I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
May 23, 2015
Nearly 15 years ago, I visited Nashville’s Cheekwood Botanical Gardens for the first time, and felt like I had stepped inside a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel. You can lose yourself for hours at Cheekwood, wandering through its enchanted mazes of pathways that lead to vine-covered grottos, hidden sculptures, and scenic vistas. Since we’re lucky to live just ten minutes away, I resolved then that Cheekwood would one day be my own children’s Secret Garden, and I went right home and bought a family membership. We’ve had that membership ever since.
Today, my children are eight and eleven years old and they know the paths of Cheekwood nearly as well as their own backyard. We’ve celebrated Christmases and Easters at the gardens, created countless masterpieces in its art rooms, enjoyed picnics by the pond, and watched musicians and dancers perform on the lawn. We’ve held scavenger hunts in the mansion on rainy days and done homework beneath the trees on sunny ones. We’ve read lots and lots of books there, and I’ve taken lots and lots (and lots) of pictures.
Consequently, my children have strong opinions on Cheekwood’s seasonal installations– So when I was invited to a media tour of Cheekwood’s Jaume Plensa: Human Landscape, led by the artist himself, I made sure my daughter could tag along, too. After all, she is a Cheekwood authority. And if her opinion is any indication, trust me when I say that Human Landscape is something your children won’t soon forget.
We had actually already looked at most of Plensa’s sculptures when visiting Cheekwood a week ago, while the installation was still being assembled. When she saw them, Punky was simply confused — and I didn’t have any easy answers. After all, how do you explain this to an eleven-year-old?
But once Jaume Plensa (pronounced ZHOW-may PLEN-sah) explained his intentions behind each work, my daughter’s perspective changed. This work, for example, is called Heart of Trees. Here’s a description from Cheekwood:
Among the 9 large-scale outdoor works is Plensa’s 2007 Heart of Trees, in which seven seated bronze figures, based on a self-portrait of the artist, are each covered with the names of the artist’s favorite composers. Each seated figure “embraces” a live tree; Cheekwood recently planted a fast-growing species known as the Kentucky coffee tree to accompany Heart of Trees. Composers are an apt subject for the artist who has described music and sound to be of particular influence. Plensa sometimes describes the sensation of seeing and feeling as “vibrations.”
Jaume Plensa told us that he sees Heart of Trees as a relationship between the body and soul. Although his body remains the same size, the tree continues to grow from him. Humanity, he said, is on the ground, our dreams are up in the cosmos, and the tree is both anchored in the soil and reaching toward those dreams at the same time.
Knowing all this really changes how you look at it, doesn’t it?
And that’s exactly why I’m writing this post. If you have kids, I hope you’ll read over this information before you take them to see Human Landscape, and share some of it with them while you’re looking at the sculptures together. It really will add to their experience and understanding of what the artist was trying to accomplish with each work– and that makes for a much more meaningful family visit.
These seated figures, made of white stainless steel, are called The Soul of Words I and II. They’re sitting as if in silent conversation, and if you look closely, you’ll see that the figures are formed with symbols and letters from eight different alphabets–Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Hindi, Hebrew, Japanese, Latin and Russian. These languages represent more than 70% of all the languages spoken in the world.
Plensa created these two figures specifically for the Cheekwood installation, and told us that he made them stark white because it’s a color that’s almost impossible to find in nature, so it really makes them stand out in this landscape. These figures could be anyone, according to Plensa- you in a mirror, you and your shadow, friends, strangers, etc. Through their placement and composition, he hopes they encourage dialogue and understanding between people of all languages and cultures.
Near the mansion, you’ll find a piece called Silent Music. From Cheekwood:
Of particular interest to Music City’s culture is Plensa’s 2013 seated stainless steel figure, Silent Music, entirely comprised of stainless steel musical notes. Though this does not actually incorporate sound, the sculpture stands as a symbol of the universal language achieved through music, celebrating the imprint left on body and soul.
Cheekwood is so interested in Silent Music, in fact, that it’s adding this piece to its permanent collection.
Punky wanted badly to touch some of the sculptures. I didn’t let her, but I later read that Plensa encourages viewers of his works to touch them and interact with them (within reason, obvs). This is a good thing to know if you’re viewing Human Landscape with kids, because they are DEFINITELY going to want to touch what they’re seeing. And now you don’t have to hold their little hands back. If anyone gives you side-eye, just tell them that you have the artist’s express permission.
Self Portrait features more of Plensa’s famous alphabet latticework. Inside this globe is a human figure. “The beauty is that you can see the space inside but you can’t reach it,” Plensa told us. “We have an exterior part that’s easy to arrive at and another part impossible to touch. Even people you love have parts that you can never know perfectly. That is the beauty of people.”
Plensa calls alphabets “a beautiful metaphor about society.” While single letters have limited meaning, put together they form words, poems, stories, commentaries. In the same way, a single human being may have limited impact, but together they compose a family, group, nation, and so on.
Plensa told our group that this seated figure, called Thoughts, is another self-portrait. The words you see inscribed on the stainless steel are snippets from some of Plensa’s favorite poets, including Willam Blake and William Carlos Williams. He used those quotes to express the idea that poets can transform the confusion and noise of language in our heads into something beautiful and meditative. ” I’m always in this chaos of ideas,” he told us, “but I find humanity has an amazing capacity to illuminate ideas with a not perfect kind of life. Poets have an amazing capacity to transform these ideas and images into words.”
Girls’ heads are another major theme in Plensa’s work. This sculpture, called Rui Rui’s World II, was based on a nine-year-old girl from Shanghai, whose father worked down the street from Plensa’s studio in Barcelona. Her eyes are closed as if she’s in a dream state, so that the viewer has the impression that he or she is looking at a mirror. “What I am trying to do is invite [viewers] to look into themselves,” Plensa told us. “Many times we are hiding an enormous amount of beauty inside ourselves that no one can see.”
Plensa especially loved the idea of Rui Rui’s World II being viewed from the terrace of the Cheekwood mansion, so be sure and take a look at it from at vantage point.
Awilda & Irma was designed specifically for Cheekwood. Plensa considers it not only the central piece of the installation (it certainly attracts the most attention from visitors), but also one of the best installations of his career. “I think it’s almost a perfect installation,” he told us. “I’m pretty sure it’s the most beautiful installation I’ve ever done in my life.”
The sculpture consists of a pair of stainless steel mesh faces that appear to be floating on the water. They are in dialogue both with each other and with the landscape around them. “You can see through it,” he told us. “They are never hiding what is happening behind them and I think that’s important. The landscape gets into the head. It’s a beautiful idea about our thoughts and dreams in a transparent way.”
Once you’ve seen the outdoor sculptures, head inside the museum for more.
Silent Rain is sure to be one of your child’s favorites. It is stunning, and you’re encouraged to walk through this installation, touch the letters, and gently move the curtains. My daughter loved this work. She called it “simple but beautiful,” and said she loved the way the letters sounded when she put her hand through them. Look closely at the letters and you’ll see that they form words- They are actually quotes from Baudelaire, Blake, Dante, Estelles, Ginsberg, Goethe, Shakespeare, and William Carlos Williams. Plensa hopes Silent Rain emphasizes the importance of poetry in our lives.
A nearby room holds learning station activities for your children.
After seeing so many letters and words, chances are your kids will want to create some poetry of their own.
This tour marked my 11-year-old’s most in-depth exposure to art to date, and it definitely left an impression on her. The first time she saw the sculptures at Cheekwood, she told me, “I can’t figure out why he made them.” But after hearing from the artist, she said, “I liked hearing how they [the works] spoke to him. You can learn a lot about an artist by his sculptures and paintings. You could tell he liked music and poetry, and that he’s a deep thinker.”
“How does this change how you think about art and sculpture in general?” I asked her.
“Most art comes with inspiration,” she said. “It has a deeper meaning.”
And that kind of insight, my friends, is definitely worth the price of a Cheekwood admission!
If you want more background on Jaume Plensa and his work, you’ll want to read this New York Times profile on Plensa from 2011.
Jaume Plensa: Human Landscape will remain on display at Cheekwood through November 1st. I’m told the installation is magnificent at night, so consider going to a Cheekwood after-dark event as well. A sister exhibit will open at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts June 5th and close September 7th.