NCMA Art Park

The full name is the North Carolina Museum of Art Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park. Can we just agree that Art Park works? I went to the Art Park. This is the largest art park in North America. It is sooooper cool.

Before I traveled to North Carolina for the first time in my life, I did some research to find things to do, and planned out an itinerary. I used Trip Advisor, which always has a list of “Things To Do In —” and Atlas Obscura, which lists interesting and unusual things to see in a place. Atlas Obscura mentioned a large camera obscura, and gave an address. I did not realize until I followed my GPS to that address, that it was on the grounds of the North Carolina Museum of Art. But how serendipitous!

Adjacent to the parking lot is an artistically designed garden with interlacing paths that will eventually lead you to a grassy ellipse that overlooks a wide expanse of the Art Park.
My first view of the Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park. I can see six sculptures in this shot.

I had plotted the camera obscura into my phone GPS and I saw that it would probably be in the trees I saw at the horizon, so I headed that direction. You can be certain I was mesmerized along the way and stopped for photos.

Collapse I made of concrete and steel in 2000 by Ledelle Moe.
Collapse I is a monument that has toppled over.
No Fuss made of steel in 2003-2008 by Mark di Suvero.
No Fuss from another angle.
Large Spindle Piece made of bronze and cast in 1974 by Henry Moore.

The art park could just as easily be described as a garden, as it is beautiful and well cared for, with paths and benches and shady places designed to highlight other views. This is a 164-acre (66 ha) campus with 4.7 miles (7.5 km) of trails. I did not get the chance to see it all, but I hungrily consumed the views.

A pond invites me from the bottom of the hill.

Soon I came upon the sculpture which most captivated my attention from the moment I emerged at the top of the hill: the three rust-coloured rings called Gyre. I am surprised and enthralled to learn how the artist built this. The information plaque states: “Sayre used a backhoe to dig three elliptical trenches that he filled with concrete and steel. After a month, a crane lifted each ring from the ground and lowered it into place. Iron oxide was used to colour the concrete and dirt embedded in its surface from the earth casting.”

Gyre, 1999 by Thomas Sayre.
Another perspective of Gyre. Since this art is in a public park, you can see how the ground is worn from visitors getting up close and personal. I imagine the artist wanted his admirers to touch and climb on his work.

In the middle of this portion of the park is the Sunflower Field, brimming with sunflowers and all the fauna that love sunflowers: bird, butterflies, bees, and humans.

In the background of sunflowers: Lowe’s Pavillion made of steel, wood, aluminum and concrete in 2007 by Mike Cindric and Vincent Petrarca.
I caught this butterfly, then noticed the bird through the lens.
I think this is a Blue Grosbeak. How wonderful – the first one I’ve ever seen!
Another shot of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.
Brier Patch made of cedar in 2022 by Hugh Hayden.

I read the sign here, quite interested in the artist’s message. It says, “Further down the hill…you’ll find another outdoor classroom created by the artist, where each desk erupts with an explosion of tree branches, preventing you from sitting down. A poetic metaphor and charged commentary on the state of education and the natural environment, Brier Patch has been described as ‘witnessing the overgrowth of nature where no activity transpires.'” Later, I was pleased to spot the other installment as I was making my way back to the car.

Brier Patch with branches.
Installation 1-183 made of wood fired clay in 2019 by Daniel Johnston.
Installation 1-183 contains 183 handmade ceramic columns.

That was a lot of art to walk through as I searched for the Cloud Chamber for the Trees and Sky, which is the name of the camera obscura. How lucky I was to have stumbled onto an art museum on my way to a point of interest. I did not plan to visit the indoor exhibits, but just seeing what they had on the grounds was marvelous enough.

Finally, I reached the site. While I appreciated the look of it and appreciated the open door and the solitude so that I could just walk inside and poke around, I did not at first know what to make of it. I did not understand and considered that it could be broken.

Cloud Chamber for the Trees and Sky built of stone, wood, and turf in 2003 by Chris Drury.

The name camera obscura comes from the Latin for dark chamber. If there is a very small hole that allows light in, whatever is outside and receives light will be reflected into the hole and then projected on the opposite wall inside. This is exactly the design of early cameras. Online, the description of this place said you can see the sky on the floor and it is like standing in the clouds. It sounds wonderful, but when I went inside, I saw nothing remarkable. It is a cute, round stone hut with plants on top and some small benches inside, and a still pool of stagnant water in the middle of the floor, beneath the hole in the ceiling.

I went outside and thought it through.

The forest around the Cloud Chamber is very beautiful.

And then my clever mind came through for me. I must go inside and close the door! I did that and the place was pitched into full darkness except for one brilliant white dot from the hole in the ceiling. Drawing on my decade of meteorology experience, and looking at the sky in the middle of the night to take a cloud observation, I knew that it takes a full five minutes for my eyes to adjust to darkness and begin to reveal things. So I looked away from the bright spot, to the black walls, and waited.

It did take several minutes before anything was revealed to me, and my next challenge was to translate the images. Anticipating clouds, as described to me on the Internet, I had a disadvantage because that is not what was projected. I waited and watched as the light patches and shadows became sharper and I noticed they were moving around. Finally, I knew what I was seeing.

In the years since this camera obscura was installed, the forest must have grown around it. And it was summertime. Not just on the floor, but covering every square inch inside the little room, were patterns of sunlight through leaves. As I watched, captivated, trees waved and bowed on all sides around me, and the little white spot bobbed in the middle, just off-center. I knew I would have a challenge describing this, and tried to take a video, but because of the darkness it did not work. I took lots of photos, but those didn’t show it accurately either. I chose the best one to help you imagine what I saw.

Inside the Cloud Chamber for the Trees and Sky, the bright white spot, surrounded by the shadows of sunlight spilling through trees around us outside the building.

Pleased with myself for being patient enough to get the full experience of the camera obscura, I was now ready to head back to the car. On the way, I got a little off track trying to follow the lattice of interlacing paths to take me to the parking lot, but that was fortunate because I found a fabulous sculpture of mirrors. A family group had arrived ahead of me, and I appreciated their presence as I watched the mirrors and had my perspective dazzled.

A family explores the Mirror Labyrinth NY made in 2016 by Jeppe Hein.
There’s me!

Not part of NCMA but rather on loan to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, I think the following sculpture belongs in this post. I spotted it the day before, while walking back to the hotel from the University.

Corridor Pin, Blue made of stainless steel, aluminum, and polyurethane enamel in 1999 by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

I scouted places to eat near NCMA because I was famished. I was pleased to find Guasaca, serving Venezuelan arepas. I had just learned about arepas in my Spanish class. They are like corn-based pita pockets grilled traditionally on a clay tray but today a cast iron pan will do, and can be filled with anything. They sounded like something I would love. Guasaca was hopping and I got in line with twenty other people, thinking that a line like that is a good sign. It gave me time to consider the menu and order exactly what I wanted when I arrived at the counter: no rice bowl, no salad, no chips with pico de gallo. I just wanted two arepas filled with shredded beef, cheese and tomatoes! They were absolutely amazing and I was restored.

11 thoughts on “NCMA Art Park

  1. Art with a message! I especially loved the desks! Wow. Looks like a great spot and well cared for. Not sure I’ll ever get back that way, but grateful to live vicariously through you!

  2. Fun experience, Crystal. I really admired your patience with the camera obscura. I was fascinated with how Gyre was created and enjoyed the color of the wind sculpture. It was a nice follow up to your photographs of the butterflies. –Curt

    1. Thank you Curt. I was also so interested in the creation of Gyre. I never even thought of the placement of the wind sculpture after the sunflower field, but you are right – it worked well.

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