A lot of terrific art in New England stands well outside the museum walls — literally. Because sculpture is often sited outdoors in the sunshine and fresh air, it makes a powerful argument that art is good for you. Here are four spots to plan an outing to refresh body and spirit alike.
deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln
The deCordova is probably the best-known and most expansive sculpture park in New England. On a recent summer morning, parents and grandparents traipsed behind young children who were rambling the 30 rolling acres of lawns, forest, meadows, gardens, and terraces on the hillside above Flint’s Pond — itself a glimmer of blue water through the trees.
The families ambled from sculpture to sculpture. There are about 60 on display. Some pieces were modestly human scale, but many more loomed above the kids like gentle giants in the park-like landscape. The chance to engage up close and personal with the art is one of the huge appeals of the deCordova. Touching the work is discouraged, but no rules say you can’t approach a lot closer than 6 feet. Instead of looking at sculpture, you are in the presence of sculpture, communing in the open air.
The art attunes your senses to the landscape, too. DeWitt Godfrey’s “Lincoln” (2012) seems to flow down the hillside from the museum building on the ridge to the entrance road meadow. From a distance it undulates like ribbon candy, seemingly so fluid that it could collapse at any moment. Up close, the weighty bands of Cor-Ten steel seem as permanent as the hillside.
Picnics are encouraged at the deCordova, and if you’re visiting on a weekend and don’t want to pack your own, you can pre-order meals up until Wednesday that week. The picnic lunch menu is limited, but it’s all fresh food packed by the family-owned restaurant Real in Lincoln. See shopthetrustees.org/products/decordova-picnic-lunch.
51 Sandy Pond Road. Timed entry slots hourly from 10 a.m.–3 p.m. Entry and parking $15 per vehicle by advance reservation only: eventbrite.com/e/decordova-sculpture-park-entry-and-parking-tickets-102282939024; reservation free for members of Trustees of Reservations and Lincoln residents. 781-259-8355; decordova.org. Check website for updates on opening of museum.
Forest Hills Cemetery, Jamaica Plain
Visitors are also welcome to picnic at Forest Hills. The garden cemetery, established in 1848, remains one of the most beautiful and soothing landscapes in the city and the repository of major memorial sculpture. The masterful “Death Stays the Hand of the Sculptor” (1892) by Daniel Chester French, located just inside the main gate, is one of the cemetery’s most famous pieces.
The best spot on the grounds to spread out a picnic is centrally located Lake Hibiscus. Moreover, it’s also a good starting point to look for the small collection of contemporary sculpture dotting the cemetery’s 275 acres. One benefit of trying to find all the pieces — detailed on a map available inside the main gate — is that you invariably encounter some of the cemetery wildlife. That might be the woodpeckers feasting on insects in the wooden bases of “Poetry Chairs” (2003), a collaboration of sculptor Mitch Ryerson with poet Elizabeth McKim and local school children. Or it might be the ancient snapping turtle paddling in the shallows of Lake Hibiscus or the majestic blue heron that fishes from the small island in the middle. At the lake’s edge, the pinwheel-like silvery “Flock of Birds” (2000) by George Sherwood evokes all the Forest Hills feathered creatures.
There’s a gentle wit to some of the work. Easily overlooked on a small rocky outcrop beneath lush foliage, Christopher Frost’s “Neighbors” (2006) recalls some of the graveyard’s illustrious dead with concrete models of their homes. Bostonians evoked in this fairy-house neighborhood range from modern poet Anne Sexton to wagon-driver Ralph Martin, who perished in the Great Molasses Flood of 1919.
95 Forest Hills Avenue. Open daily 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Free. 617-524-0128, foresthillscemetery.com.
MIT Public Art Collection, Cambridge
It's a good thing that MIT students are so smart because navigating their campus is a little like reaching Level 11 in an online quest game. Even the named buildings go by numbers and the streets take some peculiar angles where the school meets the Charles River.
But it's worth the effort. MIT's List Visual Arts Center oversees a striking collection of modern sculpture, much of it tucked away in secluded courtyards and grassy quads. Large-scale sculpture lives at the nexus of art and architecture, and Tech has always been a school of imaginative can-do. As you might expect, the List has an online app to help guide you (listart.oncell.com/en/index.html). It's GPS-enabled so information on every sculpture or significant building you pass pops up on your phone.
The easiest place to start is with Jaume Plensa’s “Alchemist” (2010) in front of the student center along Massachusetts Avenue. Beyond the MIT playing fields along Amherst Alley, Tony Smith’s “For Marjorie” (1961) exploits mathematical complexity to produce a figure that changes radically from every viewing angle. It is one of the earliest pieces in the MIT collection, while one of the most recent is the Sean Collier Memorial (2015) by J. Meejin Yoon at the Vassar Street entrance to Frank Gehry’s multicolored Cubist jumble, the Ray and Maria Stata Center. With breathtaking grace, the sculpture honors the MIT officer was who shot and killed on April 18, 2013. Unsurprisingly, it is a marvel of digitally assisted composition. The five-armed stone vault consists of 32 granite blocks held in place solely by compression to create a powerful marker of a place that will never be the same.
Open daylight hours. Extensive weekday construction work on the MIT campus makes weekends a better choice for visiting. Free. listart.mit.edu/
Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park, Cornish, N.H.
The summer home of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and his painter wife, Augusta, was party central for the Cornish Art Colony, an assorted band of artists and intellectuals. Accounts of the time mention lawn bowling, picnics, and amateur theatricals. Amid all the socializing and carrying-on, Saint-Gaudens managed to create some of the most enduring sculpture in American art.
Buildings at the park, which is operated by the National Park Service, are closed for the time being, but grounds and trails are open. It's a splendid place to appreciate the sloping lawn and imagine the grounds filled with laughter and frivolity. Although many castings of major works by Saint-Gaudens remain behind closed doors, it's still possible to view a few of his masterpieces in outdoor settings.
Housed in its own pavilion, the Farragut Monument (1881), which was the artist’s first commission, was a sensation when it was unveiled in New York’s Madison Square Park. It launched his career as the preeminent maker of American monuments in an age that badly wanted heroes. The “Standing Lincoln” (1887), newly cast and installed in 2016, was the first full-size sculpture the artist created entirely at the Cornish studio. Showing the president in all his care-worn humanity, it depicts Lincoln not as the Great Emancipator but as a reflective national leader of grave demeanor. Perhaps the most familiar of the master works, at least to Bostonians, is the Shaw Memorial (1897). Given that the original on Beacon Street is under restoration, this is a great chance to examine this final version to appreciate the powerful resolve of the soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment of African-American Volunteers.
139 Saint Gaudens Road. Grounds and trails open daily, dawn to dusk. Free until opening of buildings and resumption of programs. 603-675-2175, nps.gov/saga. Check the website for updates on opening of home and studios.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at email@example.com.