FRANKFORT — Condos, duplexes, twisty metallic skyscrapers: Kentucky birds have never spied such an array of housing.
Affixed to brightly colored spindles of metal rising over wild grass, the birdhouses, built mostly by kids and teens, became part of the latest installation at the Josephine Sculpture Garden this week.
And visiting artist Bridget Beck couldn't think of a better site for her work.
"This place is just amazing and beautiful," Beck said as volunteers helped kids ages 2 to 12 saw, paint and drill pieces of wood into their versions of the perfect avian home.
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Beck's piece — built to be climbed on and featuring a poet's corner, with a chair and a writing desk — reflects the mission of this unique Central Kentucky art venue.
"We are interested in creating an environment where kids can just be free, and they can get dirty and build stuff and let their imaginations run wild," Melanie VanHouten said.
She and her husband, B.J. Duval, planned for 10 years to make Josephine's an artistic haven and inspiration on land that used to be her grandparents' farm. Her mission for the park mirrors her description of a childhood spent on the farm, and the park is named in honor of her grandmother.
"We'd get up in the morning and go all day," said VanHouten, who went to Minnesota to study art, eventually becoming the head of the sculpture department at what is now St. Catherine University in Minneapolis.
She and Duval met years ago when both worked at Wilson's Nursery in Frankfort. They knew they would someday return to Kentucky, and they did in 2008, after the deaths of several relatives.
"The universe was telling us it was time to come home and make this thing happen," she said.
VanHouten's goal for the original sculpture park, modeled after Franconia Sculpture Park in Franconia, Minn., was modest.
"Ten sculptures and a Porta-Potty," she said.
But when the park opened in September 2009, there were 16 sculptures, and the outpouring of donations and volunteers allowed them to erect a concrete building with bathrooms and a small visitors center.
Artists from all over the world have contributed to the 28 rotating works spread throughout the 20-acre park. Family friendly, free workshops aimed at giving budding artists an unfettered outlet are offered whenever possible. Workshops have focused on glass-blowing and pouring iron for sculpture; an annual fall festival features musical acts, and a small amphitheater was home last year to a performance of an all-female performance of Shakespeare's MacBeth, lit only by torches and the moon.
Making art accessible is at the heart of the place.
"When you walk into a museum, there is an intimidation factor," VanHouten said.
Laura Manzo, a sophomore at Frankfort High School, said she was a bit nervous when she heard that her welding class would be helping with a sculpture. But she learned that "metal is like a really awesome material to work with." Her three-dimensional fish, which would look at home in a sea of neon colors, was the first work she tried to create. She has learned that "art doesn't have to be perfect and everything," and that a swirl of crazy color and an imperfect angle can morph into something great.
Plus, she said, "It is just so much fun."
Elena Bomford-Moore, 2, of Frankfort didn't have much to say as she put together her birdhouse with the help of Manzo and visiting artist Carissa Samaniego, who traveled from Minnesota with Beck. She was, however, impressed with the power of the tools. "Whooaa!" she said as the electric screwdriver in her hand started to turn.
Her mother, Kiersten, said her family loves coming the sculpture park, and she thinks events such as the birdhouse workshop help to give her kids a creative outlet and some self-confidence.
VanHouten's plans have broadened since the garden opened. She envisions a house separate from the old farm house where multiple visiting artists could stay, offer workshops and help one another and visitors engage in a variety of work and get out into nature.
That could take a few years, she said.
For now, housing for any visiting birds is already covered.