Karen Turcotte pulls her dark-rimmed glasses away from her face and lets them hang by their purple chain. Her blue eyes glimmer with intensity.
“It’s a locus,” she says, leaning forward to emphasize her point. “Years ago, I had a conversation with Lisa Kaplan about our Genius Loci, or the spirit of a place. Lisa stored it away and then brought it out for the reopening of EcoArts Sculpture Walk. It’s truly amazing.”
Her dark blonde hair shines against her light skin. “You can see it in the geographical triangle of the Middletown Art Center, Rabbit Hill, and Trailside Park. With locus, we start with a stake in the ground, something that says, ‘We are here.’” She gestures with each word, emphasizing the syllables.
For Karen, her stake in the ground centers around Trailside Park. She’s a sculptor, and, like many sculptors in the county in the early 2000’s, had nowhere in Lake County to show her work. So she presented her case to the Arts Council. In response, they gave her a choice of a mural or sculpture walk.
“Of course, we chose a sculpture walk,” she says, as though no question ever lingered in her mind. Her husband John Randall Williams sits beside her, sharing the story of the birth of EcoArts. These two have had a lasting impact on the arts in Lake County. From developing the first sculpture walk in 2005 to helping birth the Middletown Art Center in 2015, their reach has been broad.
“They gave us three choices for a location,” Karen continues. Her black outfit contrasts against the brightness of her spirit. “The first was Rodman Slough; then there was another one that was just horrible.” She pauses for a second, thinking. “I can’t even remember it. But as we pulled into the parking lot at Trailside Park, I bawled my eyes out. It was so perfect.”
“How many artists did you have for that first show?” I ask.
“We had four artists at first.”
“And you have a piece in the this year’s exhibit, correct?”
“I do. She reaches down beneath the table and pulls out a sphere of wrapped, glued jute. “I’m making a series of balls. The largest is going to be forty inches, and and one like this will be inside it, with an even smaller ball inside this one, filled with earth and wildflower seeds. The idea is that as the wind blows, the balls will roll around and spread flower seeds. I call it Tumbleseeds.”
She holds the ball in her glue-stained hands, twisting it around. “I was inspired by a video I saw about an Afghani refugee who built an inexpensive way to remove landmines by putting plunger-like attachments on a ball. Then, as the wind blew, the ball would move across the minefield and detonate mines. It showed me how to contribute artistically in the midst of devastation.” She smiles, her blue eyes glowing. “That’s the journey of the piece. From landmines to wildflowers.”
The morning sun still works upward as the group starts working on the piece, the first of Middletown Art Center’s LOCUS classes supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. A few people chisel wood from the back of the nine-foot oak artist Marcus Maria Jung found lying charred on the ground, leftover from the Valley Fire that burned nearly all the trees in the park.
Earlier, Marcus had placed three of these totems under the shadows of a giant oak that survived the fire. Right now, he’s pull-starting his chainsaw. Everyone steps back a bit as he cross-hatches the back of a log, then moves to ease an edge of the piece.
“I know another guy who does this with chainsaws,” Glenneth Lambert says as Marcus stands back eyeing the piece, his chainsaw idling.
“Is it bears?” Marcus quickly replies.
Glenneth pauses. “Well yeah. And other things.”
“It’s usually bears,” Marcus smiles, then shuts off his saw.
People move back to the logs, sanding, chiseling, smoothing. It’s a collaborative piece, and Marcus moves around it, guiding one person’s tool here, suggesting another person use sandpaper there. There’s a dynamic movement happening within the group, bringing out the innate beauty still breathing in a slab of burned wood.
RESURRECTION, Marcus named the piece. “Envisioning and shaping a future and a new world to come that is sustainable and grounded in a co-creative partnership with nature is the essence of this art piece,” Marcus wrote to me later. “In giving our attention to the scarred and wounded landscapes of our planet, we invite nature to come back, and healing occurs within and without.”
I step back and look, as the group continues their work. My eyes move from the darkness of the charcoaled tree, to the overarching branches overhead, to the mountains behind. They’re green with spring.
Instead of just grass, brush is popping up. Manzanitas and oaks work their way skywards. Sculpture studs the landscape. Even though Trailside is recovering, the changes here have been dramatic and profound.
Recently, MAC was awarded a grant from the California Arts Council to support an Artists in Schools project called Being Leonardo. This STEAM (Science, Engineering, Arts, Technology and Science) based project, integrates visual arts into core curriculum in select classes in each of Middletown Unified School District’s schools. About 450 students grades 3-12 will participate in a learning adventure that begins and ends in the park.
“The guiding question for the project is: what do we need to know to design artwork that assists the natural recovery of a disrupted ecosystem?” explains Lisa Kaplan, artist, educator, and Director of the MAC. “We have already taken six field trips to Trailside to expose students to the current state of the park and experience it as a living laboratory. Our goal is to provide them with a relevant, empowering learning and art-making experience in which they take action by designing and creating sculptures that support ecosystem recovery.“
Hence LOCUS, the stake in the ground for something new and beautiful.
Make sure to see Trailside Park and the rebirth of the EcoArts Sculpture walk before it closes on November 10th. It’s a chance to meet the artists, listen to local poets, and enjoy beautiful, collaborative art.
This article is an edited version of an article that appeared on May 31, 2019 to celebrate the re-opening of EcoArts.