Take your foot off her breast,” his mother responds, matter-of factly. “That’s not a good habit to get into.”
Connemara’s sculpture exhibit opens Sunday at 1 p.m. and continues through May 19. The Plano conservancy opens daily during daylight hours.
Directions: Go north on Central Expressway to Exit 34 (McDermott), go west under the freeway 1.6 miles, turn left on Tatum and go 1.5 miles; Connemara is on your left over the stile. Call 521-4896.