DeCordova Sculpture Park

I’ve had 52 birthdays in my life, and yesterday’s was by far the weirdest.

For many years I’ve had a tradition of going to the Museum of Fine Arts on my birthday, but since the museum is closed due to COVID, J and I reserved timed tickets for the DeCordova Sculpture Park in Lincoln, MA. It was a lovely change of pace, a chance to take a stroll on a gray day. I was enchanted by the stone cairns next to Andy Goldsworthy’s Watershed as well as an impromptu collection of wrapped and painted stones (“small hopes”) created by local children and wedged into the stone walls in the now-empty rectangle where Big, With Rift used to stand.

That was the normal part of the day, where J and I celebrated my birthday and relished the morning news that Rev. Raphael Warnock had won his Senate race in Georgia. As we wandered the sculpture park taking pictures, I occasionally glanced at my smartwatch, awaiting word of Jon Ossoff’s projected Senate win.

But then the day turned strange. On the way home from the DeCordova, J and I stopped at the bank to get a document notarized, and while waiting our turn with a teller, I saw a notification on my phone that pro-Trump protestors had breached the Capitol where Congress was certifying the Electoral College results. With the Capitol on lockdown and lawmakers evacuated, the certification was paused, DC was in chaos, and we spent the rest of the day watching the news in dismay.

Nothing I saw on the news yesterday was surprising: Trump has been encouraging rebellion since he lost in November, and it was widely known that right-wing zealots planned to gather in DC on January 6. But what was disheartening was the way security basically stood back and allowed riotous thugs to run roughshod through the Capitol. Apparently it’s easier to storm a joint session of Congress than it is to get through airport security or into a municipal courthouse.

And if the news out of Washington wasn’t bad enough, yesterday afternoon I learned a longtime friend had lost his week’s-long battle with COVID-19: a bright light extinguished on the darkest of days. While my heart already ached for America, it broke again for M’s wife and many friends, and for all the people who have died because some people’s definition of “freedom” ignores the simple responsibility of keeping other people safe.

So, yesterday was a strange day…and an even weirder birthday. By nightfall I was wrung out by a mix of emotions: happiness and small hopes, heartbreak and incredulity. After 52 years on this strange planet, I still don’t understand what possesses people to behave the way they do.

CLICK HERE to view an album of photos from yesterday’s trip to the DeCordova Sculpture Park.


Yesterday J and I went downtown to see Janet Echelman’s aerial sculpture “As If It Were Already Here,” which was unveiled (or, more accurately, installed) over a segment of the Rose Kennedy Greenway back in May. I say the sculpture was “installed” rather than “unveiled” because the piece itself is like a veil, or a net, or a web: a semi-translucent, windblown shroud that spans a section of park that used to be an ugly elevated highway.

From afar

“As If It Were Already Here” (which J and I informally dubbed The Webby Thing for lack of a better way to describe its shape and appearance) billows in the wind and invariably draws attention to the sky and skyline. Yesterday was a beautifully sunny day, and folks were lounging on Adirondack chairs and hammocks on the Greenway grass: what better way to spend a weekday lunch hour or coffee break?


A steady stream of passersby paused to take cellphone snapshots of The Webby Thing, which has a website mapping its Instagram images. Although I too took a dozen or so shots, The Webby Thing was difficult to photograph, as diaphanous things often are. Photos don’t portray the sheer size of the thing, which spans a city block and stretches from skyscrapers on one side of the now-buried highway to another. In some shots, you can see color stretched like a veil across the sky, but from other angles all you see are spiderweb-like strings.

Wispy webs

“As If It Were Already Here” was installed in May, in an operation that entailed a cadre of coordinated cranes. (Click here for a time-lapse video of its installation.) Although the piece looks flimsy, according to the artist’s website it contains over 100 miles of twine, has over half a million knots, and weighs approximately one ton. Support cables are bolted to nearby buildings, and yesterday workers were re-tensioning its tethers, making sure the web was securely anchored.


The Webby Thing is mirrored in the many windows of surrounding skyscrapers, making me wonder what kind of view neighboring office-workers and hotel guests have of a gossamer ghost that floats like a giant jellyfish over passing pedestrians.

Flag with reflections


On a recent foggy-day visit to the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, I took a detour through the drizzle and slush to revisit Steven Siegel’s “Big, with rift,” an installation J and I had seen (and I had blogged) back in November, 2013.


When I’d first seen it, “Big, with rift” seemed perfectly suited to its surroundings, its towering stacks of decaying newspapers standing alongside windblown piles of autumn leaves. On a brisk November day, “Big, with rift” seemed both crisp and earthy, its mass serving as a kind of compost to the plants taking root in its upper layers: paper returned to the elements.

On a gray and drizzly January day, however, the dripping stacks of “Big, with rift” seem almost lonely: a sad, soggy assemblage of heaping trash. There is a kind of dignity in the careful piling up of accomplishments, but there is also something sorry in such hoarding. If newspapers represent the constant influx of new knowledge, it’s senseless to cling to ideas that have outlasted their relevance. There is nothing more useless, after all, than yesterday’s news.


In my original post, I noted that newspaper columns are a kind of structure, “a pile of words we build as a kind of warren, a burrow of beliefs we retreat to, entrenched.” In November, retreating to a burrow sounded cozy; in January, what once was comforting suddenly seems confining. What could be sadder than standing in a slushy woods with nothing more than wet words to keep oneself company? Looking at the dripping pillars of “Big, with rift,” I fought a nonsensical impulse to throw a blanket over the work, or at least to light a fire.


The exhibit I’d gone to the DeCordova to see several weekends ago was “Walden Revisited,” a collection of pieces inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s stint at Walden Pond. I suppose there were dark, drizzly days when living in a shack alongside a pond might have felt like cold comfort to Thoreau, and countless more readers have clung to his words than he probably ever envisioned. But Thoreau, I tell myself, wasn’t a hoarder of ideas, his mental cellar being clear of such clutter. Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for only two years; it was subsequent generations, not Thoreau himself, who tried to deify his image into that of a life-long hermit rather than a wanderer who tried one way of living and then moved on.


When I first saw “Big, with rift” in November, 2013, I felt bad that it would eventually decay into nothingness; in retrospect, I think there are far worse fates than simply fading away. Left on their own for long, stacks of paper will compress and solidify, their sentiments becoming sedimentary. Instead of being piled higher and deeper, wouldn’t any active and vibrant mind prefer to clean house, jettisoning any junk that has outlived its usefulness?

Come spring, I trust “Big, with rift” will be reborn, wildflowers sprouting from its upper layers like hair. In the meantime, though, I think this slush-sopped stack sends a cautionary tale. Before you cling to your own or anyone else’s ideas, remember that words are too heavy to hoard.

Dead or only sleeping?

This time last year, I blogged several photos of Laura Ford’s “Armour Boys,” an outdoor installation at the DeCordova Sculpture Park featuring five bronze knights crumpled in a grove of pine trees. Ford’s work is one that looks better as it ages, a subtle patina of neglect adding to the poignancy of slain soldiers lying among fallen leaves.

Pine Sharks

Because I’ve been going to the DeCordova for years, I remember another piece that was previously on display in this same grove: Kitty Wales’ “Pine Sharks,” which featured three circling sharks welded together from the rusted hulls of castoff appliances. As coincidence would have it, I blogged that installation back in 2009, the last time Photo Friday featured the theme, Metal.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Metal, as well as my Day Twenty-One contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.


Way back in August, 2005, I used photos of Cai Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune, which was then on display at Mass MoCA, to illustrate the sickening, out-of-control feeling I feel before the start of a new semester when I’m afraid a well-planned syllabus will not save me from crashing and burning in front of a classroom of first-year college students:


After all these years facing the same old back-to-school panic, you’d think I would have learned how to ease into that feeling, letting it permeate my being rather than fighting it. Theoretically, I believe panic is a wave that can be smoothly ridden if you allow yourself to roll with it…but instead of surfing I almost instinctively slam on the brakes, screaming, while cranking the steering wheel wildly this way and that. Wanting to control everything at all times, I can’t stomach the flowing sensation of being fluid and afloat.


It’s been more than eight years since I wrote that description of what it’s like to panic before the first day of class, and I still do it. Not only do I still panic before the first day of class, I find myself clenching my fists some mornings, wondering with a knot in my stomach what I’ll do when that day’s batch of first-year students looks at me and asks, “What are we doing in class today?”

I had to chuckle, then, when J and I encountered Okay Mountain’s “4-Wheeler Rollover” at the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park earlier this month. Right about now is the time of the semester when my paper-piles loom the tallest and it feels like I’ll never dig my way to the light of day again, so right about now is when it’s tempting to throw up my hands and say, “Buddha, take the wheel!” But instead of doing anything so drastic, I’ll remind myself to relax and roll with it. The paper-piles loom, but at least I’m still upright and ambulatory, not spun out, stranded, or stuck in a rut.

This is my Day 19 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.


Before J and I went to the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park on Sunday, I was frankly undecided about Orly Genger’s monumental installation “Red, Yellow and Blue,” which was recently unveiled there. I knew the piece was big: according to the deCordova’s website, “The work is comprised of 1.4 million feet of rope collected from the Eastern seaboard and 3,500 gallons of paint, weighing in at over 100,000 pounds.”


Apart from the sheer “gee whiz” factor of someone taking the time to knot, paint, and arrange that much rope on the deCordova’s sprawling grounds, I didn’t initially get the point of the piece. In paper or pixels, it didn’t make sense. Why go to the effort of making what looked to be a brightly colored, giant macramé fence?

No climbing

Like any monumental installation, however, Genger’s “Red, Yellow and Blue” has to be experienced in person to be fully appreciated. In short, the work grew on me as soon as J and I started walking along it. You can’t take in the entirety of “Red, Yellow and Blue” in a single glance or from a single vantage point. Instead, the work unwinds like a panorama, with your own two feet giving the work its impetus.


“Red, Yellow and Blue” first appeared in New York’s Madison Square Park, where the red, yellow, and blue segments were displayed separately, the size of the park defining the work’s shape. At the deCordova, however, the piece has room to roam, running along an undulating ridge of grassy fields, rocky outcrops, and meandering road. You don’t so much stand and admire “Red, Yellow and Blue” as much as you follow in its footsteps, skirting its curves as if it were a river or stonewall.


Rainy stroll

Blue wandering blue


In this regard, “Red, Yellow and Blue” reminded me of another (temporary) New York installation: Christo’s “The Gates,” which I’d visited (and blogged) back in 2005. Before I saw the saffron curtains that Christo and Jeanne-Claude placed in Central Park, I didn’t “get” that project either: what is the point of decorating a landscape that looks fine bare?


What I took from “The Gates,” however, was the experience of walking them: Central Park looks fine without saffron curtains, but that added element invites you to revisit and redefine your relationship with the place. Instead of casually walking by the same old landscape, suddenly you notice that landscape in a new and different way. Like Wallace Stevens’ jar in Tennessee, acres of saffron cloth or miles of knotted rope bring order to chaos, transforming ordinary Nature into the stuff of Art.


After we’d returned home from the deCordova, I viewed this slideshow of the work’s creation, which gave me a whole new appreciation for the technical difficulty of transforming miles of rope into something monumental.

Figure from the Sea

But even before we’d left the deCordova, J and I got a glimpse into the logistics of Genger’s installation. Before returning to our car, J and I joked about a line of shrink-wrapped pallets arranged at the end of the parking lot. Did these contain landscaping materials, were they the stuff of another installation, or were they themselves a work of art?

Rope for Red, Yellow and Blue

A closer look revealed that these pallets contained sections of knotted rope, sorted by color, that remained from the piece’s installation earlier this month. Are the leftover raw materials from a monumental installation themselves art? I’m not sure, but this much I know: I’ll never look at the grounds or parking lot of the deCordova Sculpture Park in exactly the same way ever again.

This is my Day 14 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Fallen in fall

Some days, it’s all you can do simply to fight the pull of gravity.


I had seen the five prone figures of Laura Ford’s “Armour Boys” when I visited the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in the summer of 2012. In the summer, these crumpled, child-sized bronze figures look almost playful as they lie in a grove of towering pines: you might imagine they are sleeping rather than slain. In autumn, though, these sculptures seem particularly poignant as they lie covered in fallen leaves. Is this what it’s like to die in a lonely wooded landscape, destined to be buried in nothing but windswept leaves?

Dead or only sleeping?

On Sunday, as J and I approached the grove where the Armour Boys lie, a family with a young child approached the same grove from the opposite direction. I paused, wondering how the child would react to the fallen figures: would he ask the obvious, innocent question of what was wrong with the crumpled knights, putting his parents on the spot to explain the troubling grown-up mysteries of death, violence, and war?


I needn’t have worried. The child took one look at the first figure he happened upon, happily proclaimed him to be “sleeping,” and blithely continued on, looking for other ground-level wonders to explore.

This is my Day 13 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Old news

One of my favorite pieces from yesterday’s trip to the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park was Steven Siegel’s “Big, with rift,” a site-specific installation utilizing the media of “paper and flora.” The piece is an assemblage of newspapers stacked in what appears to be a rectangular cellar hole surrounded by stone walls. You can view the pillars of piled paper from above—that is, from ground level—or you can walk down a gentle slope to stand alongside them at cellar-level, the stacks towering nearly as tall as the walls that surround and shelter them.

Returning to nature

The newspapers that make up “Big, with rift” are well-weathered and gradually decaying, with vegetation sprouting from their upper layers: the printed word returning to the elements. I was amazed to realize, however, that this installation has been at the deCordova since the summer of 2009: somehow, I’d missed it during my last trip there, and I wouldn’t have guessed that freestanding paper piles could so successfully weather four years’ worth of New England seasons.

Paper piles and stone walls

Viewing (slowly) decaying paper piles alongside much older, well-weathered stone walls is particularly evocative: how long, exactly, will any of our words last? Today’s news is tomorrow’s compost, and the most insightful of today’s newspaper articles will wrap tomorrow’s fish and chips or line next week’s canary cage. The spoken word is ephemeral—no more solid than a breath—and paper is only a bit more permanent: paper may cover rock, but rock outlasts us all. But the premise behind the saying “the pen is mightier than the sword” is that weighty words do indeed last, echoing down the ages to transmit wit and wisdom from one generation to the next.


What is, after all, a newspaper column but a structural thing: a pile of words we build as a kind of warren, a burrow of beliefs we retreat to, entrenched. What I declare today might not match what I believe tomorrow, but we write on, regardless, as if words were capable of creating a lasting legacy: a cumulative weight of word upon word that fills in, plasters, and supports our notion of self. How many of us shore up the cellar-holes of identity with pillars of opinion, our words as much as our clothes making the man?

J in the stacks

Books are believed to be more lasting than newspaper, magazine, or (especially) blog articles: books, after all, are bound, their covers providing a kind of protection, and we count as “ephemera” the scraps of paper—posters, pamphlets, and ticket stubs—that recount the mundane minutiae of our days. But perhaps the paper trails we each leave tell just as much about us as anything, a grocery or to-do list speaking proverbial volumes.


If our stone-walled cellars could talk, they’d have many a tale to tell, but so would the castoff papers that pile in our basements, offices, and drawers. Books may be bound, but newspapers are un-bound, papering over the rift between sacred and profane, serious and silly, local and global: all the words, in a word, that are fit to print.

This is my Day 11 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Shooting Red, Yellow and Blue

Today J and I went to the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, MA to wander and take lots of pictures. (Click on the picture below to see a larger panoramic shot.)


Although I had gone to the deCordova with a friend in June, 2012, J hadn’t been there since we’d visited in April, 2009. Some of the permanent works we’d seen back then are still on display, but there is always a changing array of temporary installations, so every trip to the deCordova is a mix of old and new.

Premier make-out opportunity

One of the most popular attractions today wasn’t technically an art installation, although it definitely qualifies as “temporary.” In a grassy field at the center of the sculpture park, a volunteer stood blowing enormous soap bubbles for children and passing grown-ups to chase and admire.

Big bubble

There’s nothing more fleeting than a soap bubble whose iridescence rivals any of the colors in even the most skillful painter’s palette: awe in an instant.

Big bubble

The deCordova is located in a beautiful woodsy setting, so the artworks on display are only part of the place’s appeal. In additional to the permanent and temporary installations you’ll find on the sculpture park map are attractions of a far more ephemeral nature.

Cloud installation (abstract)

This is my Day 10 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

I’m still sorting through the pictures I took at the deCordova today, so I suspect you’ll be seeing them in small installments over the next week or so.

Pine Sharks

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Metal, which gives me an excuse to post this picture of Kitty Wales’ Pine Sharks, one of several images from an April visit to the DeCordova Sculpture Park which I posted to Flickr but never blogged.

Pine Sharks

Of all the ingenious, odd, and downright weird works at the DeCordova, Pine Sharks is probably my favorite. I love its fishily fluid lines; I love the juxtaposition of rusted metal, pine boughs, and blue sky; and I love the irony that a sculpture of sharks was conceived by an artist named Wales. (In checking out Kitty Wales’ website, I realize that I’d seen another of her installations, Canis Ex Machina, when it was featured in an indoor exhibition at the DeCordova Museum in 2006.) Only at a place like the DeCordova can you be surprised and delighted by the possibility of airborne fish fashioned from abandoned appliances.

Pine Sharks

It is exactly this element of surprise that I crave in any individual art work or exhibition. When I go to a sculpture park or museum, I’m looking to have my worldview widened. Even if I don’t “understand” an especially bizarre piece of art–and the DeCordova always features some head-scratching doozies–what I love about a good museum is the way you walk away from it feeling like you’ve seen the world, at least for a while, through someone else’s eyes. I would have never dreamed of seeing sharks swimming overhead among pine trees, backlit by sky; I would have never dreamed of seeing rusted metal transformed into fish. Having visited Wales’ vision of a pine forest patrolled by piscine predators, though, it now seems perfectly right and natural to imagine metallic sharks circling the sky.

Click here for the complete photo-set from my April visit to the DeCordova Museum & Sculpture Park, including several images of the mysterious J in action.