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The past decade has seen a boom in the creation of sculptural parks and public art installations—and the variety is striking. On a large scale, New York’s High Line, a repurposed railroad line 30 feet above Manhattan’s West Side between 10th and 11th Avenues, has featured temporary commissions by Sarah Sze, Kim Beck, Stephen Vitiello and others. The Crow Collection of Asian Art Sculpture Garden in Dallas, another mammoth project, transforms an entire city block with contemporary and historic sculptures from across the Far East, including Tibetan monk bronzes, a Japanese bell that can be rung, and Shi of East and West stone pieces. Such sprawling projects have gotten plenty of ink, and deservedly so.

Here, though, we take a look at three lesser-known, small-scale projects that are shaping the identity and character of public spaces in appealing ways, while providing interactive play opportunities and beautiful embellishments to parks, office buildings, museums and native landscapes.

Joy Park, Maplewood, MN. Emerging Snapping Turtle Discovery Play Design by Fireflies Play Environments, Inc. and Themed Concepts

Joy Park, Maplewood, Minnesota
Joy Park on the shores of Silver Lake, in Maplewood, Minnesota, became the site for a new public art discovery play area. Forecast Public Art consulted with the City of Maplewood to select an artist team. The artist design team of Camille Calderaro, MLA, ASLA, Fireflies Play Environments, Inc., Bob Lunning, of Lunning-Wende Associates, and artist Teresa Cox, was selected by the City of Maplewood for the new project. The team also included, Ben Erickson, Licensed Landscape Architect, for the technical grading and dimensioned site plans and stone artist, Roger Grothe, of Aloha Landscaping, for the site construction.

The sculpture park and discovery play environment comprises a layered elliptical land forms defined by a limestone amphitheater on the high end, a Cor-ten steel picnic pergola, and a massive snapping turtle, emerging from nearby Silver Lake. A stainless steel canoe sculpture, by artist Cox, refers to the historic human relationships with Silver Lake. The canoe is set among mass native plantings and prairie grasses. The design’s dominant piece is a mystic snapping turtle whose gaping mouth greets visitors. The mythic creature comes to life with the activity of playing children, who can climb on the turtle’s feet and tail, jump on it’s boulder studded shell and sit in its mouth. It is well integrated into the site, with its head and tail emerging though waves of little bluestem as if it were moving through the waves of Silver Lake.

“The overall site design speaks to the power of the natural world and our relationship with it,” Calderaro says.

Yin & Yang sculpture, Valhalla, New York | Photo courtesy of Joe Gitterman

Yin & Yang Sculpture, Valhalla, New York
Joe Gitterman is a late-blooming, Connecticut-based artist whose curving bronze and stainless steel forms are inspired by the movements of dance. His mirrored “Yin & Yang” sculptures, selected for the Bushnell Plaza Sculpture Garden in Hartford, are sleek light-reflecting forms that evolved from his first commissioned work, at a private Long Island residence. Mounted on large black wooden beams, the two mirrored and powder-coated sculptures are contoured in opposite directions to reflect different aspects of the neighborhood and the sky.

Another attractive incarnation of Gitterman’s Yin & Yang series is on display in the three-story glass atrium of the renovated S. L. Green Realty Corp. office complex in Valhalla, New York, where the bronze eight-foot tall sculptures are finished in a leather-like patina and elegantly balanced on a granite cube.

Other Gitterman sculptures are found in private residences, hotels, and sculpture gardens —even flanking the entrance to a 900-seat theater on the Norwegian Cruise Line’s new 4,000-passenger ship the Escape. His recent work has focused on the geometric possibilities of knots. A sculpture of this form called Healing Knot 1 is the centerpiece of a healing garden at the Arnhold Emergency Center in western Connecticut, designed by Eugene Reelick as a place of calm and solace for patients and visitors. “Philosophers going back to the Greeks have always made positive comments about the benefits of art to the quality of people’s lives. If you can have beauty around you, it’s a blessing; it makes your day richer,” Gitterman says.

Children’s Museum of Phoenix vegetable garden with Goric farm pump | Rendering courtesy of Laurie Lundquist

Children’s Museum of Phoenix vegetable garden, Phoenix, Arizona
The edible garden Laurie Lundquist designed at the Children’s Museum of Phoenix is a work of public art, a cooperative playspace, and a living learning environment all at once. Goric’s farm pump is used as a drip irrigation system for a series of raised vegetable beds arranged in the shape of a leaf. Children can use the pump for free play: to fill on-site watering cans or stream water down a limestone swale, representing the leaf’s stem and midrib. But the most innovative aspect of the design, Lundquist says, is that in the act of play, children will keep water loving plants, such as mint, alive.

Supported by a grant from the Hearst Foundation, the handicapped accessible garden is scheduled to open October 1. Lundquist’s design will be surrounded by fruit trees and used as the site of an outdoor learning curriculum and open-door workshop series hosted by garden educator Joan Caron. The project, Lundquist says, is the culmination of longtime interest in water conservation in the American West. “I’m working on the metaphor of water coming up and into the leaf, and illustrating that in the garden’s layout, with gravity causing water to flow to the bottom bed,” Lundquist says. “Water is a really important element in my work, and this time I’m inviting kids to be part of that whole process; learning about water doesn’t have to feel like education; it can be creative and feel like more like play.”

Lundquist’s other public art projects include the Marina Water Muse, a gauntlet of various sandstone channels, basins and siphons designed to provide beneficial circulation for the Rio Salado Lagoon, and the Sweet Acacia Project, a tenuous irrigation system in Scottsdale, Arizona, that delivers a bare trickle of water to acacia trees planted in the entry plaza of the Central Arizona Project water treatment plant.