From my wonderful bed and breakfast, Brayton House, it was just a short drive through Grand Rapids, Michigan, and one of the top five historic districts in the United States to the Midwest’s most significant outdoor sculpture collection.
Opened in 1995, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park encompasses 158 acres of year-round attractions for artists, horticulturists, and anyone of any age who likes to take a leisurely stroll in pleasant surroundings to see anything from giant bronze horses to rare orchids.
I started on the outdoor trail through the 30-acre sculpture park with mediocre expectations. Modern sculpture is, to me, grossly overrated, with “art” that looks like the ruins of a collapsed building or that remains “Untitled” because even the sculptor doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be. But here at Meijer Gardens, I was pleasantly surprised by the works scattered around well-kept grounds, both the colossal ones and the smaller pieces, carefully placed in appropriate natural settings. Connected by meandering paths past water elements and through lawns and meadows, the sculptures appear around a bend or on the horizon, providing one focal point after the next.
For instance, Grand Rapids Arch makes its appearance long before you get close to it. Its tremendous size — 18 feet high x 35 feet wide — immediately grabbed my attention. Sculptor Andy Goldsworthy used red sandstone from his native Scotland to create a common form. But he manages to make a static form a bit fluid: From certain angles, the arch seems to be taking a step forward, achieving Goldsworthy’s goal of having a stationary piece talk about movement and travel.
On an even larger scale, the 24-foot-tall The American Horse also expresses movement, with the regal horse’s left foreleg and right rear leg in motion, hooves off the ground. Sculptor Nina Akamu got her inspiration for this striking bronze piece from a work of equal size designed by Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century for the Duke of Milan. Unfortunately, da Vinci’s work never came to fruition — his clay model was destroyed by the invading French in 1499, and the largest equestrian statue in the world was never built. Five centuries later, the horse galloped into existence…twice. One cast ended up here in Michigan; a second can be found, as intended, in Milan.
Jaume Plensa’s I, you, she or he… presents three figures, each 14 feet tall, facing each other and sitting on stone bases. Their forms are composed of attached stainless steel letters, A to Z, in no particular order, alphabetical or otherwise, that you can see through, like complicated latticework. Their faces were deliberately left unfinished in the sculptor’s attempt to convey the universality of the visitors passing through. The figures’ positions — sitting, with knees pulled up to their chests and their arms hugging their legs, hands clasped at their ankles — make them particularly striking during the winter, when Michigan snow settles on their forms and they appear to be compressing themselves to try to keep warm.
Of the smaller-scale sculptures, my favorite was Listening to History, by British sculptor Bill Woodrow. A tilted bronze head rests on its right ear, and a teal-colored blindfold wraps around both it, covering the eyes, and the bronze book that’s pressed against the other ear. It’s a curious piece, and the meaning remains ambiguous. Do we listen to history blindly, without prejudice, to learn from prior successes and failures? Or are we simply blind to history, doomed to repeat past mistakes?
Not all the sculptures here, of course, are so cerebral. There’s plenty of whimsy, too. At just shy of 24 feet tall, Plantoir is hard to miss. Set in a green field with green trees as a backdrop, the bright red blade of this huge trowel, plunged into the earth, coaxes your eye. Husband and wife sculptors Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen extend their philosophy that everyday objects can be transformed into art to this playful piece — an ordinary garden tool into a colossal stainless steel, aluminum, and fiberglass sculpture, brightly painted. I’m not sure I would consider it “art,” but this piece certainly evoked a smile from me, thanks to its cheery color and nonsensical height of a simple handheld instrument nearly as tall as the trees behind it.
In Toads, a trio of bronze amphibians resting on large stone lily pads ascends a hillside, strategically placed here along a boardwalk in order to call attention to the living wetland creatures in the water features close by. And in the Michigan’s Farm Garden section, among a vegetable garden, barn, windmill, and ¾ scale replica of Lena Meijer’s childhood farmhouse, I found Lena Riding a Pig, a playful reminder of her youth, commissioned by her husband, Frederik.
Although it’s easy to let the sculptures dominate your visit, don’t forget to stop and look around at what’s surrounding you and appreciate the woods and wetlands you’re walking through. You’ll easily spy the colorful explosion of orchids and hyacinths, and try to watch for avian life around you and look for activity in the tadpole pond. Find serenity in the new Japanese Garden, opened in 2015 — an eight-acre oasis of tranquility amid waterfalls, boulders, Japanese structures, and a teahouse that’s a direct contrast to the nearby boisterous 1,900-seat amphitheater that has been rocked by the Steve Miller Band, Bonnie Raitt, and B.B. King, among others.
I finished my visit by heading inside Michigan’s largest tropical conservatory, a five-story structure with 15,000 square feet of rock landscapes, a waterfall, and exotic plants from around the world, from Indian fig trees to Central American orchids to Asiatic bamboo plants. Tropical birds take flight all around you and alight on the branches of these trees, from the flashy turquoise tanger to the brilliant bishop’s weaver to the utterly adorable Chinese painted quail.
I had the good fortune to be visiting during the temporary tropical butterfly exhibit. The largest such exhibit in the United States draws more than 150,000 people here every spring. In this Eden-like setting, extraordinarily delicate butterflies flitted all about me, occasionally landing on my camera to check out the device that was so enthralled by them. The beautiful emperor swallowtail, the distinctive tiger longwing, the unmistakable common morpho, and the translucent clearwing are just a few of the 50 species that will captivate you and cap off a delightful day at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.