Humans of Lexington | Melanie Van Houten

Melanie VanHouten Jsephine Sculpture Park

Announcement: Josephine Sculpture Park is Temporarily Closed 

If I had never heard of JSP and we met, how would you describe the park? 
We are a 30 acre park on reclaimed farmland featuring a rotating exhibition of nearly 70 contemporary art works to explore in the midst of native meadows.

The park has a special meaning for you as not only are you the founder and this is your home, but the property belonged to your grandmother.  What inspired you to make it a public art nature park?
My grandmother, Josephine always encouraged my creativity and I spent so much time outdoors playing all over this farm as a child. It was 100 acres back then, and offered so much to explore. Those experiences connected me to the land in a very intimate way, and I grew to care about the environment because of that relationship.  She also encouraged me to dream big and to believe in myself.  That was an incredible gift that she gave to me, which has bolstered my eagerness to share the property with others. She was very involved in her community as well, and I wanted to continue to honor that spirit of community and giving something back. I want all kids to have those kinds of positive experiences in nature, and that is how JSP came to be. 

What is your background?
I am a sculptor. I received a Master of Fine Arts from the University of MN in Minneapolis in 2002 and was teaching sculpture at St. Catherine University and exhibiting my work all over the country for several years before moving back home to Frankfort to build JSP. 

Are you an artist yourself? Have you had exhibitions and if so where? Although I began making art as a child by collecting objects around the farm and from my dad’s job sites to build collages and sculptures, I don’t make objects so much anymore. All of the work I ever made as a professional artist was about this farm, the lessons learned from my grandmother and the trauma of losing her at such a young age.  My work very naturally evolved from object making to large, site specific installations and earthworks into what exists now as JSP. Which I consider to be my life’s work. It is the culmination of all of those ideas into one huge 30 acre earthwork and creative place. When I was making sculptural objects and installations, I exhibited my work at the Minnesota Museum of American Art (MN), the Phipps Center for Art (WI), Franconia Sculpture Park (MN), and the Coalbrookedale Historic Site (Teleford, England).

Who are your biggest art influences and why?
Oh goodness, some of my favorites are Ann Hamilton, Louise Bourgeois, Wolfgang Laib, and Richard Serra. I am inspired by these artists for different reasons. Ann Hamilton is an amazing storyteller and using objects and materials to weave thick narratives about place. Her works are site specific and are immense in scale, sometimes taking over an entire building and they often involve people to activitate the spaces. I love that people become part of the story and the artwork. Louise was one of the few women working in sculpture throughout most of the last century. She was bold and unapologetic and her work ethic was unmatched. Her works were also very narrative and much about her childhood experiences. I found her work as an early undergrad and was drawn to it because she used everything to make sculpture. No materials or objects were off limits and I loved that, it opened the doors wide open for me. Wolfgang Laib is a minimalist is many senses, but the materials he chooses are intensely ephemeral and fleeting, for instance, he may create an entire composition from only one material… pollen that he collected the year before, to scatter a square on the floor that ebbs and flows almost imperceptibly in the subtle gallery air. They are poetic and beautiful. And the there is Richard Serra. These sculptures are massive in scale and also extremely minimalist in form and material. He used steel, primarily, to create sculptures that are large enough to be walked inside. He creates a space that you have never before experienced using one plane of one material. Once inside a Serra sculpture, you may feel disoriented due to the shift in the walls, they are not simply vertical, but are slightly off to create an overhang that may be comforting or claustrophobic. I find them to be quiet and also very beautiful in their simplicity.

If you could work alongside any one artist living or dead, who would it be and why?
Probably Louise Bourgeois. I always wanted to meet her and imagined what her energy and personality would be like, but I never got to experience it before she passed away in 2010. She was a trailblazer and she seemed to be able to build and imagine anything. 

Why do you feel art is so important to all of us?
Art is communication. It has a language of its own, but can speak to many. It is a way to communicate that which can not be said through words alone and it has the ability to enable us to consider new ideas and new ways of thinking. It can build bridges between me and “the other”. It can empower every single one of us and we all have the ability to make it, out of anything. I believe art can bring us together.

What tips do you have for someone that has never been to the park?  Where should they start?
I think it depends on what kind of person they are. For some, a visit to the website might be a great first step. You can download a map and some activities and get a feel for the kind of sculptures and programming that we offer. For others, an adventure may be the best path, and they can just visit and explore the park on their own. Either way, once you arrive at the park, you will follow the long driveway into the parking lot. You will drive right by our house, but just follow the signs and you will get to the parking lot. There is a small visitor center with water, restrooms, maps and activities (and popsicles). From there, you can go out into any of the park you like. The map divides the park into several color coded zones. It is a lot to take all in one day, so you can explore different zones on another visit. We also offer many different kinds of nature and art programming throughout the year for all ages and abilities. You can sign up to get our monthly email to know about all the cool stuff coming up, such as the Night Sky Tours and the Fall Arts Festival. Very few of the sculptures in the park are permanently installed, so new pieces come in each year and older pieces are removed, so it will be a little different each time you visit. We also offer field trips, and birthday party activities and people can call or email to get details about those. 

Is the park suitable for children as well as adults and why?
We believe the arts are for everyone and it is definitely suitable for all ages and all abilities. During normal times, nearly all of the sculptures can be touched and several are made to be climbed on. Currently, we are asking visitors not to touch the sculptures to do our part in flattening the curve. But even if you can’t touch them right now, they really provide a lot to explore. There are signs located at each piece offering insight and information about the work and the artists who made them. In addition, we offer art and nature programming for all ages and abilities too, which is now being offered online for families to do in their own homes or backyards.

Outside of JSP, do you have another favorite sculpture park?
I have a couple, one that is fairly close and worth a day trip is Sculpture Trails Outdoor Museum in Solsberry, IN (I think they may be closed right now, but when they open, you should check them out)!  and the other is a bit farther away, but also worth the trip is Storm King Art Center in New Windsor, NY. This is a 500 acre sculpture park featuring monumental scale sculptures in the beauty of upstate NY. It is breathtaking! (also temporarily closed, but check them out when you can)!

Do you have artists in residence at the park from time to time? Who has been your most memorable and why? 
Yes we do generally have 3-5 professional artists in residence each year between April and Oct. They live at the park while creating new artwork for exhibition. This is a great opportunity for visitors to meet artists, see them working and maybe even be part of creating the work through community workshops. In addition, we usually have 3-5 student artist interns who help take care of the park and assistant the artists in residence on various aspects of sculpture construction and installation, also during the warmer months. This year, we have also hired a permanent artist in residence who will live and work at JSP for an entire year! His name is Riley Fichter and he was able to arrive early this spring and will be here through March of 2021. Look for new sculptures by Riley this year! Picking my most memorable artist in residence is tough because they all bring something wonderful to JSP and our community. Our first artist in residence was Bridget Beck in 2010. That is very memorable because it was the first grant that I ever wrote. We received the grant from KY Foundation for Women and were able to offer Bridget a funded residency that year. She built the sculpture titled Watch which was completed through a community birdhouse building workshop that is still on exhibit and is a park favorite! (BTW we hope to bring Bridget back in 2021 to expand that sculpture!!) One other that I am very proud of is Chakaia Booker’s residency in 2017. She is a world renowned sculptor whose work I have admired for over a decade. We got our first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to bring her to JSP, and her being here as well as received that grant were both huge honors and accomplishments for our team.

How has COVID19 affected JSP and what can the general public do to help?
Well this is a new journey for all of us and we are trying to do our part to protect the public and our staff and to still be able to offer opportunities for people to get out of the house and experience art and nature. As I write this, the park is still open but we are making decisions daily based on the number of visitors we have and the updated guidelines directed by our Governor. We are changing our in-person programs to be available for free through social media, our website and our monthly emails. We have expanded to include some new virtual programs including nARTure Tuesdays and Sculpture Saturdays, both online by noon each week to support people at home and provide them with quality nature and art experiences, many that they can complete at home in their own backyards. We are encouraging park visitors to plan to visit at off peak times such as during the mornings during the week (Sat. and Sun. afternoon are the busiest) and to follow the posted guidelines, such as not touching sculptures and keeping 6′ between each other. These things will help us stay open so that people are able to explore the 30 acres of walking trails and 70 works of art on exhibit. We are a non-profit organization and the park remains free and open 365 days per year. We can only do that because so many people out there are able to make small donations that add up. People can make donations in any amount through our donation link on our website or at a donation box at the park and we thank each one of you in advance for your continued support of JSP, especially at this time.