A Park Celebrated From What Once Was A Field Of Stones
Sunday in the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City on the afternoon of Sept. 29th was a family day- a day for exploring and touching and discovering what can be formed out of stone, metal, wood and clay. It was a day of celebration marking the 10th anniversary of the opening of the park on the Long Island City waterfront.
This unique outdoor cultural complex is dedicated to the Greek philosopher Socrates in recognition of his search for truth. It is appropriately situated near an area which has the largest Greek population outside of Athens.
The history of Socrates Sculpture Park began with the purchase of what was once an illegal dumpsite. It took almost a year to clean up, landscape and prepare the grounds for the placement of the sculptures. Now this park site in Queens has become an expanse where people and art can interact in a place of light and air. This was a community project with the people in the neighborhood doing the work to improve their environment.
The sculpture project was an outgrowth of the Athena Foundation, which was created in 1977 by sculptor Mark di Suvero to encourage the arts. Bordered by the East River on one side and the factories and warehouses of Long Island City on the other, Socrates Sculpture Park serves as an artistic oasis amidst a setting which reflects the busy life of the city. The walkway along the river, with its passing barges and tour boats, gives a splendid view of Manhattan. Below the banks of the river are painted rocks, driftwood and remnants of old boats so that even the waterfront becomes a work of art. Here, the pathway is lined by giant chimes the sound melodiously in the breeze. This "Wind Gamelan", created by Bill and Mary Buchen, and made of plastic, aluminum and stainless steel, can produce a tranquil atmosphere.
In these pleasant surroundings, families come to picnic, enjoy the outdoors and discover new ways of looking at art. The smell of pine wood shavings accompanies the viewer as he or she walks among the forms of bronze and granite, aluminum and wood. During the exhibition, children could be seen exploring in and out and between the modern sculptures; some were painting in water colors at a large table near a booth where one could purchase T-shirts and various catalogs about the park.
Adding to the festive occasion, the sound of music could be heard throughout the park with different groups performing on a portable stage. Led by Bill Buchen, listeners were treated to the haunting strains of the hand drum and wooden flute of the Luminus Ragas followed by the music of the Electric Village, featuring an electric saxophone. The audience was then entertained by a dance company called Le Ballet Merveilles de la Guinee. Ken Butler ended the program with experimental jazz selections.
Adjacent to the museum area is an enormous outdoor workshop where works of art are constructed right on the premises. Other sculptures are built elsewhere and then transported to the park. Some are displayed through the courtesy of various galleries. The sculptors hail from all parts of the United States, from Europe and Central America, and the collection of artworks is always changing.
During the anniversary gala, some 38 artists exhibited their figures and designs at the outdoor museum. In addition to seeing what the artists have accomplished through chiseling, carving, casting, and welding, this was a day to meet them and speak to them about their skill. The opening was so well-attended, however, that it was difficult to distinguish the artist from the viewer without some means of identification.
The functioning of Socrates Sculpture Park is a result of the conjoined endeavors of the City of New York, the Borough of Queens, the Department of Cultural Affairs, the Department of Ports and Trade, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts and the Queens Council on the Arts in addition to the support of individuals, foundations and local businesses.
Socrates Sculpture Park is open every day from 10 a.m. to sunset. (One word of advice to the visitor: wear sneakers or sturdy shoes, especially after rain, as the saturated ground is very muddy and wet in certain sections.) The anniversary exhibition will continue until Apr. 1, 1997. Admission to the park is free. Workshops are offered to local high school students, and on Saturdays in the summer art classes for children are held. Parking is available along Vernon Blvd.; the entrance to the park lies at the intersection with Broadway. For public transportation, take the 'N' train to the Broadway stop in Queens and walk eight blocks towards the East River. The telephone number to obtain further information is (718) 956- 1819.
Janet Collins is a contributing writer for the Gazette.