Years ago, a Girl Scouts troop comprised of nine- and ten-year-olds toured Frankfort’s Josephine Sculpture Park (JSP) with JSP founder and director Melanie VanHouten. Upon arriving at Aaron Dysart’s decaying sculpture, “Relic,” one of the troop members stuck her head into the large hollowed-out log and immediately called for her friends to join her in studying the dangling chrysalis she found inside. Seizing the opportunity as an educational moment, VanHouten gave the group an impromptu lesson about metamorphosis and habitat. And that impromptu lesson led to the ringleader’s epiphany: “Who knew you could learn about science at the sculpture park!?”
In that moment, she says, Melanie knew the park was serving exactly the purpose she had hoped it would: using art as a means of connecting children and families to the environment.
Kentucky’s only sculpture park, JSP opened to the public in 2009 on the land once owned by VanHouten’s grandparents and where she spent much of her childhood. That land, and all that “land” entails, are integral to the park.
“We are a place for outdoor exploration, free play, a picnic, and inspiration,” says JSP program coordinator Jeri Howell. “The art is here and can be integrated in various ways, but so can all of the natural elements you can find in a park dedicated to conserving Kentucky’s native, rural landscape.”
Just like environmental education, Howell says, arts education is cross-curricular, and with this in mind, JSP strives not only to increase children’s access to arts, culture, and outdoor experiences but also to teach those children—and their families, teachers, and broader communities—how art and nature are intertwined.
“We connect, or sometimes reconnect, people with themselves, each other, and nature through art, environmental programming, and creative community experiences,” Howell says. “It motivates and inspires us every day to see this in action at Josephine Sculpture Park.”
And they do, in fact, see it in action every day. One way is through the guided field trips the park leads for public and private school classes and student camps.
“This summer, the Shelby County Migrant Education Summer Program (grades K-12) visited JSP for an all-day arts and environmental education workshop that also incorporated math and reading and writing,” Howell says. “Students rotated in groups by grade level between three main activities: introduction to tree identification and nature journaling; sculpture making with woven natural materials lead by JSP Summer Artist in Residence, Justin Roberts; and a sculpture scavenger hunt that allowed students to explore the park’s 30 acres of native meadow, young forest, and more than 70 interactive public art installations.”
This type of hands-on, interdisciplinary field trip is offered year-round at JSP, and their environmental educational programs like that arranged for the Shelby County Migrant Education Summer Program align with Kentucky Academic Standards in science and arts; they often integrate state reading and writing and math standards, as well.
“School visits to JSP are incredibly flexible to each school’s needs and resources,” Howell says. “You can visit for free any day of the year from dawn to dusk to explore the sculptures, do a self-guided tour or sculpture scavenger hunt, or have a picnic. Or you can engage with our experienced staff of professional artists and an environmental educator to develop a paid program that is right for you, your students, and your budget.”
The team at JSP not only strives to expose visitors to the interplay between art and environment but also to ensure that everyone has access to this kind of visit and learning experience. As they prepare to celebrate the park’s tenth anniversary this September, they are encouraged by the visible enthusiasm shown by students participating in field trips at the park and also by the ways in which they are making their space accessible to everyone.
“JSP is proud to have been committed to celebrating diversity and social justice from the beginning,” Howell says. “JSP’s residency program hosts artists from Kentucky and around the world, many of whom are women and artists of color. Over the past ten years, JSP has been recognized for our commitment to diversity with financial support from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the National Endowment for the Arts. We received the Community Service award from the Franklin County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). And this year, JSP was accepted into Welcoming America’s ‘Welcoming Network,’ an international network of governments and organizations committed to creating inclusive communities where everyone—including immigrants and refugees—can thrive.”
At their September 8 Fall Arts Festival, this emphasis on diversity and inclusion will take center stage.
“The festival is always an exciting time for people of all ages and abilities to engage with art in a very hands-on, exploratory way,” VanHouten says. “This year, we are particularly looking forward to our emphasis on diversity and inclusion with our featured guest artists, Heather Hart and Sherwin Rio, and our music stage, which features artists from a variety of genres and cultures.”
The festival includes more than 20 free hands-on art workshops; advanced paid art workshops like glassblowing and blacksmithing; live music; hot air balloon rides; face painting; food and drink; and much more.
At the festival, Hart will facilitate an interactive community art project that will inform her upcoming “Porch Project” installation at JSP, designed to engage community conversations around race and gender. Participants at Rio’s workshop will share stories from their respective cultures, and then create a miniature clay monument reflective of their story. This activity is inspired by his sculpture at JSP, which Rio shares “asks viewers to imagine a more inclusive, dignified, and reciprocative future achieved through the acknowledgement of and respect for immigrants, refugees, Indigenous, and people of color in a dominantly white historical narrative.” Rio’s workshop is part of JSP’s participation in Welcoming Week, described on the Welcoming Network’s website as “a movement among communities across the globe to bring together immigrants and those born within their countries in a spirit of unity to build strong connections and affirm that being a welcoming community for all makes us stronger economically, socially, and culturally.”
For the 10th Fall Arts Festival, the park is also expanding its environmental partnerships, hosting ten Kentucky environmental organizations, each with an arts and/or environmental activity, to inform festival goers of regional ecology and civic engagement opportunities. Additionally, JSP is partnering with Franklin County Solid Waste Management to make the festival a zero-waste event, which means all waste generated from this festival will go to its proper waste stream: reuse, recycle, compost, or landfill.
With ten years behind them, the JSP team has grand plans for the next ten years at the park.
“In the past year, we purchased an additional ten acres adjacent to the park that would have otherwise been developed,” VanHouten says. “On that ten acres, we are in the process of installing a native meadow and rehabilitating a tobacco barn to create more classroom, exhibit, and event space. This new expansion is another big way we can engage more people in our mission.”
In addition, they plan to expand their educational programming to include more summer and school break camps and develop financial partners in hopes of being able to offer school field trip stipends and program and camp scholarships for individuals.
“Knowing this is a place for the community to be exposed to new ways of making art and connecting with nature, as well as meeting people engaged in creative professions they never knew existed” inspires the team, Howell says. “Small surprising moments of collective joy and beauty in nature can remind us how similar we all are, despite our differences.”
Josephine Sculpture Park, an organizational member of the Kentucky Association for Environmental Education, is located in Frankfort, Kentucky. To learn more about the park and the upcoming Fall Arts Festival, check out their website here!