World Views

It’s one of the hidden gems of the New Hampshire art scene. It’s gaining a global reputation as a center for outdoor sculpture. And if nothing else, it’s a darn fine place for a walk in the woods.

It is the Andres Institute of Art, a 140-acre sculpture park on Big Bear Mountain in Brookline. Andres Institute of Art is a collection of roughly 50 works by artists from around the world. The Institute’s director, John Weidman, says it is “more well known in Europe than it is locally.”

There are some good reasons for the Institute’s obscurity. First, it’s only existed for eight years — a mere blink of an eye in the art world. Also, its organizers have done little in the way of publicity. Its Web site is rudimentary; its main entrance is a dirt road. It’s been a tough place to find — but that has begun to change.

At first glance, the Institute looks like a nature preserve: woods, meadows, old quarry pits and miles of walking trails. The sculptures are scattered along the trails. Hand-painted signs lead the way and offer notes about the sculptures and artists. And unlike just about any other artistic institution in the world, visitors are encouraged to touch the sculptures. Indeed, some of them are designed for human contact. “Contempo Rustic” by Vermont artist Peter Harris looks like an old couch abandoned in the woods, but the frame is heavy-duty steel and the “cushions” are rough slabs of granite. Not very comfy, but you can sit on it.

The artists take different approaches to the landscape. Some pieces are meant to stand out in sharp contrast; others blend in so well that they are easy to overlook. In the former category is “Earth, Wind and Fire” by Peter Happny, an artist and blacksmith from Portsmouth. It includes four granite boulders (earth), two rough-cut panels of weathered steel (fire) and a dramatic steel “arrow” curving gracefully into the sky (wind).

On the subtle end of the spectrum is “Process” by Croatian artist Anita Sulimanovic. She discovered a granite boulder on the ground; on one side of the rock she attached ceramic “scales” in a regular pattern. The scales appear to be spreading, transforming the rock into something different. It’s a work of profound simplicity.

Building a collection

The Institute’s major activity is the annual “Bridges & Connections International Sculpture Symposium.” This isn’t a stuffy gathering of men in suits; it’s a coming together of a small group of sculptors. They get the chance to follow their muse, interact with other artists and learn to use the tools of their trade. “I’d never been with a group of artists who were so happy — doing what they wanted to do, with the freedom to explore,” says Peter Happny. “It was a joy to be with that kind of energy and creativity.” He likens it to the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough.

Sculptures produced during the Symposia become the Institute’s property. The artists receive a stipend, are hosted by local families and their meals are all provided. They also get to use the Institute’s studio. It resembles an oversized garage; its sides and roof are made of steel; the end walls are panels of glass and include extra-large doors to allow the transport of oversized pieces. Inside is a huge open space and a stunning array of equipment: saws, drills, ovens, welding irons and guns, sanders, buffers, hand tools, pulleys, hard hats, welder’s helmets and thousands of nuts, bolts and screws. It all reflects the technological nature of the medium; large-scale sculpture requires engineering as well as artistic skills.

Each year’s symposium has a theme. The first one, in 1999, was called “Sit on It” — sculptors were asked to create a sittable artwork. “Contempo Rustic” was one of the results. This year’s theme is “Relations.” The symposium runs from September 16 to October 8. There will be artists from Cambodia, Iran and Japan, plus Andy Moerlein, sculptor and teacher at Derryfield School in Manchester. The symposium is a great time to visit the Institute; Weidman says the artists are usually happy to interact with visitors.

The man behind the Institute

Paul Andres is an American original. He’s a multi-talented engineer and businessman who made his fortune by building a technology firm and selling his share. He’s not in Craig Benson’s class, but he’s got the financial freedom to pursue his interests.

And those interests are highly eclectic. He does some venture capital investing. He loves riding motorcycles and tinkering with cars and bikes. He has homes in Hawaii, Las Vegas and on the grounds of the Institute. Every summer he travels the country in an RV, working for a friend who puts up big tents at music festivals: “The pay’s not great, but I get an all-access pass to the concerts. It’s a gypsy lifestyle.”

He’s also an art collector. His engineering background led him to large-scale sculpture, which requires a mastery of materials, design and construction techniques. That, in turn, led him to John Weidman, the Brookline sculptor who later became director of the Institute. He met Weidman “through an acquaintance and fellow collector who owned several of John’s pieces. He was getting divorced and moving to Hawaii; John’s art is large and heavy and had to stay behind. I bought most of his collection.”

Andres and Weidman became friends; together they developed the idea for the Andres Institute. “The initial concept was a place where artists could exchange technology,” says Andres. That idea merged with his passion for collecting; “I’m single and have no kids, so I’m not leaving a legacy genetically. I got to thinking, this could be my legacy.” The Institute’s property is in a trust, so it will remain intact long after Andres departs from the scene.

Andres provides some of the operating funds every year, although his biggest gift was the property itself. Most of the support comes from a surprising source: charity bingo games at the nearby Big Bear Lodge, which is owned by Andres.

A few highlights

British artist Marcus Vergette used a hunk of granite to create a sort of real-life New Yorker cartoon. “Stone Paper Scissors” includes a tree with five trunks branching from a single root and a large rock wedged in the middle. His message about the piece: “This is a sculpture of contradiction … All the contradictions will resolve when the tree dies and the sculpture rolls down the hillside.”

If granite is the most frequently used material, “weathering steel” is number two. It’s a type of steel designed for outdoor use. The surface corrodes, but the rust forms a dense barrier that preserves structural integrity. Artistically, it provides a timeless quality, as if the piece has been there for uncounted years.

Nigerian artist Solomon Isekeije created “Windows Into Big Bear Mountain” as “a shrine to the spirits who have dwelled on this mountain.” It consists of six steel panels, each bearing iconic figures and illustrations and mosaics of colored glass. Visitors are invited to “listen to the mountain and contemplate your problems. When it’s time to go, leave your problems here. It will be well with you.” NH