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Beneath the trees, beside the stones

“An Idea Takes Root”

Andrew Mayn

Contributing Writer

 Thirteen years after its inception, the Joseph Beuys Sculpture Park is still growing strong.

A cool wind rustles the low canopy of oak branches at the Joseph Beuys Sculpture Park, sending a shower of red, yellow and orange drifting to the ground. The fall foliage is bright and on display. Students wade through the leaves. They crunch them under their feet and kick them up in swirling storms. When the leaves settle on a bench, the park is silent.

The UMBC community has Renee van der Stelt, former Museum Educator and Registrar, to thank for that silence. Her efforts, in conjunction with participation from more than 21 partner organizations, helped bring the sculpture park to campus.

The park was inspired by the legacy of German artist Joseph Beuys, founder of the 7000 Oaks Project, that helped rejuvenate the war-torn city of Kassel, Germany. The project, described by the Center for Art Design and Visual Culture website as “social sculpture,” was introduced to the community with a simple postcard bearing the words “An Idea Takes Root.”

Community involvement was central to the project in Germany, and that approach was featured in the Baltimore project’s conception. UMBC students planted the park’s 30 oak trees, and placed the 30 granite stones beside them, in the spring of 2001.

The trees were decorated with artwork made by children from Baltimore schools who had worked to plant trees in their own neighborhoods. The children and their parents were then invited to visit the sculpture park.

Van der Stelt’s passage from the book Open Spaces, Sacred Spaces (available in the AOK Library) expands on the significance of this: “Most of the children were city kids who had never been to a university. We showed them a way that their education could continue.”

The park was celebrated most recently in October 2010, and again in May 2011, with music and dance compositions that reflected the spirit of the site. The second of these celebrations featured original compositions based on entries from the park’s public journal, a small green book tucked inconspicuously beneath one of the park’s main benches.

The park’s impermeable quiet is a fitting backdrop for the range of experiences housed within the journal. Whether it’s the moonlit silhouettes of the trees or the indifferent scurrying of the squirrels, there is a quality to the space that invites honest expression. The journal, intoxicating with promise of both anonymity and an audience, has proven to be a valuable record of campus highs and lows. According to van der Stelt, President Freeman Hrabowski himself is said to have enjoyed reading the journal.

But regardless of a student’s affinity for quiet places or journal writing, surely we can all hope for a legacy that is as enduring and vibrant as the trees at the Joseph Beuys Sculpture Park.