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 century's progress."

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 Princeton University.

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 Hamilton streets.

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.

Garden variety

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 light bulbs.

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 up."

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 other.

"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 sun.

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 (

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2006 The Times. Used with permission.
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