The fabulous “Sunday in the Park”: Topiary Park in Columbus, USA

25 Jun 2019

Topiary Park in Downtown Columbus is an art lover’s dream that came true. Ensconced in the shadow of ultra-modern high rises, paths wind through this ethereal space, a sculpted shrubbery rendition of Georges Seurat’s famous post-impressionistic painting, “A Sunday on the Island of la Grande Jatte”.

Spread out over five acres, more than seventy life-like topiary sculptures, clipped and shaped into three-dimensional figures of couples, children and pets, resemble the figures in Seurat’s artwork.

Five boats bob in a reedy, reflective pond that stands in for the River Seine. Intended to create the sense of being within the actual “painting,” the figures are arranged just like Seurat’s painting but created in a new medium.

As you wander through the winding paths, you’ll find yourself taking unexpected turns and discovering intimate flower filled spaces where topiary “statues” stand. Picnickers gather in small groups under shade trees in view of the pond. It’s a new and engaging experience every step of the way–art come to life, expressed through nature.

Near the park’s entrance, a plaque suggests visitors see the front of the “painting” by standing at the top of a nearby hill where there is a relief of Seurat’s painting propped on an easel. From this viewpoint, you can see the scene as Seurat painted it. Be sure and notice how the topiary is done in exaggerated perspective. At the front, the figures are about twelve feet tall. At the far end of the pond, smaller figures give a sense of depth, as in the painting. The pond itself holds topiary characters too.  Fishermen and women sit in boats, fishing rods at the ready. Unfazed by it all, real life ducks enjoy the waters.

How it came to be?

It all started when Columbus resident Elaine Mason asked her sculptor husband, James, to design and create a topiary sculpture in their home garden. Serendipity stepped in when they learned the city was searching for unique ideas to showcase the site of the former home of Columbus School for the Deaf. It was then that the concept of creating a landscape design inspired by a painting took hold. Mason pitched the idea– recreating a painting in topiary form– to the city authorities and the couple’s original project spiraled into the grand result we see today.

Work began in 1982 with the installation of artificial hills overlooking a pond that would come to represent the River Seine. Working as a team, James shaped the bronze frames that would coax the greenery into shape and Elaine served as the original topiarist. The Mason’s creative vision came into full fruition when Topiary Park was officially dedicated by the City of Columbus in 1992. With his design, Mason created a dynamic work of art, an immersive nature based “painting” that brings to life the textural and tactile experience of being both within a painting as you wander through the garden and actually becoming a moving part of it. Quite a concept.

The Original Masterpiece

It took Seurat more than two years to complete his signature piece – the one that inspired Topiary Park. The completed work began with a series of almost 60 sketches he made while people watching at the Paris park. When, in 1885, he exhibited A Sunday on the Island of la Grande Jatte at a prominent salon in Paris, it caused quite a stir. Because he broke free of tradition and followed his own vision, Seurat ushered in a new technique, a step beyond Impressionism called Pointillism. Both this and his other Impressionist pieces eventually sparked the artistic movement known as Neo-Impressionism.

Now, well over a century later, “A Sunday on the Island of la Grande Jatte” still inspires creativity and innovation. The painting and the life of its artist were the basis for the Pulitzer Prize Award-winning 1984 Broadway musical Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Since then, the play has been continually in production. Its plot follows the fictionalized Seurat during his young life and development as an artist. As recently as 2018, a musical revival production of “Sunday in the Park” with George ran for more than two months at the San Francisco Playhouse. Earlier this year, a rapt audience attended the production at Theatre 166 in Mansfield, Ohio, just outside of Columbus. As a result, people often refer to the painting by the name of the play, “Sunday in the Park”.

Today, Seurat’s masterpiece is in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Like all great master-pieces, “La Grande Jatte” continues to fascinate and inspire.

Columbus prides itself on its public art and gardens. Visiting Topiary Park is just one way to appreciate the arts and outdoor spaces that enrich the city.

Those who visit Columbus know they will come back for more.  Next time a picnic in Topiary Park will be high on their agenda.

 

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