Maplewood/Millburn, NJ – On Friday, June 5th, Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. and the South Mountain Conservancy unveiled new outdoor sculptures in the Wildflower Sculpture Park in Essex County South Mountain Reservation. Inaugurated in 2012, the Wildflower Sculpture Park is a collaborative initiative by the Essex County Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs and the South Mountain Conservancy to introduce art into the landscape of the Reservation.

“Essex County South Mountain Reservation is a beautiful destination with spectacular skyline views, stunning vistas and gorgeous natural backdrops. The inspirational and thought-provoking nature of the artwork, combined with the environment and natural setting, will offer breathtaking and dramatic scenes for park visitors to enjoy,” DiVincenzo said. “We are pleased to be partnering with the South Mountain Conservancy to raise awareness about our reservation and to expand the art park. The art installations on display here will provide visitors with a new reason to enjoy our open space resources and help unite the disciplines of art and nature,” he added.

An open call for artists to submit ideas was conducted and four artists were selected. They are as follows:

Willie Cole created “Just Add Water,” which consists of several large spheres made of plastic water bottles. The installation is an example of art imitating nature and serves as a commentary on the rapid development and abundance of disposable waste in the environment. Over the past 30 years, Cole has had major exhibitions in museums and cultural institutions around the world including the Montclair Art Museum, The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where several of his sculptures were featured in “Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask by Modern and Contemporary Artists from Three Continents.”

Ben Pranger developed “South Mountain Bird Tower.” The sculpture is a 400-pound structure made from concrete and steel that could potentially function as a bird habitat. Pranger has shown his work throughout the United States, including having solo exhibitions at Perimeter Gallery in Illinois, Kohler Art Center in Wisconsin, Second Street Gallery in Virginia and Gallery Aferro in Newark. He has participated in artist residencies at Kohler Art/Industry, Fine Arts Work Center of Provincetown, the Marie Walsh Sharpe Program, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and has received sculpture grants from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and the New Jersey Council for Art. He has taught at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, Hollins University in Virginia and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “I made this piece specifically for this location and I enjoy hearing what people have to say about it,” Pranger said. “It’s a man-made sculpture that is open to the environment,” he added.

Roseland artist Donna Conklin King made the installation titled “Restore.” Inspired by the Japanese art of Kintsugi (golden repair), the artwork is a symbol of the restoration of the Wildflower Preserve. A golden fissure connects trees on each side of the fence before returning underground to signify the cycle of life and mankind’s responsibility to care for the land. Environmentally conscious, Conklin’s work often repurposes household objects, such as porcelain Tchotchkes, broken China, food containers and dryer lint. Her drawing and printmaking work is in many public and private book collections including the Museum of Modern Art, Newark Public Library and the National Portrait Gallery Artist’s Book Collections. Conklin also created the larger-than-life tiled snake in front of the new Essex County Turtle Back Zoo Education Building. “As a resident of Essex County, I am proud to have an opportunity to have my artwork displayed here,” Conklin King said.

Lester James Johnson carved “Balls in a Cage” and “Totems One and Two” from found trees. His intent is to create art that symbolizes the transformation and metamorphosis of nature. Johnson was born in Johnsonville, S.C., and has participated in many group and individual art shows in the tri-state area since 1972. He participated in two videos, one produced by Al Clarke for City Without Walls, and a second, “The Healing Art,” produced by the Artists for Mental Health. Johnson’s art style is self-described as “living outside the box.” “More people are discovering the parks as their backyards. Having my work displayed here is an unbelievable opportunity for my work to reach more people,” Johnson said.

The idea behind the Wildflower Sculpture Park was to build on the concept of the Wildflower Project, which is a fenced-in area about 14 acres in size. Organized by the South Mountain Conservancy, native plants installed in the enclosed area are protected from deer browsing for food and act as a seed bank for the rest of the reservation. This was done in 2009 in conjunction with Essex County’s forest regeneration program for South Mountain Reservation in which 43 enclosures were constructed throughout the reservation to aggressively re-grow native vegetation.

Anthony Puglisi
Lauren Shears