Art Meets Nature at Atlanta Botanical Garden's Henry Moore Exhibit

By Judy Wells
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 13, 2009

A mother and daughter stroll together through a lush tangle of orchids, speaking in hushed tones as they point out specimens to each other. Embedded in the tropical foliage, as if watching, is Henry Moore's sculpture "Mother and Child." Shadows on the bronze surfaces enhance the protective gesture of the mother, while sunlit open planes emphasize the curious interest of her child.

Is it life reflecting art or art reflecting life? More accurately, this is sculpture where it was meant to be seen, not isolated within the marble halls of museums but comfortably ensconced in the landscape of life.

"Moore in America," at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, not only is the largest special exhibition of the late sculptor's work on display in the United States, but it also opens our eyes to the synergy between nature and art. Not to mention the pure pleasure of it. As the artist once said: "Sculpture is an art of the open air. . . . I would rather have a piece of my sculpture put in a landscape, almost any landscape, than in, or on, the most beautiful building I know."

He would like "Moore in America."

I watch as children and their adult companions unconsciously reach out to pat the rounded flank or shoulder of a reclining figure. Years of cautionary warnings make the grown-ups stop their hands and their children's, but they needn't. There are no "Do not touch" signs, merely small bright-pink placards with a picture of a mother-and-child sculpture and the words, "Thank you for not climbing on us."

Moore meant his work to be part of our lives, a dynamic addition to the landscape or a soft buffer to our hard-edged modernist buildings, as much of a welcoming presence as a parent. His reclining figures invite contemplation. The popular mother-and-child images, begun by the British sculptor after the birth of his daughter in 1946, are a counterpoint to the actions of contemporary mothers wheeling their young around in strollers or trying to keep up with toddlers and tots. And all about, there's the glory of nature's creations: trees, plants, flowers.

The overall impression is of a seamless whole, but that's an illusion, says John Atkinson, a Botanical Garden volunteer. He tells me it took three cranes to install the exhibition, but he thinks the extra toil was worthwhile. "We have a great advantage. You can stand here," he says, indicating the clusters of bright pink, red and magenta perennials, "and see three major sculptures, too."

Visitors can see 20 Moore sculptures while touring the gardens, the ponds and the Dorothy Chapman Fuqua Conservatory and Orchid Center between now and the end of October.

It's a special way to appreciate Moore's art and Atlanta. From one angle, "Oval With Points," a large elongated and rounded bronze form that almost touches at the center, frames the city's skyscrapers. From another angle, it becomes a part of them.

Moore's work invites exploration by eye as well as by hand. I'm fascinated as a young woman circles around "Locking Piece," examining it from all sides. She looks at it through her camera lens, trying all angles until finally she sits down in front of it, rests the camera in her lap and just looks.

I was moved by the exuberance of the gardens (the colors, variations in size and shapes, the movement of flowers and leaves in the occasional breeze) and at the same time taken with the still presence of the sculpture. Sometimes it was hard to decide where to look, but finding a bench in a shady spot and taking it in as a whole solved that. A minute or two and I was ready to focus on the parts again.

The gardens had art before the arrival of Moore's work. "Reclining Figure: Angles," one of my favorite Moore sculptures, shares the parterre with a writhing blue Dale Chihuly fountain. A contemplative copper frog sits on a bench as you start through the gardens. The entrance gates and those to the Children's Garden are superb examples of metalworking.

For a fun interlude, diffuse the fierce Southern heat with a splash or two in the fountains of that delightful Children's Garden. I did and could have gone back, but the two hours I had allotted were over.

Heat of another kind lies just beyond this arboreal refuge which, along with Piedmont Park, the exclusive Piedmont Driving Club and the upscale Ansley Park residential area, is a leafy buffer to the buzz of midtown Atlanta. Urban entrepreneurs have turned midtown into a happening locale. The Woodruff Arts Center, home of the High Museum of Art, Alliance Theatre and the Atlanta Symphony, finally has company after dark.

The High is always worth a visit. Its Leonardo da Vinci show opens Oct. 6, and its permanent collection is stunningly displayed. Alliance Theatre's stage has Twyla Tharp's "Come Fly With Me" through Oct. 11, and on Peachtree Street, the Fox Theatre's offerings now through October include "The Color Purple," a Beatles tribute and Celtic Thunder.

Finding food is never a problem in Atlanta; deciding where to get it is. South City Kitchen is midtown's power lunch spot. Near it is Fuego Spanish Grill. Locals are buzzing about three hotel restaurants: Spice Market in the W Atlanta-Midtown, Pacci Ristorante at the Palomar and Livingston in the Georgian Terrace Hotel (where Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh stayed for the "Gone With the Wind" premiere). For a cheap, fat-filled meal -- chili dogs, burgers, french fries, fried pies -- at a local institution, try the Varsity.

Kristi Sanders, my gal pal about midtown, tells me that Opera is the hottest club in the area, although you wouldn't think it from the locale: the Atlanta Woman's Club's historic opera house. The Laughing Skull Lounge is the destination for progressive stand-up comedy shows. Flanking the Fox are two Sanders-recommended clubs: Bazaar, which she describes as "a funky, exotic loungey bar where the music's so good you'll be up and dancing after a couple of drinks," and Churchill Grounds, with a roster of jazz musicians and torch singers.

That, too, would please Henry Moore. Art wasn't practical to him. Rather, he said it was "to live a fuller human life." Seeing his work in a garden in the middle of Atlanta's midtown will certainly make your life fuller.

Judy Wells is a freelance writer in Jacksonville, Fla.

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