The United States is often described in artistic terms. It is a melting pot overseen by a master chef. Or a patchwork quilt stitched together with diverse threads. Or, my personal take, a masterpiece of pointillism—a dot painting that calls us to explore those tiniest dots on the map. But sometimes you can just explore some artistic efforts with a simple walk—after a drive. The following are eight of my favorite sculpture strolls. Just point your Winnebago there, then wander.
In 1999, Rapid City businessman Don Perdue spearheaded a project that was brilliant in its obviousness. He figured that the City of Presidents, gateway to Mount Rushmore, should have a Presidents Walk. Through private donations and with the efforts of a handful of dedicated sculptors, the dream was made a reality.
Grab a locator map at the Presidents Information Center (at 631 Main Street, it has an interior design based on the Oval Office), then stroll a half-dozen blocks along Main Street and a half-dozen more along St. Joseph Street. On nearly every corner, you’ll find a life-sized bronze statue of one of 42 commanders-in-chief (President Obama’s will be added after he leaves office). In fact, you’ll see the presidents in action. Jefferson is penning the Declaration of Independence. Harry Truman is holding the infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” newspaper. John F. Kennedy is holding the hand of John Jr.
There is no rhyme or reason to the locations of each. As William Howard Taft is preparing to throw out a first pitch (he was the first POTUS to do so), Martin Van Buren sits somewhat forlornly across the street. And Ronald Reagan stands just a few dozen steps from George Washington, who happens to be standing in front of a Starbucks. Just picture the “Father of our Country” ordering a grande Americano.
New Bern is considered part of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, but it is coastal only in the sense that it sits majestically at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers. Named after Berne, Switzerland, this town is over 300 years old and boasts a lovely historic district. It is home to the first permanent state capitol building (it was North Carolina’s first capital). It is the site of Tryon Palace, the former palace of British Governor William Tryon. And that’s right across from the impressive North Carolina History Center, which isn’t too far from the New Bern Firemen’s Museum.
It is a bear of a place, literally. New Bern is known as Bear Town. The high school football team is the Bears. The local establishments have named like Bear Essentials. And local artists and corporate/civic sponsors have joined to create life-size, hand-painted fiberglass bears that have been placed throughout the town— the Bear Town Bears.
There are a couple-dozen of them in downtown New Bern and nearly as many more scattered throughout the outskirts of town. They have names like Captain Black Beared, Barrister Bear, We Care Bear, and Tooth Beary (sponsored by the Kincaid Family Dentistry). Harvest Bear is an overalls-wearing fellow sponsored by the New Bern-Craven County Farmers Market. Sailor Bear, sharply dressed in Navy blues, is sponsored by a local retired military man. Bearer of Rights, sponsored by the local Whitley Law Firm, features a bear draped in the Bill of Rights.
Of course, this is more than just public art. It is a means of combining business and artistry, a statement of community, and—yes—a way to entice visitors to wander the streets of New Bern. So it’s one way of putting the city on the map, which can be a bear.
Oh, the places you can go—like the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden in Springfield, Massachusetts. Yes, Springfield is the birthplace of Theodor Seuss Geisel, who is to picture books what Mozart is to music. He’s the best children’s author. And he’s the best illustrator. It’s as if Babe Ruth could also soar like Michael Jordan. Yeah, you could say I’m a fan.
Tucked between a collection of art, science and history museums collectively known as the Springfield Museums, the $6.2 million sculpture garden features bronze depictions of the poet-cartoonist and his most beloved characters, each lovingly sculpted by a woman named Lark Grey Dimond-Cates, who happens to be Geisel’s step-daughter. Here, some of the most enduring and endearing characters in children’s literature come to life: Horton the Elephant, Sam-I-Am, Thing One, Thing Two, even the Grinch.
The Lorax stands on a stump in a far corner of the Quadrangle, just in front of the Springfield Science Museum, affirming the museum’s environmental education mission. And the sculpture of a 10-turtle-tall tower from Yertle the Turtle balances in front of the Museum of Fine Arts. Geisel, himself, makes an appearance, too. He’s sitting at his drawing board…with the Cat in the Hat is looking over his shoulder.
Walk around Sioux Falls, and you feel like you’re walking around an art gallery with options (the 55 sculptures primarily scattered along charming Phillips Avenue are for sale) and with attitude (you can judge—and vote for—your favorite).
The sculptures are owned by the artists and loaned to the exhibit for one year. From May to September, the public can vote for their favorite sculpture. Since 2004, the winner has received the “People’s Choice Award.” That sculpture is purchased by the city as part of its permanent collection. Winners have had names like “Coming Home” and “Summer’s Distraction II” and “Circle of Friends” and “World’s Her Canvas.”
The rest of the masterpieces are for sale to the public—in 2015, the prices ranged from $3,900 (for “Embrace” by Lance Carleton and “Courtship” by Jerry McKellar) to $75,000 (for “Abraham Lincoln” by James Maher). And the notion is spreading throughout Sioux Falls. There are sculpture walks at the local Avera McKenna Hospital, at the University of Sioux Falls, and at the University of South Dakota’s Vermillion campus. Good ideas tend to spread.
Meijer Gardens is truly a Grand Rapids jewel. It is a 158-acre botanical garden and outdoor sculpture park, but also a children’s playground, a boardwalk hike through wetlands and a sort of landscape art gallery (during our visit, Dale Chihuly’s blown-glass masterpieces were masterfully coordinated with the surroundings, as if part of it).
But my favorite spot amid the children’s playground is the Great Lakes Garden, a depiction of the five Great Lakes, their shapes and relative positions largely accurate—only this is meant as a place where kids can maneuver plastic boats through the waterways .There are bits of trivia carved into the concrete sounds of each faux lake, allowing kids to digest big geographic concepts in playful ways.
Did you know that Lake Erie is the warmest of the Great Lakes? That more than 4,000 shipwrecks have occurred there? That there are 172 species of fish to be found there? Did you know that the Great Lakes could cover the entire continental United States with water almost 10 feet deep? Through this interactive mini-replica, kids (and let’s be honest, adults, too) are able to learn this while holding plastic boats. It is education disguised as entertainment—intellectual exercise via imagination—and that’s the best kind.
If you can combine a sculpture garden and a natural backdrop, all the better. Chattanooga’s charming Bluff View Art District is not far from the downtown center and quite close to the Tennessee Aquarium, yet it feels like you’ve waltzed into a small European village. Only this one overlooks a sweeping bend in the Tennessee River. During our visit, we marveled at the architecture of the three turn-of-the-century restored homes that constitute the Bluff View Inn. We walked across the Walnut Street Bridge, a 123-year-old pedestrian bridge that stretches 2,376 feet across the river to Coolidge Park. Along the way, we watched the riverboats and paddleboarders and kayakers below us.
One of the highlights, however, was the River Gallery Sculpture Garden, which first merged creativity and natural beauty back in 1993. Designed by landscape architect Joe Baasch and located on two acres along a cliff above the river, it inspires through creations with names like Icarus and Cubist Angel. Which seems appropriate because, like many sculpture gardens, it offers a heavenly stroll. The sculptures are intriguing. The ambiance is serene. The view is magnificent. The combination is almost perfect.
America is a sculpted place. Think of our icons—the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the Gateway Arch. And let’s not forget the wonders sculpted by nature, from the Grand Canyon to Delicate Arch. But sometimes it’s a pleasure to experience a combination—man-made works that celebrate nature’s wonder.
Like Tatanka: Story of the Bison, a mile north of Deadwood, South Dakota. But while Deadwood is an attempt to capitalize on a place’s history (perhaps even embellishing it a bit), Tatanka is a more subtle attempt to remind folks of a piece of history that has received far less attention than it deserves. It’s not so much a walk as a gawk. But it is undeniably powerful.
The brainchild of Kevin Costner (and who isn’t inspired by Dances With Wolves?), Tatanka offers an interpretive center and a Native American gift shop. But the centerpiece is a dramatic sculpture of 14 bison pursued by three Native Americans on horseback. Honestly, it feels like you’re in the middle of a hunt. It’s a powerful feeling.
A walk around Nyberg Park in the tiny hamlet of Vining (population 78) is a bit of a journey into the psychedelic. Go there (it’s in central Minnesota) and visit Big Foot Gas and Grocery. You can’t miss it. It’s fronted by a sculpture of an enormous coffee cup suspended by a stream of coffee. It looks as though it is being poured by an invisible giant. Next to the gas station is Nyberg Park, where it gets even weirder.
It’s actually named for Karen Nyberg, a NASA astronaut who spent a total of 180 days in space. But it was created—out of pride for his daughter—by Ken Nyberg, a kindly fellow with an offbeat imagination. A lifesized sculpture of an astronaut sits in the middle of the space—clearly, the proud papa didn’t think he needed to make that any bigger than life. But everything around it is. There are a bunch of oversized creations in this supersized sculpture garden– an immense watermelon being sliced by a knife as big as a canoe, a colossal set of pliers, a massive square knot, a giant elk, a huge potted cactus.
I met him Nyberg few years ago at his workshop, which is about a mile up the road, not too far from the 20-foot-tall clothespin that looks down on the tiny Vining post office and the 1,200-pound foot (complete with swollen big toe) that was his very first creation. I asked Ken why he does it, and he gave the answer I should have expected: “Why not?”