Art, science thrive in garden
Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Special to the Times
Day by day, a garden filled with fanciful sculptures is emerging on a
vacant lot in Princeton Borough where dozens of artists, landscape
architects and scientists have collaborated to create Quark Park, a public
garden in tribute to local science.
This public art garden is blooming with lofty scientific ideas, from
neuroscience to fusion energy, that have been transformed into sculptures
and installations rising up like hallucinations. The garden, surrounded by
tall corn stalks, sunflowers and plants, is centered around a circular
cement stage representing a quark or subatomic particle.
It will remain on the small lot on Paul Robeson Place between
Witherspoon and Chambers street until late November. The lot is eventually
to be developed into 100 luxury condominiums
The garden is the brainchild of architect Kevin Wilkes and landscape
architects Peter Soderman and Alan Goodheart, the same team that brought
Writer's Block to the site two years ago. That installation, which paired
artists and writers in fanciful "writer's follies," became a popular
attraction and won the 2004 National Honor Award from the New Jersey
Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
"We're artists and we create things and this is creating something,"
Wilkes says. "We are trying to create a garden that reflects the 21st
Wilkes noted that last year was the 100th anniversary of Albert
Einstein's theory of relativity. "We didn't want to repeat ourselves, so
we moved into a different realm," Wilkes explains. "We thought, 'Why not
do it in sculpture and science, being that there are 50 Nobel
Prize-winners who have resided here?'"
The garden has brought together teams of scientists, artists,
architects and landscape architects to create the sculptures. In the
process, artists and scientists have found common ground. As artist Rein
Triefeldt puts it, "The art and the science work in the same way, really.
It's just that the end result is a little different conceptually. It's the
exact same process."
A true collaboration
For weeks, Wilkes, Soderman and their
team were at site, doing the hard work of the project: pouring the cement
for the paths leading through the garden and the central stage. They were
there sweating through 100-degree-plus temperatures as artists and
scientists stopped by to install their work or chart its progress.
Meanwhile, the artists and landscapers labored away, putting finishing
touches on their illustrations of science.
The collaboration opened new worlds to all involved.
"As an artist, you spend a lot of time working on your own and it's
very exciting to have that interaction," says sculptor Nancy Cohen, who
worked with molecular biologist Shirley M. Tilghman, president of
Cohen's challenge was to understand and translate into art the
microbiological research into the sense of smell.
"My science background is limited, and a long time ago, but that was
actually exciting," says Cohen. "It's always interesting as an artist to
come up with a new kind of challenge. Everyone was confronted with ideas
that were really new to them."
The "Writer's Block" consisted of a series of installations based on
the work of Peter Benchley, Fran Lebowitz, Emily Mann and Paul Muldoon.
One of the installations can still be seen at the corner of Chestnut and
But while the Writer's Block was successful in many ways, it was a
losing proposition for Wilkes and Soderman, who plunged into $40,000 of
debt. Their plan to raise funds by selling the installations when the
garden closed didn't work.
"We lost our shirts," says Soderman.
Determined to learn from their mistakes, they decided not to go ahead
with their next project until they had funding in hand. This year, they've
raised $25,000 and hope to raise another $25,000 through events such as
the grand opening planned for Friday.
Wilkes, who was at the site last month with a towel draped under a
safari hat to protect him from the brutal heat, says he will have to cut
back on certain features if the funds don't come through.
"I'm excited about what we have going on, but I'm always nervous about
money, always concerned," he says.
The artists and landscapers are donating their time and work to the
project, as are Wilkes, Soderman and Goodhart.
Soderman, a Princeton native, is tall and
intense, while Wilkes, who came here to attend Princeton University and
ended up staying, is a soft-spoken Southerner from Georgia. Soderman
jokingly says he wants them to become the "court jesters of
synchronicity," but adds that Wilkes is "more like 'Father Knows Best.'"
Soderman helped build the Herban Garden on Witherspoon Street and Paul
Robeson Place across from the library and has worked on several other
gardens in town. He recently received a "sustainability" award from the
Princeton Environmental Commission for his community work.
Wilkes, an architect with the Princeton Design Guild, has been spending
most of the summer supervising the work at the garden before reporting to
work at his architectural firm.
For the scientists and artists, the project was a challenging one.
As Cohen of Jersey City set out to show the neurological path of the
sense of smell, she wanted to create a sculpture that was at once artistic
and accurate. She created an arc of rainbow discs with loops coming out of
them that look like buttons, then worked with electrical engineer Jim
Sturm, also of Princeton University, to install colored wires connected to
The discs represent cells that detect smells, while the loops depict
receptors, the wires stand in for axons and neurons, and the light bulbs
serve as the brain as it responds to different smells.
Tracey Shors, a neuroscientist at Rutgers University, does research
into the part of the brain called the hippocampus that regulates various
types of memory. She has been studying the changes that occur in the
hippocampus in response to learning and how those changes differ between
men and women.
Working with artist Steve Weiss of Princeton and a landscape architect
from Cobalt Design Inc., she came up with a bamboo grove with two spheres
that represents the hippocampus. Weiss created male and female masks
sprouting wild branches that will adorn each side of the bamboo. Shors
printed photos of brain cells that will also adorn the bamboo grove.
Shors has enjoyed the conjunction of science and art.
"I like the idea that artists are, in some ways, like scientists.
There's a bit of creativity in science, so I've always been attracted to
art and artists and what they try to do."
Weiss, who teaches anatomy at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts,
says he also enjoyed the association.
"I greatly enjoyed reading her articles and trying in a modest way, not
to trivialize her ideas, but to make them visually compelling."
Something new under the sun
U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-Hopewell
Township, and scientist Freeman Dyson will have their work on alternative
and solar energy represented by a sundial at the garden.
"The architects, landscapers and the builders are really thoughtful and
very skilled," Holt says. "I was impressed with how they think about
problems and how they turn creative ideas into something that will stand
For Triefeldt, a sculptor in Trenton, the challenge was finding a way
to represent the complex research taking place at the Princeton Plasma
Physics Laboratory by Rob Goldston and others into the production of
fusion energy through a stellarator that reproduces the high temperatures
of the sun to produce energy from hydrogen atoms.
"What I've done with Rob is, first of all, to try to understand what's
going on here and then turn it into a poetic visual metaphor or just
change it around and use my own language and vocabulary," he says.
The result is an installation using a metal stellarator frame that
looks like a lunar landing module. It holds a representation of a
plasmacore in which a juniper tree inside a resin sphere will rotate using
solar power. Another part of the exhibit uses magnets inside a tube that
repel each other and then collide and join to create a sphere.
When organizers paired Perry Cook, a professor of computer science with
a joint appointment in music at Princeton University, and artist Jon Shor,
the two made an amazing discovery: They live across the street from each
"I wondered why there were giant chunks of granite in my neighbor's
yard," says Cook.
Shor created a semicircle of rectangular granite pillars that look like
a xylophone or fence. As Shor cut and broke the granite, Cook recorded the
sound. He then placed tiny microphones inside the granite pillars.
"He had never heard the sound inside his rocks before, so we had a
great time," Cook says. "It was pretty cool."
When visitors pick up a metal bar at the installation to hit the rock,
they will be able to hear both the sound of the rock breaking and the echo
from inside the rock.
At the back of the garden is what looks like a smokestack teepee with
birch branches created by artist Holly Grave Nelson with scientist George
Philander, who researches weather and ocean currents. The smokestack will
eventually create changing weather conditions of clouds, mist, rain and
A small trellis on the other side will have a concrete table where
visitors can play the game of mancala with rocks and beads. It's based on
the work of George Scherer on the conservation of concrete and stone.
Behind it is a larger wooden trellis with dozens of hand-blown glass
bulbs strung from the ceiling over trees. The installation by Bob Kuster,
a glass blower from Belle Mead, was based on the research of Naomi
Leonard, a scientist who works on robotics and artificial intelligence.
Other sculptures are based on the work of Lincoln Hollister, who
researches the formation of mountain ranges, and Paul Steinhardt, whose
work is focused on cosmology and the cyclical universe.
Wilkes hopes he can find a home for all of the sculptures when the
garden closes, preferably an institution that will purchase them together.
Then, if they can find another space, perhaps Wilkes, Soderman and
Goodheart will think about another sculpture garden.
The grand opening will take place Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the
park. Tickets are required. For information, look online