The four big visual art institutions in town - the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Herron School of Art and Design, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art and the Indianapolis Art Center - are all endeavoring to make art as much an outdoor experience as an indoor one, or at least to link the two meaningfully. These efforts have largely been a part of grander expansion goals that are in progress or just completed. The Indianapolis Art Center, the smallest (relatively speaking) of all of these, just unveiled its ARTSPARK last weekend, now a more or less completed piece of its larger Michael Graves puzzle.
Graves, who is said to have conceived of the outdoor sculpture and nature park from the get go - long before the current building was expanded - worked with Muncie, Ind., landscape design firm Rundell Ernstberger Associates to implement his vision. Those familiar with White River Gardens downtown know the loosely formalist approach of Rundell Ernstberger, one that sculpts nature to its purposes, namely to pacify and embellish the outdoors so it can be enjoyed as an artistic experience. What makes ARTSPARK so lovely is its location, which means fewer embellishments are necessary - although embellishments are in plentiful supply here in the manner of landscaping and art. The inherent beauty is borne from the way the 12-acre park meanders alongside the river, allowing for eyefuls of the flowing water through the majestic trees populating the bank. Nature is given its due, and the initial plantings promise to add even more loveliness as they fill out in time.
Walking through ARTSPARK, the formal elements - a "sensory path" bisecting the parking lot and leading to the Monon Trail end of the Art Center property, a "reading area" outside the library on the other end and other built elements - are nicely balanced with the wooded portions of the park that lead to the river's edge. Native American (Winnebago) artist Truman Lowe's "Restful Place" sits along one of the best views of the river, which reaches out to a sandy bank, the sound of rushing water over rocks suggesting a welcome remoteness. But alas, crane your neck from the weathered deck a few paces away (a relic from the former riverfront), and there's College Avenue off in the distance, the sound of cars a minor intrusion.
Farther inland, an oddity is the placement of sculpture along the eastern promenade flanking the parking lot. The sculptures themselves are placed at a distance from the walking path, but just steps away from the noses of parked cars. This obstructs their full appreciation from walkers along the path who can't get up close unless they approach from the parking lot. This is certainly a puzzling choice on the part of the designers.
The art that lines up here is intended to rotate every several months; the initial showing, including new and more vintage works by mostly Indiana-related artists such as Jeffrey Martin and Julie Ball (a longtime instructor at the Art Center), is a respectable enough introduction. Mark Wallis' "Gypsy Rose" lends an exuberant splash of red on one end, and Jackson, Wy., artist John E. Simms' "Imploding Cube" strikes a confident pose in the center of a reflecting pool viewed at the end of a grassy promenade.
But the sculptural showstopper is Patrick Dougherty's (of Chapel Hill, N.C.) "Still-Life With Sticks." The temporary installation is intended to last three to five years, and it should; it's composed of entwined saplings, sticks and leaves, a multiplex nest open to the sky, literally a tree house, if a twisted one, complete with windows.
Many other elements lend vibrancy and interest to the park, among them the long-awaited and well-received Robert Stackhouse-Carol Mickett limestone permanent installation, the boat-shaped form played out in Zen-like striated rocks to the side of the Art Center's building front and as a textured path by the river, flush to the ground. James Wille Faust's "Wings," a permanent installation perched up high, is suggestive of a bird with a prey of fish, graphically rendered in 3-D. Then there's Sadashi Inuzuka's interactive earthworks, fragile-looking and enigmatic. John McNaughton's "Fantasy Sculpture" is a mad playhouse, its roof curving, sloping up and down again to meet the ground, its windows accordingly askew.
Overall, ARTSPARK is a place to revisit time and again, and for many purposes. Outdoor "studios" will provide art learning experiences; benches placed throughout the park provide quiet reflection and art viewing. ARTSPARK is a work of magic, a soul-calming transformation that makes the most of a bucolic and peaceful stretch of the river and its banks - and as such, it's a gift to the city.
ARTSPARK, at the Indianapolis Art Center, 820 E. 67th St., is free and open to the public - even in the evening, when the park will be illuminated. For more information call 317-255-2464, visit indplsartcenter.org, or just go.