WHEN IT comes to sculpture gardens, Washingtonians are a little spoiled, having both the National Gallery of Art's and the Hirshhorn Museum's at hand. And being spoiled, we can grow complacent. So accustomed are we to finding treasures in our own back yard, we sometimes lack the initiative to look for them elsewhere -- in Southern Maryland, for example.
A side road off of busy Route 4, just before you get to Solomons Island, leads you to the entrance of the tiny Annmarie Garden. The 30-acre property is mostly woodlands, with paths cut through, and cleared fields. Within this quiet setting are a number of outdoor artworks, including seven stunning sculptures on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which may lend two or three more works in the coming months.
On a recent steamy summer weekday, Lucy, my 12-year-old; her friend Emily; and I were the only visitors. We stuck our bare feet into the pool of water circling the base of the sculpture fountain at the park's entrance. "Tribute to the Oyster Tonger" depicts a Chesapeake Bay waterman tonging, or gathering, oysters into a bronzed wire basket. According to the garden's director, Stacey Hann-Ruff, the "Tonger" was the first major permanent sculpture commissioned for the garden by Ann M. (for Marie) and Francis L. Koenig, who in 1991 gave Calvert County this land and funds to develop it as a botanical and sculpture garden. "The Koenigs had come to Southern Maryland to get away from the city, and they fell in love with the watermen and their culture," Hann-Ruff says.
From the "Tonger," we headed left to follow a path through the woods and soon had the pleasure of spotting "Marseille," by an artist named Cesar. This large bronze rectangular slab has a webbed texture, which we refrained from touching, tempting though it was (signs tell you not to touch the sculptures, and surveillance cameras are placed near each one). Marseille, France, is the seaport town where Cesar was born, and the shape of the sculpture suggests the sail of a boat.
Farther along, we came to a permanent installation, "The Surveyor's Map," a boardwalk, actually, which has been inscribed with quotes from county residents ("We did business on a handshake," "You never know how much you've done until you look back"). Lucy and Emily, oblivious to artistic subtleties, raced over the boards to the end, as I stood and read the long explanation about the piece: "The boardwalk through the woods provides an experience of place at different levels and from different perspectives. The image reflects the roads, crossroads, and benchmarks that constitute one's memories, a surveyor's map . . ." As I strolled the boardwalk, the sounds of the girls' voices drifted to me through the woods, and the serenity of the place started to sink in.
Reunited, we continued on the trail until we happened upon "Monumental Standing Cardinal," my personal favorite of the Hirshhorn sculptures, a bronze work by Italian artist Giacomo Manzu. As large and striking as it is, we almost missed it, for the cardinal looks as if he belongs here, standing so naturally in his copse of tall pine and hardwood trees, like a cardinal in a cathedral. Shaped like an elongated arrowhead, the cardinal has one hand out drawing his cloak closed. We followed the line of vision from his eyes and looked across a clearing to see the back side of a circular sculpture: an interesting view of the Hirshhorn work "Circular Reflection," begging a closer look.
But first we stopped to admire Gerhard Marcks's "Girl With Braids," posing gracefully farther along in her own grove of trees. The nude figure stands with one arm angled to hold the tip of a braid, one leg crossing the other at the knee to rest her weight on bent toes. "She does look realistic," Emily decided, and Lucy and I agreed, as all three of us attempted to imitate the pose, though staying fully dressed.
The final four Hirshhorn works awaited us a few yards away, arranged precisely around a field. "Three Red Lines," by George Rickey, is a trio of tall, red, stainless steel blades, like giant pickup sticks pointed at the sky; the pieces move with any slight breeze, but during our visit, and though we stared and stared, the pieces moved not at all. Kenneth Snelson's "Six Number Two" is constructed of stainless steel and wire cable, resembling a jungle gym about to set sail. Up close, Israeli sculptor Yehiel Shemi's "Circular Reflection" looks like it's trying to catch its own shadow. Etienne Hajdu's bronze "The Bird, Uranus II" truly appears about to take flight.
"Koenig wanted a place where people could experience art and nature together," Hann-Ruff says. And I can see why. In the side-road sanctuary of Annmarie Garden, each sculpture comes to life as sun, shadow, breeze, sky, tall trees, hushed woods, the call of a bird, the rustle of grass and other natural elements play upon each piece, altering your way of seeing it, allowing your imagination to soar. The girl with braids glows, the bird flies, the cardinal intones, the three red lines swing -- or do they? Visitors will have to see for themselves.
ANNMARIE GARDEN -- 13480 Dowell Rd., Solomons, Md. 410-326-4640. www.annmariegarden.org. Open daily from 9 to 5. Free.