By Annette Hinkle
It’s hardly what you would expect to find tucked away behind Sag Harbor’s Main Street, not far from the post office and near the public parking lot by the IGA.
But there it is nonetheless — a new secret sculpture garden.
And it’s open to the public.
The serene and meditative space is lined with gravel paths, benches, plantings, a rock lined basin that transforms into a water feature after a heavy rain — and at its center is a massive willow tree anchoring the garden.
But the real highlight is the artwork that punctuates the space — sculptural pieces offered by three Long Island artists; Steven Zaluski who lives near Great South Bay, Jerelyn Hanrahan of Oyster Bay and Springs-based artist Dennis Leri.
The space is actually property of Dodds & Eder, the outdoor furnishings and landscape design shop on Bridge Street which just celebrated its first year in Sag Harbor. Until recently, this long forgotten patch of land adjacent to the sales room was hardly a space one could envision as a meditative sculpture garden.
“It was like a trash heap,” confirmed Dottie Simon, president of retail operations for the company. “There was a propane tank and it was overgrown. But the fact they saw potential was amazing. They said we can level this out and make the tree the focal point.”
“They” are the landscape crew of Dodds & Eder headed by designer Andrew Belding who was able to envision a garden where others saw a dumping ground.
While the landscaping comes naturally for the folks at Dodds & Eder (it’s part of what they do, after all), curating an outdoor exhibition space was not familiar territory. Though Stacy Pinero, the firm’s sales and marketing coordinator, has a background in both fine arts and landscape architecture, she felt a little advice was in order when it came to selecting work for the new space.
“We reached out to the East End Arts Council asking for guidance and someone who could come on board able to assist us,” explains Pinero.
That someone was Dominic Antignano of East End Arts Council who also oversees a sculpture garden at Peconic Landing in Greenport. He soon joined the project as guest Juror and helped Pinero and Simon refine their vision.
“It wasn’t about us,” explained Pinero. “He was saying not to create a theme, but select work that would have an appeal to everyone. We wanted it to be appropriate to the space, not thematically, but we wanted the pieces to have a natural or human quality to them.”
In the end, the three sculptors chosen for the inaugural exhibit each bring a unique vision to the space. The pieces are very different from one another not only in form, but color and texture as well — but they each offer an organic quality that compliments the space without dominating it. This Saturday, June 2 from 6 to 8 p.m., Dodds & Eder hosts an opening reception for the sculpture garden’s inaugural show.
While the garden itself is fairly symmetrical in design — with neat rows of boxwoods punctuated by day lilies, hydrangeas, liriope grasses and that massive willow tree anchoring it all — the placement of the artwork is not.
“Less is more and we want to give each piece breathing room,” explains Pinero. “You don’t want be too literal and create symmetry. An even number is a bad thing. We’re thinking about maybe trying to incorporate one or two more pieces, but Dominic said the beauty is you can swap pieces out. A month into it we can have an opening with new art.”
The most local of the three artists showing in this first exhibit is Dennis Leri, who has worked in Springs for 20 years and responded to an open call for artists put out by Antignano. He’s not only an artist, but a guiding spirit as well and he helped Pinero and Simon realize the importance of what they were doing.
“We fell in love with Dennis Leri,” admits Simon. “Because we’re venturing into something we’ve never done, he invited us to come to his studio in Springs. He was so welcoming and inspired us to continue on with this project and not be afraid. We were asking, ‘How do we pick what everyone likes?’ And he said, ‘Start with what you like.’”
It’s advice well offered. Leri is an artist who obviously trusts his instincts and his studio reveals that balance is a key element in everything he does — both in a physical and metaphorical sense. He starts his sculpting process with maquettes — miniature cardboard cutouts representing metal sheets or forms — that are assembled with a hot glue gun to mimic the shape of the final piece he envisions. Creating depth of meaning using the minimal number of elements possible is his ultimate goal, and one that continually pushes Leri to explore what’s possible in the art form.
“My aim is to get the purest form possible with the least amount of material on it,” explains Leri who was strongly influenced by the late sculptor (and neighbor) Ibram Lassaw.
Leri typically works in series, and while his three pieces on view in this show are all very different from one another, they each represent a specific theme he has explored through his artwork in recent years.
“Hedgerow #2” is a bright red sculpture made of strands of rebar anchored to an abstract base of overlapping metal plates. Inspired by a sculpture garden created by Silas Marder and a plant he saw growing at the Marder family’s nursery in Bridgehampton, the color stands in marked contrast with the green of the garden surrounding it, yet the piece references the tall grasses that grow wild just beyond the fence bordering the property.
“I picked the red because it has texture,” explains Leri. “I use that color a lot, out here especially because the area is so green. In winter in the snow it’s beautiful.”
Conversely, “Talk to Me” is a slender construction of dark metal plates that are welded perpendicular to one another. Leri explains that the tall rectangles and curved shapes represent the way in which people relate to one another — or not.
“I always find that people don’t talk to one another, they talk at each other and don’t listen very well,” says Leri. “This series is about relationships and communication. Ibram talked about one plane connecting to another plane. The curved shapes could be feminine or they could represent stability.”
“We have very little control over this world – this is the little world I can control,” he adds. “I want people to talk and I want them to relate. That’s how things happen that are good. Everything supports something else. You can’t have this one without that one.”
Perhaps most personal of Leri’s pieces on view in this show is “Arrival-Departure.” The tall black piece resembles a slightly skewed frame with a door set at an angle within it. Depending on where the viewer is standing, the door can appear to either be opening or closing.
For Leri, the piece is a metaphor on life.
“Because I’m getting old — I’m in my 71st year – you think about cycles,” admits Leri. “When your child has a child, you can go back in the ground. The cycle is complete.”
“I was thinking of heaven, and the notion of the gates,” he adds. “If you look at the piece it’s a doorway but a little skewed. There’s a little circle on top that you can interpret anyway you like, and as you move around it opens and closes. It’s arrival and it’s departure. It’s a life cycle.”
“That’s why I chose to make it flat back – a neutral,” he adds. “A red would make it a whole different thing.”
Leri notes that having a venue for sculptors to show their work on the East End is important, but something that has been lacking since the Benson Gallery in Bridgehammpton, one of the few that featured sculpture, closed a number of years back. For that reason, he is more than happy to help Simon and Pinero make the Dodds & Eder sculpture garden a success.
“That’s why we were lucky to find Dennis,” says Simon. “He gave us the pope’s blessing and said, ‘You’re not crazy. You can do it and you can also do so much for the village and the artists.’”
The artists opening reception for the new Dodds & Eder Sculpture Garden, located at 11 Bridge Street in Sag Harbor, is this Saturday, June 2 from 6 to 8 p.m. The work remains on view throughout the summer and the garden will be open to the public daily until around 8 p.m. For more information, call 725-1175.
Top: Dennis Leri’s “Arrival-Departure” (foreground) and “Hybrid” by Steven Zaluski (at right). Michael Heller photo.