At Play in the Land of the Giants

By Johna Till Johnson and Vladimir Brezina

It started like any other kayak trip.

The night before, we prepared. We made sure we had our paddling equipment (life jackets, spray skirts, tow ropes, pumps and sponges). Navigation gear (compasses, GPS, charts). And clothing: it’s definitely the season for drysuits now, with plenty of insulation underneath. And pogies–can’t forget the pogies! (Pogies are kayaking “mittens” that allow your bare hands to grip the paddle, but simultaneously sheath them in delightfully warm neoprene.) The Jetboil, so we’d be able to make hot coffee during the trip. And food, water, all the usual.

Unfortunately, Pier 40, where we normally launch, is still closed due to the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy. Plus, the Coast Guard is still limiting recreational boating in New York Harbor as the cleanup proceeds. Boating is now permitted during daylight hours, but not after dark—and with the days this short, it’s hard to guarantee we’ll make it back in daylight.

So the plan was to take our folding boats up the Hudson, well north of the city. Vlad has his new-ish Red Heron.  Johna has inherited his original K-Lite (which she’s dubbed the Baby Vulcan, named for the Vulcan III, a tugboat she fell in love with during the tugboat races earlier this year).

Sunday morning, we were up at 5:30 AM. The rental car was packed and ready to go by 7:15. At that hour, there was no traffic, and we arrived at the boat launch at Ossining at 8:45.

All was going according to plan, in other words.

Then reality intervened, as it so often does….

“Boy, it’s cold!” Johna said, rubbing her gloved hands together, as we stood outside the car, the boats and gear in bags on the concrete launch.

“Sure is!” Vlad agreed. Okay, so we knew this. It was 34 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the car’s external thermometer. But it was a cold 34 degrees, with a brisk wind that stripped the warmth from our bodies almost immediately. Even with heavy jackets and gloves, our fingers were getting cold and stiff.

And we had another hour or more to spend assembling the boats. With practice, you can put a folding boat—particularly a small one like the K-Lite—together in 10-15 minutes. But Johna’s inexperienced, and the last time it had taken us well over two hours to assemble both boats and launch.

Two hours in this chilly wind? With fingers getting colder and stiffer by the minute? Assembling a folding kayak takes some fine motor skills—and our fingers were already getting numb.

We wandered out to the edge of the boat launch, where we were exposed to the full force of the northwesterly wind. Big mistake: whatever warmth we had left dissipated from our bodies.

Back at the car, we looked at each other. At the boats, neatly packed in their bags on the ground between us. At each other again.

“Do we really want to do this?” we said, almost in unison.

And then we put the bags back in the trunk of the car.

You need to understand… we aren’t quitters. We’ve gone out plenty of times in questionable conditions.  And we’d gotten up early, and made special preparations. And, and, and…

But it was cold. We’d be hypothermic before we even launched—sometime around 11 AM, at this rate. Which would give us just a few hours before dark (which falls around 4:30 PM this time of year). And oh, did we mention we’d have to disassemble the boats at the end of the trip? That would take another hour or so.

The paddle-to-work ratio just didn’t seem to be worth it.

But what next? Once we’d decided not to launch, the entire day opened up. It wasn’t even 9 AM….

“Do you want to go to the Storm King Art Center?” Vlad asked.

Vlad explained. The Storm King Art Center is an outdoor museum and sculpture garden that features works of artists like Alexander Calder, David Smith, Richard Serra, Roy Lichtenstein…: large sculptures, some dynamic, spread over many acres of woods and hills. He’d been wanting to go for a while.

Johna isn’t much of an arts buff (or so she thought). But traipsing around on a brisk late-autumn day sounded just fine. A few pretty works of art around the edges—well, that would be just icing on the cake.

It wasn’t long afterwards that we drove through the gates of the Storm King Art Center, headed up the long winding path, and parked in the mostly-empty lot.

“Momo Taro”, by Isamu Noguchi (aka “Alien Egg”)

What to look at first? The first piece that caught our eye was a large white sculpture that looked vaguely like a coconut husk.

“Alien egg,” Johna dubbed it. It turned out to be “Momo Taro”, by Isamu Noguchi.

Through the woods down to the creek…

Beyond that, though, was a line of trees on top of a steep slope that led down to a creek, glimpsed at the bottom through the bare trees. Hmm… running water… After a moment’s consideration we decided to head down to the water. (We are paddlers after all.)

The running water beckons to us…

… serene, up close

At the bottom, the creek burbles over the rocks. Vlad takes pictures. Johna looks at the rocks, wondering what they’d feel like under her bare feet. Despite the gloomy, overcast day, we’re feeling energized. Something about the woods and the creek—not to mention the brisk hike in the outdoors—has us feeling both in tune with nature and eager to explore. It’s not kayaking, and certainly not how we expected to spend the day—but it’s an adventure!

We head up the hill and look at more art.

Art: A new adventure!

“Suspended,” by Menashe Kadishman

Some of the sculptures seem as though they’re inviting us to play with them…

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Others are sly and quietly whimsical, designed to blend in with the landscape…

“Low Building With Dirt Roof,” by Alice Aycock

“Nostoc II,” by Patricia Johanson (we think—although these could just be random rocks in the wood ;-))

Even after all this, though, Johna is  skeptical about her ability to truly appreciate this kind of art.  That’s until we catch a glimpse of a dark wooden form against the trees. It could be just a crooked tree branch, or….?

“Ex”, by Gilbert Hawkins

“Do you think that’s art, or natural?” Vlad asks.

We peer through the trees. “Art,” we decide.

Up close, it looks like a cockeyed cross, on top of a small rise. Dark wood, jaggedly held together, like an abstract of the cross on Golgotha.

Something about it is ineffably sad.

We draw closer. It’s definitely art. And unlike some of the other pieces, it’s not harsh, or brash, or ostentatious. It’s simple, open. And sad.

And beautiful.

It’s not listed in the brochure—but we find, set discreetly into the ground some distance away, its identifying plaque. It’s “Ex”, by Gilbert Hawkins.

We stare, take photos, stare some more. And when we turn away, somehow all the rest of the art looks different. More real, somehow.

A graceful, silvery motion catches Johna’s eye. It’s down in a little valley in front of us. “Let’s go down there,” Johna says.

“Three-Fold Manifestation II,” by Alice Aycock (in the foreground)

So we make our way down another hillside, past a series of sculptures as different from each other as they are from what we’ve seen thus far…

“Shogun”, by Isaac Witkin

“Reproduction of Easter Island Head”, by unknown

“Catskill”, by Manuel Bromberg

After a while, we find ourselves at the base of the shimmery silver object. It’s definitely moving… it appears to be drifting on the breeze..

“Sea Change”, by George Cutts

“Statue” doesn’t do it justice. It’s misleading, in fact—there’s nothing static about this art. Its two arms wave, appear to bend,  in their dance around each other create delicate shapes in the air with their feathery tips.

It’s “Sea Change”, by George Cutts.  And we can’t take our eyes away from it. It’s both astonishingly beautiful and an intellectual puzzle. Are the two arms identical? Do the patterns repeat? We figure out after a while that the arms are rotating in opposite directions. And the patterns do repeat. But we still haven’t decided if the arms are identical. We think not, but it could be just a trick of the perspective.

After that, everything seems different.

One end of the “Gazebo for Two Anarchists: Gabriella Antolini and Alberto Antolini,” by Sia Armanjani

We chuckle at the dry wit of “Gazebo for Two Anarchists: Gabriella Antolini and Alberto Antolini,” by Sia Armanjani, which features two identical seats, each with its own entrance, facing each other but separated by a long hallway.

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We inspect various abstract shapes that we come across, scattered here and there in the terrain….

Unidentified (probably recently relocated)

… marvel at the scale and delicate graceful balance of what look like giant steel logs, balanced precariously on each other…

“Adonai,” by Alexander Liberman

… and speculate about the size of the giant dinosaur that left these droppings. “If we see the creature that left these, we’d better run!” Vlad concludes.

“Spheres,” by Grace Knowlton

But what’s this, off in the distance? It looks graceful and primitive…

“The Arch,” by Alexander Calder

It’s “The Arch”, by Alexander Calder. And Johna is beginning to discover some artistic sentiment in her engineering soul… She finds she’s drawn to many of the Calder pieces, as well as a few by other artists. (Vlad has always liked Calder, too.)

“The Arch,” by Alexander Calder (with small Vlad to provide scale)

Untitled, by David Von Schlegell

We continue to explore…

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“Foci,” by Chakaia Booker

“Mother Peace,” by Mark di Suvero

We come to something that looks like a series of dark squiggles against the sky. It’s on the top of a hill. To Johna’s eye, it appears to be an abstract of a warrior holding a sword and shield, but we have to climb the hill to learn what it’s called…

“Frog Legs,” by Mark di Suvero (with other interesting figures)

“Frog Legs”? Ooooooh-kaaaaaaay…. Johna is not particularly enamored of Mark Di Suvero’s work (and this is just the first of his pieces that we come across), although she appreciates its forceful energy.

She is, however, enticed by the smooth steepness of the hill on which we are standing. What a wonderful hill to sled down, but there’s no snow….

… so she decides to roll down it, laughing as she spins around faster and faster…

… until she’s dizzy enough to have to stop!

Dizzy Johna in the foreground. “Mozart’s Birthday” (left) and “Jambalaya” (right) by Mark di Suvero in the background

“Mozart’s Birthday” (black work in the foreground) and “Mother Peace”  (orange work in back) by Mark di Suvero

We’re now in the South Fields section of the Art Center, where some of the largest and most dramatic pieces are…

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“Beethoven’s Quartet,” by Mark di Suvero

“Beethoven’s Quartet” (foreground) and “Pyramidian” (background), by Mark di Suvero

“Pyramidian”, by Mark di Suvero

It’s a long walk from piece to piece…

And it’s a looooong walk from piece to piece! The sun, which has now come out after a couple of brief snow showers, is low on the horizon. The temperature has dropped a few more degrees, and we’re thinking about calling it a day.

… and the sun is low

The darkening woods

But we have seen something off in the distance that looks different, unusual somehow—even in this lineup of distinctly unusual pieces.

There it is, through the darkening woods… a strange triangular shape.

But what is it?

“Three Legged Buddha,” by Zhang Huan

We draw closer to have a look, and yes, it is what it seems: a three-legged Buddha, one leg on its (his?) head…

“Three Legged Buddha,” by Zhang Huan

The scale is dramatic. We marvel for a while, and then turn toward home.

Is this art, or some part of the Art Center’s drainage system?

En route, we encounter more whimsy: a concrete marker with a “your face here” opening…

… a fence made entirely out of mirrors, which shimmers and flutters in the late-afternoon light, reflecting the dry leaves that drift past in the wind…

“Mirror Fence,” by Alyson Shotz

… abstract shapes made out of curious material—old tires…

“A Moment in Time,” by Chakaia Booker

And at last, tired but happy, we’re back where we started, ready for the drive back to the city.

Last look: sunset over “Pyramidian”, by Mark di Suvero

Yes, it started like any other kayak trip. But it ended with us at play in the land of the giants—and exploring the world from a whole new angle.

A whole new look at the world: the best  kind of adventure!

38 responses to “At Play in the Land of the Giants

  1. What a great day. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Wow! I wanna go there! (On a warm day!)

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Me too! It will be different next summer, they get different installations throughout the year…. but I’m sure there is plenty of fantastic outdoor art in Shanghai, too!

      • Awesome , I like how they rotate around! Shanghai does indeed have an outdoor sculpture park, but I imagine it feels a bit less “wild”. I haven’t made it out there yet. Gonna have to wait unitl spring haha.

        • Johna Till Johnson

          The rotating thing is really, REALLY cool. And yes, sometimes outdoor parks are best enjoyed in the summer….

  3. Looks like you guys had a great time! Maybe even more fun than kayaking? :). Sometimes the adventures we don’t plan can turn out to be the best!

    • Johna Till Johnson

      So true! I wouldn’t say MORE fun than kayaking… no such thing… but definitely worthwhile! And speaking of unexpected adventures, totally loved your “refuge” writeup. Plus the concept of respecting the silence–also a great mantra!

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Sometimes, freezing your butt off just to go for a paddle isn’t worth it, especially when the alternative is some place as fascinating as this. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      :-) Actually it wasn’t our butts we were worried about, it was our fingers… but yes, you’re right. Thanks for reading!

  5. Great post, great photos, cool art park.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thank you! Particularly nice to hear from a fellow photographer since Vlad mourned he didn’t have his “nice” camera–all the shots were taken with the waterproof kayak one.

  6. I loved reading this post. Isn’t it amazing the range of emotions that art can evoke? I’ve never heard of this place, but now I want to go there.

  7. these r awesome where’s that park?

  8. wow if I ever visit NY I’d sure visit it :) thnx Vladimir am doing it now :)

  9. That sounds wonderful – I hope I get a chance to visit it sometime!! (We had a great day last summer wandering around “Grounds for Sculpture” near Trenton.)

    • I’ve been to a number of such parks too, and what’s special about Storm King—apart from the unusually large number of high-quality works—is the sheer size of the place (500 acres), which means that the pieces don’t interfere with each other, but instead often complement each other from a discreet distance…

      I would imagine a sunny day in the Fall, when the leaves are starting to turn color, is the best time to visit… the park is closed now in any case (we were there on the last day it was open this year) until April.

  10. What a fantastic adventure, and wonderful pics too. Thanks for taking me along . Some of those artworks are really stunning. The three-legged Buddha is awesome, and I love Gilbert Hawkins’ ‘Ex’, and the ‘Sea Change’ and..and..and.. :D

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks Sylvia! The most amazing part–for this (former) non-art-lover—was how visceral the materials (and dynamics) can be. Motion and the choice of materials really change these from static images to full-immersion experiences. Chakaia Booker’s work in old tires combines fierceness and softness, and there is simply no way to capture “Sea Change” without being there…. I’m converted!

  11. Everything for a reason. Looks like the day turned out to be a HUGE success after all. Three legged Buddha? Not sure what I think about that one, but Mother Peace is right up my alley. :-). And those waving arms! That must have been fun to see. Thanks for the excellent adventure.

  12. I love this place. Vlad don’t discount it when the new leaves are just coming on the trees. The new green infects the art work in a great way.

  13. The Easter Island head looked real. Nice story and images.

  14. Thank you Vlad and Johna for a wonderful post – I should plan to go up there (on a warm day!).

  15. I went to Storm King several years ago but I certainly missed a number of the sculptures. I think I took almost the exact photo of Suspended that you did. I’ve been seeing more of these large art pieces lately and they are intriguing. Is it art? I don’t know, but I do like being around them. I couldn’t get enough of The Bean in Chicago, and this past weekend we went to the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan and was spectacularly rewarded. Better luck next time canoeing.

    • Everybody takes that same picture of Suspended—that’s why there is that bald spot in the grass just below. However, looking at the picture now, I realize I should have stood under the middle of the suspended block rather than to one side—it would have been more convincing ;-)

  16. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge: Monument | Wind Against Current

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