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Artists In Paradise

Poet Cecilia Woloch spent last winter immersed in nature and in blazing new trails in her poetry and prose. As the first writer in the Bernheim Writer-in-Residence program at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Clermont, she bunked for three months in a cabin provided by the program.

“There’s something about the cabin, about being in the space with the trees, the birds around,” says the 45-year-old former Bullitt County resident who now lives in Atlanta. “Instead of wanting to read the newspaper or do something else, I would pick up a pad and start working on a poem, almost before I was awake.”

On the other hand, there were the mice–other players on nature’s team.

“I had to sleep with ear plugs because of the gnawing,” she admits.

Still, she says, the residency transformed her. She spent her teenage years a stone’s throw away, down Belmont Road, where her father moved the family from Pittsburgh’s suburbs. She returned to explore her father’s feeling for the landscape.

“My father thought it was paradise,” Woloch says. “We loved one another in this landscape, we loved the landscape through one another.”

Julie Schweitzer, Bernheim’s arts coordinator, knows how inspiring this paradise can be. She says both the Artist-in-Residence and the Writer-in-Residence fellowships support artists whose work is influenced by nature.

“When the artists come here, they can’t believe the beauty of the place. That’s what Bernheim envisioned,” she says.

Founder I.W. Bernheim wrote that the park, established in 1929, should be a home to art as well as to nature. In 1984, Bernheim’s grandson, I.W. Bernham (who changed the spelling of his name) and his son, Jon, began transforming that dream into reality with the first of what would be an annual donation of $25,000. Funds for the residency also come from the Bernheim Endowment and from other donations.

The program attracts artists from all over the world. During the last few years, Bernheim has hosted, in addition to Woloch, international artists such as Jerry Bleem, at the Art Institute of Chicago; Tomasz Domanski of Wroclaw, Poland; Ludwika Ogorzelec of Le Blanc Mesnil, France; and Karl Ciesluk of Ottawa.
Schweitzer says Kentucky artists should consider Bernheim.

“We don’t get that many applications from Kentucky artists because it’s in their back yard. They apply to go elsewhere,” she says. “I would like for more Kentucky artists to apply.”

The fellowship awards visual artists $2,500, while writers receive $1,000–because writing supplies cost less, Schweitzer explains. These grants make Bernheim unique.

“Paying a stipend is highly unusual for residency programs; most of them cost the artist money to stay,” says Schweitzer, an artist herself and part owner of Louisville’s Zephyr Gallery.

In exchange, participants donate a piece of their work to Bernheim’s collection or to the library. They also host workshops and give readings.

Bernheim’s facilities include a studio overlooking Lake Nevin. Once the area’s pump house, the remodeled studio contains classroom space, an electric kiln, and a wheel for throwing pottery.

“I made it like I would want it,” Schweitzer says.

In the studio, resident artist Jerry Bleem, 47, has his forearms covered in a clear, goopy acrylic he uses to create his latest piece. The ruddy-faced sculptor, surrounded by wall posters of plant pollination and germination, has been carefully placing quartered postage stamps onto a grid.

“I’m doing a piece using stamps like mosaic tesserae,” says Bleem, explaining that a tessera is the name for a bit of mosaic stone.

Some of Bleem’s other works are arrayed on a studio table. Constructed of pieces of acetate and staples–thousands of staples–the gently curving sculptures shine with a pewter-like finish. He refers to his work as “biomorphic,” meaning it is inspired by plant shapes.

Normally a resident of suburban Chicago, Bleem was raised on a farm 50 miles from St. Louis in the hilly country of southern Illinois. Though Bleem has participated in other residency programs, he finds Bernheim’s landscape the most familiar and inspiring.

“Bernheim gives me a familiar visual vocabulary, a familiar sense of place,” says the sculptor who, in addition to being an adjunct professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, is a Franciscan friar. “It’s a place apart. There are no phones ringing. Nobody’s coming to my door.

“Every morning and afternoon I go for a walk,” he says. “I can walk out of the studio and immediately be in a botanical setting.”

Outside, what appears to be a tangle of branches lies just off Lake Nevin’s shore. But it isn’t a washed-up tree, it’s a sculpture, an installation, Schweitzer explains. Bernheim’s 14,000 acres are replete with artwork–some on pedestals, some tucked away in the trees, others in the water or in the meadows–the results of years of artistic creation.

Schweitzer gives a brief tour. In the center of Big Meadow, a tree trunk has been carved into spirals–the remains of “The Great Elm.” Once the massive elm was Bernheim’s signature tree, but it succumbed to Dutch elm disease a few years ago. Karl Ceisluk, the 1998 artist-in-residence, carved the trunk to preserve its beauty. He called it “Ying-Yang.”

In the middle of the Holly Collection, playful metallic shapes make up “Cluster III,” created by Ernest Shaw. In front of the Visitor’s Center, a granite column seems to be giving birth to a woman in Meg White’s “Emerging.” And across from the Center is a sculpture by Mike Ratterman. Both White and Ratterman are Kentucky sculptors.

“It’s a fabulous place for their work to be seen, and I have all the space available outside,” Schweitzer says.

Schweitzer is particularly proud of Bernheim’s latest artistic coup, a Japanese wood-fired kiln. Using an ancient technique, the kiln is fired for three days. Flames circle through the greenware, as raw pottery is called. Flames and ash melting inside form random and startling patterns.

Until last June, the closest public noborigama kiln was 300 miles away, Schweitzer says. She’ll make Bernheim’s kiln available to local artists.

While the residency only hosts two fellows per year, Kentucky artists can participate in other ways. Schweitzer also administers an informal, non-funded Artist-in-Residence program, hosting up to four participants a year or more for short weekend visits.

The residents often pick the brains of Bernheim’s staff to identify a flower or a critter. Bernheim itself bursts with natural talent: many of the staff are artists. Operations Tech Pat Maxwell, for instance, who bulldozes as part of his operations job, is a photographer specializing in platinum palladium prints. Ranger Geno Depoyster is a folk artist and a musician; and Wren Smith, in charge of interpretive nature programs, is an artist, writer, and storyteller.

Woloch says, “I was ignorant of the natural world but could run and ask, ‘Wren, Wren, tell me about the bug I saw.’ “

Nestled in the hills, the arboretum’s fields and flora lie beneath a white summer sky like an artist’s model. A strange wildflower, with a yellow center and a small sunburst of petals, blooms everywhere. A Bernheim staffer walking past me offhandedly remarks, “That’s a Philadelphia fleabane.”

Ah. Another thorny nature question answered. And so Bernheim inspires and informs.

Bernheim’s Artist-in- Residence Programs
Contact: Julie Schweitzer, Arts Coordinator,,
(502) 955-8512 extension 243.
Two residents a year.
Artist-in-Residence program began 1983.
Writer-in-Residence program began 2002.
Art Fellowship 2003:
Housing and $2,500 stipend provided.
Bernheim Writing Fellowship 2003:
Housing and $1,000 stipend provided.
*Live 3 months on site
*Donate artwork to the Bernheim collection
*Interact with the public in some way, which
may include participating in workshops
and/or lectures, readings, and book signings.
Apply between October 1, 2002, and
December 31, 2002.
Jury deliberations and selection:
January 1–February 28, 2003.
Notification: March 15, 2003

Bernheim info

Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest

Highway 245, off I-65, exit 112.

25 miles south of Louisville in Clermont.
35 miles of hiking trails,
14,000 acres of arboretum and research
Open daily, except Christmas Day and
New Year’s Day, from 7 a.m. until sunset.
Visitor’s Center hours 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (6 p.m.
on Saturdays and Sundays in the summer).
Admission free on weekdays, $5 per vehicle
weekends and holidays.
(502) 955-8512,

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