It started out as a simple outing to rural Maryland for two gals in search of giggles. But a recent trip to the Calvert County community of Solomons became an inspiring art trek through an out-of-the-way corner of the 141-year-old village.
Solomons, which sits where the Patuxent River meets the Chesapeake Bay, is an enticing destination in its own right, with waterside restaurants, cozy B&Bs, cute shops and an incredible maritime museum. Our visit to Annmarie Garden added a new dimension.
My friend and I were drawn to the sculpture park by the promise of finding 45 fairy and gnome houses sprinkled throughout the 30-acre property. We assumed that we were in for a brief romp into an imaginary world where wee unseen folk left clues about their lives and personalities. What we weren’t prepared for was the abundance of other visual treasures the park has to offer. Beginning with the colorful ceramic entrance gates, Annmarie Garden held our interest for several hours.
The fairy houses are just a small — and temporary — part of the art you can see from the wide, paved path that meanders for a quarter-mile beneath a canopy of loblolly pines. Even on sweltering summer days, the abundant shade encourages folks to linger.
Annmarie Garden’s wow factor is subtle, experienced as you ponder the sometimes quirky, sometimes regal creations that beg you to move in for closer examination.
More than two dozen large pieces on loan from the Hirshhorn and the National Gallery of Art actually seem more at home here, showered in dappled natural light, than they would in the concrete and marble world of the Mall.
Creating a venue that blends art and nature was the primary goal when Washington architect Francis Koenig and his wife, Ann Marie, donated the property to Calvert County in 1991. Their vision was also deeply rooted in respect for the local citizenry. The first sculpture commissioned — an oyster tonger by Antonio Tobias Mendez — is a tribute to the area’s watermen.
Handprints, including one of Ann Marie’s, that line sections of a side path called the Women’s Walk symbolically link generations of women. This is only one of several paths that take you to contemplative spots embraced by walls of greenery. Bronze statues celebrating the female form lead to Francisco Zuniga’s “Squatting Woman With Shawl” and “Seated Woman,” both of which seem to beckon you to stay a while.
Another path leads to “The Council Ring” — a double circle of seat-high granite blocks facing free-form granite pillars that gives off the aura of a sacred place, or maybe just a perfect setting for storytelling.
The Surveyor’s Map — a winding boardwalk sloping gently upward into the trees — gives you the sense of walking into art, not past it.
Intertwined with such fine art pieces as the bronze “Monumental Standing Cardinal” by Giacomo Manzu and the huge bronze “Hand” by Sorel Etrog are artistic contributions by locals. For example, 13 “talking” concrete benches with colorful ceramic tiles depicting Southern Maryland’s native plants were a collaborative effort between sculptor Maggie Smith and local schoolchildren. Phrases embedded in the benches lead the reader to pause and ponder. Bloodroot’s quote, for example, is full of mischief: “Rubbing some of the red juice in their hands, they would contrive to shake hands with the girls.”
Clever surprises in unexpected places are the norm here. Watch carefully for “tree pops” — snippets of famous masterpieces painted on tree knots and stumps.
Each summer, an artist-in-residence brings a personal vision to life with public input. Through August, Jun’ichiro Ishida is creating a “wish mandala.” Visitors may inscribe their fondest desires on flags that Ishida is weaving into a circular foundation made of natural materials. A study in human nature emerges as a flag bearing “I wish I had an iPod” flutters beside one declaring, “I wish enlightenment to understand the meaning of life.”
The non-juried fairy houses demonstrate the garden’s commitment to encouraging all levels of artistic expression. Some, cleverly incorporating sea glass, river stones, tree bark or pine cones, appear well thought-out by seasoned crafters, while others, utilizing flip-flops or plastic toys, seem like the work of novices. Who’s to say that fairy tastes don’t span the gamut?
The fairy houses are on display only through Sept. 25, but get your creative juices flowing, as the call for new ones will go out again next year.
Also temporary are the juried displays in Annmarie’s two-story arts building. “Supersize,” through Sunday, explores the humor and absurdity of thinking that bigger is better. “About Face — Stories in Portraits,” through Sept. 18, looks at the ways artists communicate through their studies of individuals.
As new exhibits come and permanent exhibits are enveloped by seasonal changes, Annmarie Garden continues to challenge the visitor’s observational skills. We can’t wait for the next chapter.
Siegal is a freelance writer and photographer in Alexandria.
210 Alexander Lane
125-year-old former waterman’s home in a beautifully landscaped waterside setting. Rooms from $110.
13100 Dowell Rd.
Outdoor pool, fitness center and complimentary shuttle to Solomons sites for guests. Rooms from $145.
14618 Solomons Island Rd. South
Unique sandwiches, quiches and desserts for under $10.
14350 Solomons Island Rd.
Cozy heart-of-town local favorite. Only 11 tables, so folks often order drinks and appetizers in the adjacent lounge area while waiting. Vegetarian, chicken, beef and seafood dishes. Lunch selections $9 to $23.
13480 Dowell Rd.
Grounds open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; arts center and gift shop open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entrance fee $3; older than 55 and ages 5-11 $2; age 4 and younger free.