Sculpture in the Garden

Grounds for Sculpture Water Garden

The Water Garden at Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey. (Nikon D200)

My last post was about ornament – on a small scale – in the garden. Time to think bigger now, especially for those of you like my blogging friend Deborah, who commented about needing a focal point at the end of her under-construction pleached Lime Walk.

Several summers ago, I visited Grounds for Sculpture, a 35-acre sculpture garden and museum in Hamilton, New Jersey. More than 300 sculptures dot the grounds, most of them cutting-edge contemporary, some in a ‘water garden’ filled with mist and fountains.

Grounds for Sculpture

OK, so a sculpture that looks like a Martian ship landing probably isn't going to work in most of our gardens. (Nikon D200)

Many of them (see above) were too large for the average residential garden, at least the ones I know. The trip reminded me, however, that carefully chosen and sited sculpture can add a tremendous amount of interest and visual excitement to a garden.

Here are some points to keep in mind in incorporating sculpture in a garden. Choose a piece because you like it, and think carefully about where you want it placed. Do you want to be able to view it from many places in the garden, and/or from a particular window in your house? Or do you want it tucked away for a visitor to discover at the end of garden path, a little surprise that makes the journey worthwhile? Formal marble statues look right at home in more traditional gardens, surrounded by lush plantings or clipped evergreens. Large abstract structures may need more open space around them, and backgrounds of trees or shrubs that are closer to their own scale.

wooden screens, garden sculpture

Wooden Nepalese screens that formerly hung in a client's family room now serve as sculptural elements in the garden.

wooden screens, sculpture in the garden

Uplit at night, the screens provide strong visual interest to the garden year-round. (Nikon D300)

Sculptural elements can be re-purposed from other settings. Some of my landscape design clients in Chevy Chase, MD recently mounted three carved Nepalese wooden screens, shown above, in their front yard as sculptural elements surrounding a new copper beech tree that has replaced a hickory tree downed by a lightning strike. To provide additional interest and highlight the screens’ addition to what is otherwise a traditional woodland-style garden, the owners have lit their sculptures for night viewing, giving the garden extended interest even after dark.

Mark Kramer, sculpture, garden design

Three sculptures by the owner add whimsy to this front yard design. (Nikon D200)

In a somewhat different situation, several years ago I designed the front garden of an architect who is also a sculptor. His front yard already contained a pair of free-standing figures. I suggested moving another, smaller red sculpture from the back yard to be placed in front of a new small patio next to the front of the house. Eventually, he plans to build a third sculpture for the junction of the original house and an addition to its right which he built several years ago. (I wanted a tree there but when we couldn’t identify one that would stay as small as he wanted, I said, “There’s the perfect reason to make another sculpture!”). To the greatest extent possible, I kept the plantings around the sculptures low and neutral, avoiding shrubs or perennials that I thought would compete with the playful metal figures that are the first thing that strike your eye when you pull up to the house.

In my “home town” of the metropolitan Washington DC area, the Hirshorn Museum has its own sculpture garden, described by the Washington Post as a “welcoming urban park” after its redesign and reopening in 1981. The National Gallery also has a Sculpture Garden directly across from the Gallery’s West Building entrance (don’t miss the playful “typewriter eraser” sculpture by Claes Oldenberg and Coosje van Bruggen near Constitution Avenue). Farther afield, interested visitors can visit Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey or the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York .

Na Aina Kai, Kauai, botanical garden

This frog sculpture, entitled 'Heavy Thoughts,' greets visitors at Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens on the island of Kauai.

Headed to Hawaii? On the island of Kauai, work in a visit to Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens on the North Shore, full of tropical plantings and a wide variety of sculptures throughout the garden’s 240 acres. Check each center’s website for hours and directions. You may find some inspiration for your own garden!

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9 Comments on “Sculpture in the Garden”

  1. gardeningasylum Says:

    I had not heard of Grounds for Sculpture – definitely added to the list! The Olympic sculpture park in Seattle is also very cool. Love love those screens, especially lit at night…

    • Melissa Says:

      Yes, the screens are wonderful. A very unusual element in a quite traditional neighborhood, but the clients have gotten many favorable comments on them. I’ll put the Seattle sculpture park on my wish list to visit – thanks for the tip!

  2. Melissa, that frog gave me my morning smile! And your post was wonderful, it gave me so many more ideas. I do love the idea of sculpture in the garden, had been leaning to something traditional, but bow will just go with what my heart loves. I will know it when I see it!

    • Melissa Says:

      Isn’t he terrific? That was the best piece of sculpture I saw in that garden. Yes, go with your heart as you search for the right piece of art to place at the end of that Lime Walk.

  3. Edith Hope Says:

    Dear Melissa, For me, sculpture in the garden is, as you rightly say, all about scale rather than style. Generally people are not brave enough about the size of ornament they choose for outside; in small spaces, surprisingly, as I am sure you know, the larger the piece more often than not the better it works.

  4. Sunny Says:

    Lovely post, I’m a big fan of garden sculpture, so its nice to see more mention of it:)

    • Melissa Says:

      Glad you liked the post. I think it takes a certain amount of vision to decide to put a significant piece of sculpture in one’s garden. I enjoyed your own post on the topic. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Although I am not a fan of modern art, they do work well in the gardens in your photos. Great tips for those who tend to place a sculpture in the garden and not give any thought to what is surrounding it. I love the frog best ;^)

    • Melissa Says:

      While none of the sculptures I’ve shown here are “traditional,” I’ve seen wonderful uses of that kind of art in gardens – just not when I had my camera with me! Choose something that appeals to you, and surround it with plantings that don’t compete visually, and you’ll be pleased, I think.

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