Art in the Woods:
Michigan Legacy Art Park
offers art, history and natural beauty
Nick Sousanis

So with the end of summer around the corner (sigh) and the majority of the art galleries closed for the month, what's a Detroit art lover to do to get their fix of local artists? It turns out we can head north and find a place where travel plans and art intersect: the Michigan Legacy Art Park.

The MLAP is the brainchild of sculptor David Barr (for more in these pages on Barr click here and here.) In 1988 he proposed creating a place that would offer a unique combination of "art, nature, and Michigan history." Barr formed a non-profit arts organization to make this vision a reality. The search for a home eventually led to Crystal Mountain Resort and 30 acres of woods nestled within its grounds. The park enjoys an independent, yet mutual relationship with Crystal Mountain, as it is not necessary to be a guest of the resort to enjoy the park, and resort guests get to enjoy this park's natural and man-made beauty. (Located in Thompsonville, Michigan (nearby to Traverse City and Cadillac) Crystal Mountain offers golf, skiing, conference facilities, among other things. For more information click here.)

Under Barr's artistic direction, the park has grown from a "what if?" to a unique aesthetic experience. Meandering paths take visitors through this outdoor wooded gallery. This natural museum offers beautiful architecture of its own, and along those trails Barr and over 35 artists have created works specifically for placement in the park. Walking along the trails visitors encounter the works of the various artists as well as "poetry rocks" - that is large stones inscribed with poems and other writings about Michigan history. The trails lead upwards to the "Stockade Labyrinth" built by Barr himself. This wooden fortress harkens back to structures built by Europeans as they made their way into the New World. Inside the labyrinth, which true to its name is full of twists, turns, and dead ends, Barr basically has constructed a small, but plentiful art/historical museum. Each step brings visitors to a new exhibit of art and history for viewers to contemplate and enjoy. Successfully navigating the labyrinth leads to an observational platform from which to look out upon the park and the surrounding countryside.

Barr is responsible for many of the works in the park with perhaps one of the most visually powerful being his "Sawpath Series." This work consists of a straight line cut through the woods culminating at the bottom of the hill with an elegant 16-foot tall curved sawblade which stands. The blade's placement suggests that it had just slashed through this stand of trees before coming to rest. Trunks left behind in its path are strewn about not quite randomly, as Barr makes subtle use of the Fibonacci pattern to reflect the mathematics behind nature which is an important theme throughout his work.

Many prominent metro-Detroit artists are on hand here, bringing their own unique visual style and perspective on Michigan history. Michael McGillis' "Five Needles" (referring to the pine needle clusters of our endangered state tree, the white pine) consists of five sturdy pine trunks, all leaning off at different angles, adorned with canvas sails. The structures have a powerful presence in the forest, and seem to belong even as they are obviously man-made. David Greenwood's "Secret Passion" is a boat hull resting on the forest floor. The absurdity of its location along with a ladder and tools as if the builder meant to "be right back" makes for a humorous and thoughtful contribution. Martin Puryear's untitled piece is a thatching of wood strips, at once an homage to basket weaving and native structures. Like many of the artists' works in the park, his has a mathematical reference as well, as depending on one's vantage point the structure can either appear as rectangular, triangular, or from above, circular. Sandy Osip's "Unravel" is a graceful bronze spiral which suggests such natural forms as small as the nautilus shell and the head of a flower, and those as large as galaxies. John Richardson's "Ontonagon" offers a testament to the mining history and the equipment that the mining of ore possible. This sweeping steel, minimalistic structure provokes philosophical and historical questions in the same moment.

The artists mentioned above are but a brief introduction to all whom are represented at the park. The current roster also includes: Bill Allen, Lois Beardslee, Dewey Blocksma, Will Cares, Robert Caskey, Sergio De Giusti, Patricia Innis, Gary Kulak, Jim Pallas, Martin Puryear, Nolan Simon, Lois Teicher, and Joe Zajac. The park is a work in progress, and so this list will continue to grow and feature more Michigan artists.

MLAP's artistic and historical missions are complemented by a dedication to education. The setting and works of art offer unique jumping off points from which students can explore and learn. The park hosts programs for students and teachers to work with artists and a range of professionals from other disciplines for educational enrichment not available in the classroom setting. Student works emerging from such projects are often exhibited throughout the summer months at the Discovery Grove, a permanent structure located near the park entrance.

In the months of July and August visitors can also take in music and performances in the park's Jessie Frohlich Amphitheater every Friday. Built into a hillside near the entrance to the park, this wooden amphitheater makes for a different sort of acoustic and environmental experience. Past concerts have included performances by the Grand Traverse Highlanders, Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, Sally Rogers, Sweetwater, and the Richard Sutton Ensemble.

As mentioned above, this park is a work in progress maintained by the tireless efforts of Barr and other artists who volunteer their labor and services to make this a truly special place. With the exception of the Stockade Labyrinth, the park is open all year round, which means visitors can make a point of observing how it changes in each season. The Michigan Legacy Art Park is the realization of an inspirational vision and a gem of natural and artistic beauty that can be visited time and time again.

For More Information check out their website:

For general information, tours and facility rental please contact Tobi Karch at 231-378-4963

Inquiries from artists should be addressed to:
Michigan Legacy Art Park
12500 Crystal Mountain Drive Thompsonville, MI 49683-9742
Attn: Jury & Collection Management

For education, gifts and media information please contact Ken Stevens

Michigan Legacy Art Park
12500 Crystal Mountain Drive
Thompsonville, Michigan

© 2002