OUTDOOR INTERESTS

By: SEBASTIAN PHILLIPS

The Ann Norton Sculpture Garden in West Palm Beach honors the legacy of its namesake and founder by celebrating art in nature.

 

Ann Norton was a romantic. She loved the feel of the chisel and hammer in her hands as she approached a lump of stone with a vision for a sculpture. She was often moved by artworks to the point of tears. She appreciated nature and her plants the way that only somebody who likes to dig her hands in the soil does. And it takes a romantic to create a place like the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens in West Palm Beach. While these two acres feel like a new discovery to first-time visitors, the Gardens are known worldwide for their inspiring approach to alfresco culture. Established in 1977, the grounds bring Norton’s concept of artistic utopia to life, a collaboration with Sir Peter Smithers, the so-called “spy with a green thumb” that many say inspired the James Bond books by Ian Fleming. A member of British Parliament, Smithers was a devoted horticulturist and garden designer whom Norton had met years prior and who helped her plan the Gardens’ star attraction: a tropical jungle of palms, cycads, and pines that would serve as a backdrop to Norton’s monumental sculptures, a grouping of imposing brick monoliths that speak to the woman’s art education at the National Academy of Design, the Arts Student League of New York, and Cooper Union.

Another integral part of the Gardens is the Artist Studio, where Norton once spent her days commuting with bronze, stone, and wood, and her artistic spirit is still palpable. Here, one is greeted with the larger-than-life models, armatures, and studies that eventually evolved into the gargantuan works in the jungle. In this spot, we learn of Norton’s penchant for cedar, the wood used by the Native American tribes of the Northwest United States for their totem poles. “I use everything, the cracks in the wood, the knots, and the gnarls,” Norton told The New York Times in 1978. “I like my work to flow together with nature.”

Of course, no experience of the Gardens is complete without a stop at the Norton House Gallery and its coquina pathways and pecky cypress ceilings. Once the home of Ralph Norton (namesake of the Norton Museum of Art, also in West Palm Beach) and his wife Elizabeth, it later became the residence of Ralph and Ann, who wed in 1948 after Elizabeth’s death. At the residence, visitors can admire the work of architect Maurice Fatio, who oversaw its construction in 1925, and interior designer Marion Sims Wyeth, who gave it its Monterrey Revival style back in 1935.

Today, the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens is not just a shrine to its creator. The venue boasts an ambitious schedule of events and a solid exhibition calendar with programming that nods to art in the great outdoors. Just as Mrs. Norton would have wanted.

 

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