The Story That Almost Wasn’t: A Sculptural Walk Through Philadelphia

“When things go awry, write the f*cking story anyway.” — Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia, October 2, 1774

Leave it to Ben to get me back on track. Last week I happened upon the above quote in Mr. Franklin’s excellent book, Good Advice For Those Who Probably Are Too Damn Dumb To Know They Need Some Good Advice. Franklin published Good Advice in May 1775 at the behest of his friend Thomas Jefferson, a future American president. A few months earlier Jefferson had lit a fire under Franklin by saying this to him: “Ben, you’ve been talking about compiling some of your recent sayings into a book. F*cking do it already!” I tell you, I like the robust way that Ben and Tom talked.

If I hadn’t been thumbing through that little-known volume in a local library, the story you’re currently reading wouldn’t exist. Thank you, Benjamin. I’ve always believed the multi-talented Mr. Franklin to be the most accomplished and remarkable American of all time. And never, certainly, did I expect that he would kick my ass into gear.

For a year or more I’d had it in my mind to stroll through Philadelphia’s central sections, looking at and taking photos of my favorite outdoor sculptures. And, it goes without saying, turning the adventure into a story for my online abode. When the 6th of December rolled around last year I decided that the time had arrived. Despite it being a windy and cold day, into the city I headed from my suburban town. I was feeling good and was ready for action.

I arrived in Philadelphia with a list of the works I planned to visit. They comprised a tiny percentage of what’s out there, because Philadelphia, and not just in its central region, is loaded with outdoor sculptures. Many of them, natch, are of war heroes atop horses. Civic leaders, natch, also are well-represented. Me, I dig those sorts of fare — statues if you will — when they’re done stylishly. But I’ve always been more drawn to sculptures that are less standard and full of flair and vigor.

Bolt Of Lightning, by Isamu Noguchi

My first sculptural stop would be in the city’s Colonial-era section, at 6th and Race Streets, near where Franklin lived and even closer to where he is buried. There, in the middle of a traffic rotary often crazy with vehicles going to and from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, stands Isamu Noguchi’s 101-foot-tall Bolt Of Lightning. It commemorates Franklin’s kite-flying experiment, during a thunderstorm in 1752, that showed the connection between electricity and lightning. Yes, Ben was the man.

In retrospect, the Bolt Of Lightning situation that I encountered should have tipped me off that the day might not turn out as hoped for. I wanted to dodge the whizzing cars and climb onto the rotary, where I’d get some up-close-and-personal photos of the very cool sculpture. But, wouldn’t you know it, a police car was parked beside the rotary. Sure as shit, if I had tried to reach the Bolt a police car door would have opened and I’d have been told to get the hell out of there. So, from a hundred feet away I took what images I could.

Milord La Chamarre, by Jean Dubuffet
Paint Torch, by Claes Oldenburg

After that I walked and walked, grabbing shots of artworks I’ve loved for years. Jean Dubuffet’s Milord La Chamarre, for instance, which is a wild and wooly vision of a nobleman, and Claes Oldenburg’s giant representation of a paintbrush balanced on the tip of its handle. Claes’ sculpture, Paint Torch, is appropriately placed, as it sits beside The Pennsylvania Academy Of The Fine Arts.

The Bond, by James West
(Ben Franklin on left, George Washington on right)

In front of the Masonic Temple, on my way to the Oldenburg work, I passed James West’s The Bond, a lifelike and life-size sculpture of Ben Franklin and George Washington, the USA’s first president. The guys, both of whom were Masons, are happy to see each other and are admiring Washington’s Masonic Apron. I probably had walked past this piece before but hadn’t really noticed it in a meaningful sense. At once it leaped onto my list of faves.

Brushstroke Group, by Roy Lichtenstein
Rock Form (Porthcurno), by Barbara Hepworth

Yeah, things were going swimmingly. But in the latter half of my stroll, my phone’s battery did something it never had done before. It went dead. I went into a public library and plugged the phone into an outlet, eventually resuscitating it. Then I continued my trek, a few minutes later reaching the Rodin Museum, on whose grounds sits my number one outdoor sculpture. Its English title is The Burghers Of Calais. The creation of Auguste Rodin, a Frenchman, it is stunning. A memorial to bravery and a profound depiction of anguish, the sculpture shows leaders of Calais, in the mid-1300s during war between France and England, gathering to face their death. The men had volunteered to be executed by English hands in lieu of a threatened killing of their city’s entire population. The intervention of the English queen, at some later point, saved them.

The Burghers Of Calais, by Auguste Rodin

I planted myself in front of The Burghers, aimed my phone’s camera at it and pressed the button. Voilà, a pretty good shot. Then I moved to a different spot to take a photo from another angle, got the camera ready, and . . . the screen went dark! The frigging battery had died a second time. An attempt at revival, via an electrical outlet inside the Rodin Museum, failed. Disgusted, I made haste to Suburban Station, within which trains that go to my little town may be found.

My mission had not been accomplished. Rodin’s sculpture required multiple photos, I felt, to capture its complexity. What’s more, two other sculptures on my list were left waiting for my visit. They had to be part of my write-up. A dejected semi-perfectionist, I threw the outdoor sculpture story idea into my cranium’s rubbish bin and left it there to decompose.

Seven weeks later, thankfully, I encountered Ben Franklin’s words of wisdom, the ones that are placed at the top of this essay. And I also encountered my wife Sandy’s comments when she was looking through the photos on my phone (the phone, by the way, somehow bounced back to life on December 7). “I like the sculpture pictures that you took last month,” Sandy said.

Looking at them again, so did I. And thus I decided to write the f*cking story anyway, a story that has some warts and holes but will have to suffice. As everybody knows, not everything turns out the way you want it to. You’ve got to roll with the punches and get on with life. That’s what big boys and big girls need do, a truth I’m not always great at keeping in mind.

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A Less-Than-Epic Quest For Signs Of Spring

There I was, on the second Monday of the present month, heading south from my suburban Philadelphia home to the Abington Art Center a few miles away. I was seated within my trusty 2001 Honda Civic, a vehicle that has served me well. I consider it to be a good friend.

I would be remiss, however, not to note that my wife Sandy feels no affection for my wheels. She used to love the Civic as much as I do, but those days are in the distant past. Yes, its forest-green paint has faded and developed splotchy areas so prolific they stun the eyes. Yes, the fabric that used to be tautly attached to the underside of the roof now billows downward like an open parachute. And yes, those conditions are fixable, but haven’t been addressed because I’m a lazy son of a bitch. Still, are the Civic’s flaws good enough reasons for Sandy to refuse to step foot inside the vehicle and to wish and pray that some day soon it will drive itself to the nearest junk yard and stay there? No, I emphatically state. And I rest my case.

Anyway, the Abington Art Center is a community organization that offers classes and programs in a once-private mansion and whose grounds include a huge, hilly lawn and a patch of woods. I was driving there because a story idea had occurred to me earlier that day: I’d decided to look for and write about signs of spring. Now, spring has been late arriving this year in my part of the States, what with below-average temperatures that don’t seem to want to loosen their grip. And even though I hadn’t seen much springlike activity among the flora in my neighborhood, or anywhere else in the region, I had a good feeling about what I might come across at AAC. That’s what happens when you’re a born-again optimist.

Arriving at the center at around 2:15 PM, I began my stroll. Right off the bat I noticed that there were no trees in flower. And that there were no flowers worth mentioning of any kind except for the yellow beauties attached to a large forsythia. In other words, there wasn’t much to write home about at AAC when it came to flowers.

As for the trees, they appeared as they would have in the dead of winter, at least to my eyes. No doubt the leaf-budding process had begun, but highly-myopic me was unable to determine that for a fact, as so many of the the branches were too high up for me to discern much about them. At eye level, though, there was some action, because bright green leaves were emerging on scraggly bushes that were fairly populous on the grounds. All in all, though, there wasn’t much to write home about at AAC when it came to buds and new leaves.

But I wasn’t disappointed that my article about the Earth’s vibrant rebirth would have to be put on hold. In fact, I very much liked the look of my surroundings, where practically every shade of tan and brown known to man was on display. I’m a big fan of blisteringly bright colors, but I’m totally down with neutrals too.

What’s more, I liked the quiet of the place. I heard one dog bark for a few seconds, and the sounds of automobiles on the roads bordering AAC were now and then apparent. But overall, things were peaceful at AAC. No other human crossed my path or field of vision during the 70 minutes I spent there, and so I found myself getting lost in the center’s 20 or so acres of semi-nature. Not lost in the sense of not knowing where I was, but lost as in going with the flow. I don’t know about you, but my life sure could use many heavy doses of the latter on a regular basis.

Flow-wise, I spent time in the pursuit of, well, whatever. I began to look around and was glad to notice, for instance, complex tangles of roots and branches, scalloped white fungi plastered on a fallen tree limb, and elegant beige leaves that had refused to drop from their tree’s branches during the winter.

A bunch of back-to-nature types of sculptures have been placed within the woods. Of those, the one I liked the best (Just Passing Through, by Laura Petrovich-Cheney) is a string of five tree trunks. Only the bases of the trunks were used in the sculpture, a display of elemental shapes and of the power of deep browns. One day these trunks will have rotted away and become one with the soil.

We have arrived close to the end of this essay. Hoping to leave with a sort of bang, I’ll make mention of something I hadn’t expected to find within the woods. Namely, inserted into the barks of a number of trees were small mirrors. I guess that Jeanne Jaffe, the artist behind the mirror sculptures, if you want to call them that, was very civic-minded, wishing to give the public the opportunity to check if their makeup needs refreshing or if their nose hairs could use a trim.

Me, I peered into one of the mirrors and was highly disappointed by the visage staring back at me. Might as well take a picture of my reflection anyway, I decided. Yeah, my iPhone’s case is pink. I like pink a lot. In fact, by the time my next article hits cyberspace there’s a good chance that I’ll have dyed my hair the most shocking hue of shocking pink available. I’ve been thinking of doing that for the longest time. And there’s no time like the present, right?

But if I do, Sandy probably will see to it that I’m inside the Honda Civic when it decides to drive itself to the nearest junk yard. That’s life.

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Philadelphia To The Rescue

Two Saturday mornings ago I was in the kitchen of my suburban Philadelphia home, contemplating the whys and wherefores of the universe. My wife Sandy was fastened to the living room sofa, absentmindedly wandering around the web on our laptop computer. If somebody had painted our portraits that morning they could have done worse than to title each canvas Inertia. Now, inertia is a weirdly compelling phenomenon. I’m quite familiar with and knowledgeable about it, as I spend half my waking hours within its grasp. If I were able to bottle it I think I’d become crazily wealthy. I mean, people once spent millions upon millions of dollars on pet rocks, didn’t they?

Luckily for us, our great pal Gene dialed our number around 11:00 AM. Sandy picked up the phone and spoke with him for a few minutes. After hanging up she told me what Gene had to say.

“Gene and Cindy [his wife] went to the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show yesterday. He says it’s very good. He recommends that we go.”

“Yo!” I exclaimed, just like most Philadelphia aficionados are prone to do. “Gene has the right idea. Let’s go into Philly to check out that show and then we’ll see where the city’s polluted winds carry us after that.”

Two hours later we closed our eyes, clicked our heels three times and thought magical thoughts. That formula always works. Within seconds we were at 18th and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia’s central section. We crossed the street and walked into Rittenhouse Square, a gorgeous one-square block park that dates back to the late 1600s. From what I’ve read, in those days and for many ensuing years the park wasn’t looking all that good. In the early 1900s it was redesigned and infused with trees and shrubs in a pretty extraordinary manner, bringing it up to the high standards set by parks in Paris and other European cities.

Neither Sandy nor I had been to the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show in at least 20 years. It’s an annual affair that began in 1928, making the most recent event the 90th consecutive one. That’s staying power. The show used to be an open-air display. That’s why I was surprised to see that most of the paintings and sculptures were under cover, housed within 143 tent-like booths ringing the perimeter of the park. Don’t know in what year the show’s organizers brought in the tents, but it was good thinking on their part. Now the show can go on even if it rains.

One hundred and forty-three booths holding the works of professional artists? Holy crap, that’s a big amount. And the total doesn’t include the 18 booths in the center of the park that were devoted to the output of student artists. Sandy and I looked at nearly every single booth’s contents, I think, though at the time I’d have guessed that I’d encountered maybe 60 or 70 booths. It was a couple of days later, when reading the show’s brochure, that I learned the true numbers at the park.

Well, what can I say? I’m an art lover, but in trying to catch a glimpse of everything I didn’t act like one, doing little more than to throw a glance at most of the offerings. I made super-quick judgments, deciding in a flash whether or not an artist’s oeuvre was worth my spending a bit of time with, and coming to the madly incorrect conclusion that most weren’t. That’s not the way I behave in museums, where I linger in front of and analyze the works. Oh well, clicking my heels must have set my limited-attention-span mechanism afire. Or perhaps I was just being my usual half-crazed self.

Still, now and then I did stop to smell the roses. For instance, I liked the stylish, black and white, Art Deco-ish drawings by Anastasia Alexandrin a lot. And the same went for the madcap animal sculptures by Scott Causey. And also for John Pompeo’s sturdy, excellently-balanced paintings of landscapes and barns.

Anastasia Alexandrin and her artworks
Scott Causey’s sculptures
John Pompeo and his paintings

And what I liked as much as or more than all the art works was the park itself. It felt great to be among trees and shrubbery and lawn areas exploding in myriad shades of green. And to walk the wide pathways of an elegantly symmetrical park that hordes of Philadelphia’s citizens and visitors love to be in. Rittenhouse Square is a winner, one of the city’s brightest spots.

The day wasn’t over. After taking a pause that refreshed, Sandy and I decided to make our way to West Philadelphia, an enormous swath of Philadelphia’s territory, where, in the area known as University City, the second annual West Philly Porchfest was in full swing. Porchfest is an idea that was born 10 years ago in Ithaca, New York. Since then it has turned into reality in quite a few towns and cities in the States and in a handful of locations outside the USA. I wrote about last year’s West Philly Porchfest, and you can read the article by clicking right here.

To hold a Porchfest, you need a lot of porches. And in University City porches reign. It was on those structures that musicians gathered to fill the air with song. I’d estimate that around 150 acts hit the stages (i.e., porches) throughout the day two Saturdays ago. I kind of fizzled at the art show, but I got my act together at Porchfest and let the vibes enter me in an intelligent manner.

Mountain music jam session

Between 4:00 and 6:00 PM, Sandy and I wandered around, program schedules in our hands. We checked out eight or so acts. The quality of the music was hit or miss. What we ended up liking the best was a mountain music jam session taking place on a quiet, leafy block of Walton Avenue. Fifty or so folks were soaking in the sweet sounds on the sidewalks and in the street. Most musicians at Porchfest, which presents many genres of music, amplified their instruments. But the mountain music jammers didn’t. No matter at all. I crept nice and close to the porch and got swept away by the sometimes gritty, sometimes aching and lonesome notes spilling from the musicians’ mouths and instruments. They were as casual and unassuming a group of performers as ever you’ll see, no different than the players strumming, picking and singing at their homes in mountain hollows in the southern states where this soulful, addictive music was born many years ago. I thought that Cameron DeWhitt killed on the banjo, that Jordan Rast fiddled like a demon, in a good sense, and that Peter Oswald set a firm footing with his cello work (Yep, a cello. It’s not the typical mountain music instrument, but at Porchfest it fit in just fine). Applause, applause.

Audience at mountain music jam session

Come 6:00 PM, Sandy and I were getting hungry. Our dinner in a West Philadelphia hot spot (Dock Street Brewery) was good. But, as my mind is starting to wander and your eyes probably are getting tired from reading this story, I’ll skip the dinner write-up. I’d bid you all adieu right now had I not one more thing to add. Namely, at the train station in West Philadelphia where we boarded a choo-choo that took us back to the burbs, we were taken by a view of central Philadelphia, some of its tall towers beautifully aglow. The picture was too pretty a one not to snap. Snap it I did:

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Girl-Watching (A Philadelphia Museum Story)

It can take me forever to get around to tackling projects and situations, big or small. Half the time I never — and I mean never — place them in the completed bin. Hell, probably that’s the way a hefty percentage of us humans roll. I take comfort in believing that I’m far, far from being alone in excelling at procrastination.

Which is my four-sentence preface to announcing that I finally am getting around to knocking a certain something off my to-do list that has been sitting there for nearly two years. I began this blog in April 2015 and almost from the start had it in mind to write a story about La Salle University Art Museum, a little-known institution in Philadelphia on the cute campus of La Salle University. Man, my psychotherapist will be so proud of me for bringing this story idea to fruition. “Neil,” he said at our most recent session, “sometimes I think you enjoy being stuck in cement.” I pondered that for a second and then said, “You’re oh so right, Doctor Cortecks. And, believe it or not, my wife figured that out on the day we met. Which is why she nicknamed me Jimmy. As in Hoffa.” Doctor Cortecks liked that crack so much he waived the session fee.

Anyway, returning to reality, a week ago Tuesday, on a most unseasonably balmy afternoon, I decided that a visit to LSUAM was in order. I hadn’t been there in several years and was in the mood for staring at attractive objects. So, into my car I climbed and headed south from my suburban abode, pretty quickly reaching the nothing-special section of Philadelphia in which La Salle University occupies space and time.

img_1366As I mentioned, La Salle’s campus is cute. And as I walked through sections of it on my way to the museum I had my eyes open for cute girls, girl-watching being one of my fave activities despite my certified status as a semi-ancient geezer. Sadly, I saw only one or two, as the grounds were strangely low on people of either gender. But that was OK, because my plan was to check out the ladies at the art museum . . . those on display, that is. It seemed like not the worst idea in the world to take long looks at the paintings and sculptures of females, and to breeze past all the others. And that’s exactly what I did.

img_1370La Salle University Art Museum is tucked away in the basement of a nondescript building primarily filled with classrooms. The museum is small, seven or eight modestly-sized rooms and a couple of hallways, and its contents are quite good. Me, I like museums of this sort where you don’t have to spend half your life examining the wares. To art lovers in the Philadelphia region I recommend a visit. You’ll get to see beautiful stuff, from ancient times to the present, by famous folks (Tintoretto, the Renaissance great, for crying out loud; Jacob van Ruisdael; Henry Ossawa Tanner; Alex Katz) and lots of equally fine pieces by artists you’ve probably never heard of (click here to find the museum’s website).

I suppose I gazed upon 50 or 60 artworks depicting females. And as I gave some thought to my story theme afterwards, four of those depicted women tapped me on the shoulder and suggested I write a few words about them. I’m often eager to please, so I’ll take them up on it.

img_1379To begin, I was wowed by the natural charm and beauty of Father’s Return, painted around 1850 by Harriet Cany Peale, a Pennsylvanian. In the painting, two kids are excited as can be by the sight of their dad walking towards the homestead. He has been away on business or whatever, probably for several or more days. His wife, though, isn’t looking at him. Instead, her eyes are focused on and dripping with love for her young daughter held in her arms. Hey, hubby can wait! Peale swamped the painting with browns and muted greens. There’s nothing flashy except for the little girl’s orange dress and the mother’s bright lips. Amidst all of that, though, it was the mother’s eyes, nothing more than large, dark dots, that I found myself drawn to. They say a lot.

img_1384The lady featured in Maria Brooks’ The Letter shows us a gaze of another sort. Brooks, a Brit, painted her in 1884.  As the story goes, the woman in question has just read a letter from her seafaring sweetheart. And she misses him plenty, as the aching numbness in her eyes makes most clear. This to me is a really lovely painting. Its tight framing, the limited choice of colors, the way the letter reader’s faintly pink skin melds into her surroundings, are parts of an excellent balancing act. The picture made me feel kind of wistful, which is what I’m sure Brooks meant it to do.

Gazes, eyes and lips . . . we’ll wind up these proceedings with some more comments about them, because I was struck by similarities between two works, a painting from about 1930 by the American modernist Alfred Maurer, and a small wooden sculpture made at an unknown point during the 1900s by an uncredited artist in Africa’s Ivory Coast.


Maurer’s oil, titled Woman In A Window, is heavily in debt to Cubism, the fractured take on things pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the early 1900s. Sure, this lady ain’t about to win any beauty contests, but I found her loveable. She’s a happy individual. Just look at those big, smiling eyes and the lips giving out an ooh. I’m going to guess that she’s looking through the window at a fun event, maybe a parade, maybe a bunch of children playing games. And, in my view anyway, the window lady has a close relative at the museum, a sister. Needless to say that’s the woman of the African sculpture, who displays not quite but almost the same expressions as Maurer’s heroine. I saw amazement in her eyes and wonder on her lips. She’s not showing her inner feelings as much as Maurer’s gazer, but she is no less enthralled by whatever it is she’s looking at.

Well, there’s plenty to be said for spending time with works of art. They are open to all sorts of interpretations. They can make you think, make you feel swell, not so swell and everything in between. I drove home from La Salle University Art Museum with more than a few notions and emotions skipping around in my little ol’ head.


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A Pretty Park Can Be Pretty Hard To Find

Back in 1981 the Philadelphia Museum Of Art mounted an exhibition of photographs by Robert Adams. Adams took the photos in the 1970s. They were images of western American states, the desolate areas, primarily deserts and mountains. I remember the show fairly well. No matter how remote the locale, nearly every photograph bore evidence of man’s hand: A telephone pole, tire ruts in the sand, roads winding like barber pole stripes around magnificent mountains. One of Adams’s points was that pure wilderness is long gone, so we better get used to it and be glad for the great though adulterated spaces that exist. I imagine that even if you found yourself in the middle of Antarctica’s biggest ice shelf, and I don’t wish that fate on too many of us, you wouldn’t have to wait impossibly long before an airplane passed overhead. Man is everywhere. Yikes.

Now, a half-baked embryonic distillation of those thoughts was in my head recently when my wife Sandy suggested that we walk around the grounds of Abington Art Center, a few miles south of our home in the Philadelphia suburbs. “Sure,” I said, “good idea.” But what I didn’t say is that I’d prefer to stroll some expansive Adams-like terrain. In my dreams. Around here in the burbs, man for the last 75 years has been relentlessly busy cutting down trees and pouring cement. Around here, you have to count your lucky stars that any good-looking patches of territory of any sort still exist.

Manor house and lawn at Abington Art Center.
Manor house and lawn at Abington Art Center.

Abington Art Center is one of those patches. The center contains the manor house and some of the grounds of a former estate. The house is used for art classes and gallery exhibits and the like. The grounds mostly are a huge lawn that slopes away from the rear of the house and 10 or 15 acres of woods. It’s a lovely place. And it is more than manor, grass and trees. Scattered here and there on the great lawn and on side lawns and in the woods are all manner of sculptures, about 50 all told. Sandy and I had a good time at the center. For two hours we looked at trees and artworks and burned off a few calories while walking a couple of miles.

The play of light in the woods at Abington Art Center.
The play of light in the woods at Abington Art Center.

I like the outdoors. But I’m hardly a naturalist. My knowledge of flora and fauna has more holes than you can count. And so at Abington Art Center I found myself admiring a specific leafy tree species, of which many examples exist in the center’s tiny forest, having no clue what I was looking at. They weren’t maples or oaks. Those I can identify. Whatever the trees were, they were  the tallest at the center. They measured well over 100 feet from bottom to top and didn’t wander leftward or rightward on their way towards the heavens. Their mothers must have told them from an early age to stand up straight. What also fascinated me was the play of light within the woods, how one tree’s upper reaches might be caught by the day’s intense sun, while others only a few feet away were out of the sun’s direct path. Contrasts of this sort always have appealed to me.

Mazzaroth is Alison Stigora's construction of burnt tree branches.
Mazzaroth is Alison Stigora’s construction of burnt tree branches.

The sculpture I thought the most of in the woods was Alison Stigora’s Mazzaroth. It’s an assemblage of burnt tree branches fitted together tightly to portray . . . what? A serpent? The movement of time? As the years go on, Mazzaroth will crumble and become one with the forest floor, as will the trees surrounding it.

You’re not going to confuse many of the sculptures at Abington Art Center with creations by David Smith, Louise Nevelson or other deservedly famed artists. Few if any are on that level. Some though, like Mazzaroth, had me looking them over from different angles because I liked them a lot. Take two on the great lawn, for instance. They are placed near each other and are as different as they can be.

Cabin Van Gogh at Abington Art Center.
Cabin Van Gogh at Abington Art Center.
Partial view of bed and table inside Cabin Van Gogh.
Partial view of bed and table inside Cabin Van Gogh.

What is a lopsided small wooden cabin doing on the grass at Abington? Well, it’s a whimsical piece of art and is right at home there. Weather-beaten, cute and loveable, it contains within, of all things, a bed, chair and table lifted straight out of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of his bedroom in Arles, France. This work is Knox Cummin’s Habitation Suite: Cabin Van Gogh. Vincent I believe would have been charmed  by Cummin’s idea to build such an unlikely homage, and also by the view of foliage from the cabin’s open back side.

David Schafer's orange sculpture at Abington Art Center.
David Schafer’s orange sculpture at Abington Art Center.

Uphill from the cabin stands what looks a bit like a lifeguard tower painted in bright orange, some of its support slats atilt. David Schafer, the creator, named his piece Untitled Expression: How to Look at Sculpture. I suspect that the notions behind the giddy orange tower are partly conceptual. Sculptures, like just about anything, are multifaceted. No need to try and pin down a precise meaning. Observe, surmise and enjoy. One of my takes, subject to change, is that the sculpture is alive yet indecisive, that it is shaking out its stiff bones and readying to inch forward but hasn’t gotten into gear quite yet. And what’s going on with that public address system speaker? I remembered later that it had a practical purpose once, as a recorded message played from it for months after the sculpture was first installed about six years ago. Sandy and I were at Abington Art Center at that time and heard the message. If we were put into a deep hypnotic state, maybe we’d recall what the message was. Gone silent, to me the speaker now just looks cool.

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Outdoors At Last, At Morris Arboretum

Ocean, beach and sand cliffs on Cape Cod.
Ocean, beach and sand cliffs on Cape Cod.

Cape Cod has become a favorite locale for me and my wife. It was love at first sight when we first ventured there for a vacation in 1998. We like pretty much everything about Cape Cod, but the one aspect above all others is its expansive areas of startling beauty. The Cape’s Atlantic Ocean beach, for one example, is breathtaking, about 30 miles of it uninterrupted and basically undeveloped. In the off-season you can walk there as far as you like, gazing at the waters and the tall sand cliffs backing the beach, and there’s a good chance you’ll cross paths with nary another human. Not many places where such a scenario can be duplicated. And at Cape Cod’s outer reaches is one of the more astonishing vistas I’ve ever seen, a five mile long lunar-like expanse of enormous sand dunes and valleys. Most unusual, most unexpected.

Cape Cod’s natural world draws me outdoors. When Capeside my wife and I spend hours in the fresh air daily. Home in the burbs, though, it’s another story. Here I’m out when mowing the lawn or shoveling snow or shooting hoops at my neighborhood playground. Other than that I’m indoors most of the time, and I think this is because there’s a dearth of beautiful suburban places to get lost in.

Luckily for me, Philadelphia is at hand. It’s an old city and a new one, with great architecture and sights. Walking its streets and parks is an outdoors activity that I do a fair amount of.  On Memorial Day weekend’s Sunday, my wife had an inspired Philadelphia idea. Let’s visit Morris Arboretum, she suggested. We hadn’t been there in years. This would be a fine chance to spend time in a lovely green spot not far from home. Okay, I said. We drove to Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill section, where the Morris takes up a lot of space (167 acres). We spent three hours there. It was good to be outside for an extended period.

Morris Arboretum originally was an estate named Compton, home to siblings John Morris and Lydia Morris. They were wealthy, worldly and civic-minded folks. Their mansion is no longer with us, but Compton’s grounds and some secondary buildings remain. Established in 1887, Compton stayed in Morris hands till 1932, the year of Lydia’s passing (John had died in 1915). Lydia bequeathed Compton to the University of Pennsylvania as a botanical garden and research facility. The U of P has maintained and developed the property ever since.

Morris Arboretum has gotten a whole lot better since our previous visit. Back then a parent might have said to his or her five year old Amy or Andy, “Hey, look at that pine tree. Isn’t it beautiful?” and Amy or Andy would have responded “I’m bored, let’s go home.” The arboretum managers, obviously smart people, saw the need to build kid-magnet structures. Up went the Garden Railway in the late 1990s, and in 2009 Out On A Limb opened.

Morris Arboretum's Out On A Limb.
Morris Arboretum’s Out On A Limb.
Out On A Limb's play area.
Out On A Limb’s play area.

Out On A Limb is very cool. It’s an elevated twisting boardwalk, supported by steel columns and threaded between trees on a hilly part of the arboretum’s grounds. You enter at ground level and in a few seconds, because the earth slopes away quickly,  you’re looking down 40 or more feet at the forest floor. Walking alongside the mid and upper reaches of trees is a gas. Best yet is the play area at the walkway’s far end, where giant rope hammocks are suspended off to the side. Kids abound there. No wonder that attendance at Morris Arboretum has grown steadily since Out On A Limb came on the scene.

Morris Arboretum's Garden Railway.
Morris Arboretum’s Garden Railway.

Almost as invigorating is the Garden Railway. Nestled among trees and shrubbery near the Morris’s Rose Garden, it is a cleverly designed toy train layout. Passenger trains, freight trains, cable cars, tunnels, bridges . . . all are there in three large separate areas. So are natural-material replicas of famous structures, such as the Eiffel Tower and Philadelphia’s City Hall. The trains wind their way over, around and through, disappearing from view, eventually reemerging. My wife and I were intrigued by the whole set-up. It’s something.

The amazing Blue Atlas Cedar at Morris Arboretum.
The amazing Blue Atlas Cedar at Morris Arboretum.

It’s not a bad idea to stroll the arboretum’s grounds with no particular plan. That is to say, you won’t go wrong by not referring too often to the map you’re given at the information center. Morris Arboretum is a work of art, sculpted to display its trees, flower gardens, fern groves, swan pond and shrubs. Poking around them randomly works. Plenty of things, often green ones, will catch your eye. One tree in particular caught mine, a Blue Atlas Cedar. One of this massive being’s long lower limbs shoots out perpendicularly to the trunk, resting on the earth. The limb I think grows that way naturally. It doesn’t appear to have been forced into its strange position by windstorms or magic.

Sculptures by George Sugarman.
Sculptures by George Sugarman.
African Queen, a stone sculpture at Morris Arboretum.
African Queen, a stone sculpture at Morris Arboretum.

Manmade sculpture is another big part of the arboretum experience. Many such objects are placed on the grounds, continuing a tradition that John and Lydia began. The most colorful are the large playful and organically-shaped painted aluminum creations by the late George Sugarman. They’ve been on site since 1981. The most alluring sculpture to me is African Queen, a stone carving from Zimbabwe, artist unknown. How old is it? 50 years? 500 years? If the arboretum custodians have the answer, they’re not saying. Regardless, it’s a charmer. Pablo Picasso, who was greatly influenced by African art, would have loved it. The armless queen is asleep, her sweet face lost in dreams. The artist chose to depict her headdress as broad and undefined, focusing attention to the face below. A visit to Morris Arboretum, in my opinion, is incomplete without making time for this superb piece.