Using Art to Define Our Parks

September 1, 2015, Feature, by Paula Jacoby-Garrett

Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, referred to as the “Giant Bean” by Chicagoans, has become part of the city’s distinctive iconography.Over the past 50 years, art increasingly has been used in public parks and recreation centers in a variety of ways to create an interest and connection to the place. According to The Trust for Public Land, “Research shows that parks promote public health and revitalize local economies…they connect people to the great outdoors and to each other.” Individualizing parks through the use of public art can create a site that is meaningful, relevant and personal to the user as well as connect the site to the broader community.

Jack Becker, author of In “Public Art: An Essential Component of Creating Communities,” says public art can “engage civic dialogue and community, attract attention and economic benefit, connect artists with communities, and enhance public appreciation of art.” This type of connection cultivates a relationship to the place that evokes not only a personal association, but can also lead to site stewardship. “In essence, to connect with a place entails forming an emotional or imaginative attachment to the place. Such an attachment can be cultivated through art, since the artist has already formed a connection, and his/her art becomes a bridge for others,” explains Cheryll Glotfelty, co-editor of “The Bioregional Imagination: Literature, Ecology, and Place.”

To incorporate public art, a variety of factors, such as artwork medium, cost, maintenance, community support and relevancy, must be considered. Public art can include large, site-defining installations, temporary art works and nontraditional locations and subjects, as well as multisensory projects. Successful public art projects in parks and recreation centers are as diverse as the parks themselves.   

Go Big

Nothing makes a statement and provides more site recognition than a large public art piece created by a renowned artist. These types of installations typically are high-dollar endeavors that can serve not only the typical park visitor, but also can become a tourist destination as well as tell a broader story about the area.  

An example of an installation that provides site recognition can be found in Chicago’s Millennium Park, which houses the Frank Gehry BP Bridge. Gehry is known for his iconic designs and structures around the world, and this piece blends function with beauty. Millennium Park is also home to Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate structure, also known as the “Giant Bean” by locals. It is now not only the icon for the park, but also signifies Chicago and is a common tourist attraction.  

Florida’s Broward County installation of Alice Aycock’s Whirls and Swirls and a Vortex on Water pays homage to the area’s link to water through a large-scale dynamic metal sculpture that flows upward from the water’s surface. Culture Now, a coalition of professional design organizations, describes this piece as depicting the “dynamic and tumultuous weather patterns in Southern Florida and the gravitational forces present on the earth and throughout the solar system, illustrating the expanding universe and underwater marine life.”  

Tell a Story

Each location is unique and has a story to tell. Using site-specific artwork will enhance the site as a whole and provide for a deeper connection to the community at large. According to Becker, “Simply placing a sculpture on a street corner is not the same as designing a sculpture specifically for that site by considering its audience, environmental conditions, the history of the site, etc.” A challenge for site managers is to maintain open spaces as well as keep facilities up to date and interesting to the public. 

For artist Robin Brailsford, it’s all about the story behind the work, and she starts each project with extensive research. “I like to say that every project is like another master’s degree. I want my work to be true all the way through,” to be, “real, deep, functional, fun and timeless.” For Reunion Trails Park in Henderson, Nevada, Brailsford, with her partner Wick Alexander, wanted to relate the park to the Mojave Desert where it is located. Their Escher’s Lizards mosaic depicts larger-than-life, interlocking lizards that are based on native reptiles of the area. 

Wick Alexander’s work can also be seen in the recent remodel of Las Vegas’ Garside Pool, which LGA Architects states includes, “embedded fossils highlighted in the concrete, telling the geological history of Nevada’s past. Nevada’s geology is further emphasized by embedded fossils revealed throughout the foundation and retaining wall of the locker rooms.” The highlight of the site is Alexander’s Ichthyosaur, a near life-sized mosaic skeleton embedded in the concrete at the pool’s edge, almost as if the fossilized bones were just discovered and ready to be excavated.

At The Smith Center’s Symphony Park in Las Vegas, Nevada, Tim Bavington’s Pipe Dream tells the story of music by his visual interpretation of a musical composition using 128 steel pipes to create an arched wall. The center’s description of the installation states: “Each pipe represents a single note in Aaron Copland’s composition, ‘Fanfare for the Common Man, 1942’…The last pole,” which is unpainted, “represents a musical rest at the end of the composition.” The artwork serves as both a defining piece for the site as well as a backdrop for the outdoor stage. 

Public art can tell a story and spark conversation. For example, the story of Echo by Jaume Plensa in the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, Washington, is rooted in Greek mythology. Echo was a mountain nymph who was punished by the goddess Hera and deprived of speech except to repeat the words of others. At the park, the 45-foot sculpture with eyes closed in deep meditation looks over the Puget Sound. Plensa in a New York Times article spoke about the meaning behind Echo: “Many times we talk and talk,” he said, “but we are not sure if we are talking with our own words or repeating just messages that are in the air. My intention is to offer something so beautiful that people have an immediate reaction, so that they think, ‘What’s happening?’ And then maybe they can listen a little bit to themselves.”

Look Up

Looking for a new, inventive place for art? Look up! The space above is typically unused and can provide an unusual, yet appealing place for artwork. The awe-inspiring As If It Were Already Here sculpture by Janet Echelman is located 350 feet above the city of Boston. It’s a temporary art piece and will be exhibited from May through October 2015. Comprised of more than 100 miles of twine, the piece spans 600 feet, and includes more than half-a-million knots to create a colorful, fluid, moving sculpture that invites the eye skyward.  

Reven Marie Swanson’s Under the Swimming Pool adds visual interest to the Beck Recreation Center in Aurora, Colorado. This aerial, 44-foot-long, glass and steel art piece extends from the entrance vestibule to the lobby of the center. Swanson says this  bright, lively piece depicts swimming figures “swaying and dancing in a whimsical wave of colored light and shadows.” It adds visual interest to the center as well as depicts the message of well-being and balance on which the center focuses.


Using art that goes beyond the visual to our other senses stretches the visitor’s imagination and can bring nontraditional visitors to parks. Multisensory art can include sound, touch, smell or taste, either alone or in conjunction with a visual aspect. With approximately 20 percent of the population having some level of disability and with those numbers expected to rise, designing artwork that is multisensory is an approach to include this underrepresented segment of the population.  

North Carolina artist Betti Pettinati Longinotti worked with volunteers, many who were visually impaired and blind, to create a mosaic wall titled Blind Power, Tactile Wall that tells a visual as well as tactile story. Located at Tracy’s Little Red School House, part of the Winston Salem Industries for the Blind, this mosaic wall incorporated ceramic, glass and found objects to tell a child-centered story. Longinotti worked with volunteers to depict features of the school, including the resident miniature horse and the children themselves.  

Auditory artwork is uncommon in art settings but also offers a unique way to connect with the park visitor. Soundworm, the first student-created public art installation on the campus of Rice University, incorporates a visual design as well as a sound component. The aim of the project was “to engage Rice University’s campus as a whole through the medium of sound. Microphones are placed in different locations across campus and the various sounds collected at the five sites are transmitted to five respective speakers, all of which are embedded within the Soundworm — a bright yellow sculpture constructed of steel pipe and adjacent to the campus library.” The microphones are mobile and can be placed anywhere across the college campus. The sounds “create a symphony of college life” in association with the visual art piece.

Be Whimsical

Catching the visitor’s eye with a whimsical, out-of-place, piece of art functions well to create a lasting impression and a buzz. For example, Seattle’s Parking Squid by artist Susan Robb looks less like a bike rack and more like a sea creature that has just crawled out of Puget Sound and is guaranteed to provoke notice and conversation.  

Some areas are a challenge to make interesting and inviting, but a bit of creativity and imagination can make these places new again. Seattle’s Ebb and Flow public art piece by Kristen Ramirez uses shapes and symbols of local flora and fauna in bright colors to energize a once dreary, unattractive, concrete tunnel. This now vibrant portal along the Burke-Gilman Trail is a visual treat for walkers and bikers.  

Keep It Changing

Using temporary public art works keeps a site continually new and interesting for visitors. Many large municipalities have established temporary art exhibit programs with regular solicitations and funding. These art works can range from established professional artists to student-led designs. Keeping the public informed about new and changing installations through promotions and the press is an effective way to drive interest and visitation.  

New York City’s Art in the Parks program has an extensive temporary arts series that brings traditional and experimental arts to the public. Jeppe Hein’s Please Touch the Art runs from May 2015 to April 2016 in the Brooklyn Bridge Park and is the largest exhibition of the artist’s work in the United States. Composed of several distinct pieces, these art works are designed for visitor interaction and immersion. Appearing Rooms is a dynamic piece that uses jets of water to delineate spaces or rooms that are constantly in flux. Mirror Labyrinth NY, composed of vertical mirror-finished steel, arranged in fluid arcs across a green lawn, is a play on the Manhattan skyline. Visitors can move among the steel pieces that create a maze of reflected images from the installation itself, the visitors and the city beyond. Hein has also created a quirky set of modified “social” benches across the park that in the New York Observer are said to “peak, twist and bend along with the existing landscape.”

Sculptor Stacy Levy’s artwork is about showing natural patterns and change. In her Straw Garden, she used traditional baroque garden design with contemporary landscape restoration materials to create a changing art piece. Located under the Space Needle in Seattle as a six-month temporary exhibit, the natural materials of her artwork slowly biodegraded, illustrating change and process in nature juxtaposed with the formal garden setting.  

Nomadic Labyrinth by the artist Paz de la Calzada, “reflects [her] vision of creating art that is playful and in dialogue with urban space, and…[explores] the relationship between art and spirituality, daily life and ritual.” This large, portable labyrinth is constructed of carpet and is not only visually appealing but also serves “as a walkable path for the public to explore as an urban meditation.”

Pop-Up Parks

The pop-up park or parklet movement is less than a decade old and is literally popping up all around the country. These small, short-lived green spaces are typically installed for one day. They beautify spaces and can highlight particular locales to promote visitation and, often, bring economic benefit to the area. In 2005, an annual event called PARK(ing) Day was established to temporarily transform parking spaces into small-scale public parks. Each year this movement has been growing; in 2011, more than 975 parks were established in 162 cities in 35 countries.

No matter the size or budget of your park and recreation centers, there is an opportunity to include public arts into your sites. Be creative with space and look for opportunities to place art in unexpected areas. For those municipalities with limited funding, artwork doesn’t have to be expensive — look for opportunities to collaborate with local arts education programs at schools and universities. As we look forward to the next 50 years, individuality, innovation and personalization are important to forming a connection with park visitors and building a successful public art program.

Paula Jacoby-Garrett is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas, Nevada.