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Following Follies
By: Ilene Dube, TIMEOFF 08/10/2006
Kevin Wilkes, who won several architectural awards for Writers Block two years ago, is at work on Quark Park in Princeton.
   Quasicrystals, psychoacoustics, geomorphology — concepts like these flow freely off the lips and out of the minds of scientists. The rest of us screw up our faces, trying to understand. Quark Park, brought to you by the creators of 2004's Writers Block on Paul Robeson Place in Princeton, uses art and garden design to help make accessible some of the cutting-edge scientific thinking of the day.
   Whereas Writers Block — a garden of architectural follies, designed for Princeton-area writers from Joyce Carol Oates to the late Peter Benchley — seemed to shoot up overnight, like Jack's beanstalk, Quark Park has been incubating in the minds of creators Kevin Wilkes, Peter Soderman and Alan Goodheart for a good year and a half.
   The crystallizing moment came on what Mr. Soderman recalls as a rainy day in November, when he enlisted the help of Arts Council of Princeton Executive Director Jeff Nathanson to visit renowned physicist Freeman Dyson at the Institute for Advanced Study.
   "We had a nice talk about science and art," says Mr. Soderman, who runs Bohemian Grove landscaping company, "and it was the beginning of a dialogue and the beginning of the synergy of Quark Park."
   "We talked about how contemporary art and science can collaborate in a way that traditional sculpture could not address," says Mr. Nathanson.
   John Nash (Nobel Prize-winning mathematician and subject of the film A Beautiful Mind) was sitting at the next table, Mr. Soderman recalls. "When we left, Jeff said to me, 'How do you feel about being the dumbest guys in the room?'"
   Mr. Nathanson remembers that it was Mr. Soderman who made that remark. "Peter's a very well-read, extremely intelligent person," says Mr. Nathanson. "As brilliant as Freeman Dyson is, we're both professionals in our fields and were able to communicate with mutual respect. He became intrigued with the idea and said he'd participate." Dr. Dyson has teamed up with fellow rocket scientist and Congressman Rush Holt for a project designed by architect Allan Kehrt.
   Scientist/artist teams were put together with help from Mr. Nathanson, who was president of the International Sculpture Center before coming to the Arts Council, and the Arts Council will provide programming at Quark Park in the fall.
   Like Writers Block, Quark Park is a temporary project — it will remain up through Thanksgiving. The "garden," an unsightly empty lot when the Wilkes/Soderman/Goodheart team is not working its magic, is ultimately slated for condominiums, but Palmer Square Management has once again made it available.
   Quark Park was originally dreamed up to be in place last summer, but fell short of its fundraising goals. While fundraising is ongoing — the scientists and sculptors have funded their own projects thus far, and Mr. Wilkes is still recovering from having dug deep into his own pockets for Writers Block — the original plan was to open the July 4 weekend. A soggy sweltering summer hasn't helped, but work is well underway for a slated Sept. 8 opening. Mr. Wilkes, an architect who runs Princeton Design Guild, is still hoping to raise an additional $25,000 for an outdoor stage where lectures, symposia and music can take place. Think Science-on-Saturday in a garden setting. Mr. Wilke's stage will be in collaboration with Princeton University's David Dobkin, whose field is computational geometry and geodesic structures.
   While an undergraduate at Princeton University, Mr. Wilkes designed sets and costumes for two dozen campus shows and studied scene design. He took three years off between his sophomore and junior year to work at McCarter Theatre, first as a scenic artist and then as assistant technical director, and designed stage sets in New York City. He won two major architectural awards for Writers Block.
   A three-foot wide path weaves its way through Quark Park, as if through a maze of sculpture and landscaping. Those watching the project during the month of July observed a large circular structure rise up at the center. Supported by massive perfectly straight tree trunks, it is what Mr. Soderman refers to as a "crop circle disco" or "arboreal Stonehenge." He alternately talks of using it for DJed dance parties — "If people in Princeton think there's no place to dance, there will be the next three months," he says — or as a labyrinth, and is working with the Labyrinth Society on the design. He plans tall grasses for the periphery.
   "A labyrinth is a circuitous path back to the center, and a maze is designed to entrap and deceive," says Mr. Soderman, carrying a copy of The Unending Mystery: A Journey Through Labyrinths and Mazes by David Willis McCullough. "A labyrinth leads to healing, if you believe that."
   As with Writers Block, corn is a major part of the landscape, arising unexpectedly in an urban environment. Practically speaking, it helps make a lush green curtain to hide the garage. But don't get out the butter just yet — this corn is ornamental, not edible.
   Described as a visionary by author Joy Stocke in Wild River Review, an online literary journal, Mr. Soderman says he is a "botanical autodidact."
   "Peter and I do this because we're interested in the challenge of something new," says Mr. Wilkes. "We've moved on from Writers Block and we're more sophisticated in experimenting with lighting, water and sound.
   "Unlike Writers Block, this is a garden you can touch and play with and hug and find new things on each visit," he continues. "It's slightly hidden in layers."
   Having assembled more than 42 members comprising 13 teams, Mr. Wilkes is hopeful the entire garden can be sold as a "realization" to an institution. "We'd love to move this to a space where it can be continually accessible to the public."

Quark Park on Paul Robeson Place between Witherspoon and Chambers streets, Princeton, will have its official opening Sept. 8, 6 p.m. Tickets cost $100. For information about fall programming at Quark Park, call (609) 924-8777. Quark Park on the Web:

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