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The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

The Nature of Art in Nature

Posted by | May 30, 2017 | Filed under: Culture

The following was published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition, 6/4/2017, and Making It At Home's 6/7/2017 issue.

When I first visited the Wells Reserve for a job interview five years ago, I discovered a sculpture on a lawn at the end of the trail to Laudholm Beach. I was struck by the way a simple metal hoop globe (an “armillary,” I later learned) brought out the immensity of the ocean behind it. I knew then that if I got the job at the Wells Reserve, I would try to bring more sculptures into the natural environment at Laudholm. Art placed in nature can bring out the best aspects of both.

The Wells Reserve envisions a healthy Maine coast where human and natural communities thrive. I’ve tried to keep that guiding vision in mind when proposing new ventures: how will the new project make our communities better? What will we learn? How will we thrive? And in the case of sculpture, what’s the point of art at a nature preserve devoted to coastal science?

Working with Maine’s renowned curator of outdoor sculpture, June LaCombe, this spring has been one of the more interesting projects I’ve worked on in my career. Together, we have put up an outdoor sculpture show that opens this week on the grounds of the Wells Reserve and runs through Columbus Day. June is a genius at choosing and placing sculpture. As a former [and forever] environmental educator, she understands that the art she selects is not only beautiful. It also gets people outdoors to appreciate, and perhaps even ultimately protect, our natural world.

How does art do that? I think that artworks out in the world force viewers to pay attention and to recognize, or remember, the beauty that surrounds us all. Encountering a piece of meticulously-made sculpture in the middle of a field or forest can knock a person out of a nonchalant and passive uptake of nature. Researchers and naturalists and birders and farmers pay close attention to the natural world, certainly, but most of us aren’t any of those things. Instead, we spend our time outside doing yard work, playing sports, or, in my case, dwelling on the worries inside my head.

It’s a very distracting world we live in, and it was a long winter, made longer by the daily news from Washington, D.C. The new administration has the world a-twitter and on the march. We’re all being forced to embrace a little more chaos in our lives. Change is hard, and many people I know are reporting higher levels of stress and distraction.

Nowadays, I need more of a nudge to calm my mind and focus my attention. I’ve discovered that the sculptures here at the Wells Reserve do that. Art in nature refocuses my vision so I can return to the present, see the place anew, and even probe its deeper meanings.

Any protected place, far from the madding crowd, can be a refuge. The Wells Reserve wants to be everyone’s reserve: a place that’s beautiful, accessible, small enough and large enough to be… enough. Mystery and wonder and beauty abound in this world, if we but pay attention. Art in nature can show us how to do that, because each artwork is a tangible expression of attention. How does a sculptor capture our moving world in stone or metal or wood? By paying attention, by looking deeper, by watching and documenting and interpreting change.

I’m hoping that, throughout this year, each of us will block out some time to pay attention again. I know I’m thinking more about what all our society’s striving, arguing, and politicking are for. What’s the point of all the fighting we’re doing lately? To me, what’s valuable, what’s worth fighting for, is waiting right outside our doors: the natural world. Art in nature has pushed me to remember that.

Visitors to the Wells Reserve this year will discover science and art through our ongoing programs and workshops, and also through concerts, readings, festivals, and the POWER OF PLACE outdoor sculpture exhibition and sale. I’m hoping those who come here will be inspired to attend more to the world around them, starting with this little-known corner of Southern Maine. I think everyone who visits will find something worth paying attention to, and perhaps even saving.

Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His monthly column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and present, distraction and attention. More at

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