Turning a varied chunk of land into Artpark

High above the ground at Artpark, there hang three giant post cards by artist Susanne Cohan. Each bears a message. The first has all the glee of a kid's first week at camp: Art isn't important thing, people are! The second is a bit more tempered, though, and the third has the sound of experience. I wanted to bring my art to the people, says the artist good-naturedly, but I didn't mean quite this close!

It's all in fun, of course. Yet these whimsical "post cards" express a lot of what goes on at Artpark. It's hard to imagine a place where artists and their public rub elbows more closely or continually. In fact, the artists publicly create their works over the course of a season, in full view of visitors -- themselves becoming "works on display" as much as their projects.

As you enter Artpark, therefore, you see no museumish collection of finished objects. Everything is in flux, in flow. From a cliff overlooking the Niagara River, Cindy Snodgrass is hanging huge cables for an eventual "fabric sculpture." On a flat stretch of land near the entrance, Nade Haley is finishing her architectural "Ground Play," with patterns of light and shadow that shift as the sun passes through the sky. Malcolm Cochran is building a brand-new "Arcadian Ruin." And who knows what further messages may come from Miss Cohan on her giant, three- dimensional post cards?

These creators are among 15 "major project artists" who are spending this summer at Artpark, in upstate New York just a few miles from Niagara Falls. It's their job to construct significant works of art, according to prearranged plans, during the current season. When the season ends, the artists and their works will depart, clearing the way for a new round of creation in 1982. A few works may hang around another year or two, if their space is not needed and if they weather the winter.

Also on hand are 50 "artists in residence," who work in every medium from yarn to ceramics, from steel to stained glass. Not committed to major projects, they ply their activities in various enclosures around the park, explaining and exemplifying their sundry skills. Turn left and watch a glass blower. Turn right and pick up a few tips on quiltmaking. Saunter down to the kilns and see the latest ceramics being fired. And so forth, all over the park.

The performing arts aren't far behind, either. There's the Artpark Repertory Theater, a resident outdoor company with a repertoire extending from "Rumpelstiltskin" to the "The Giant Jam Sandwich" -- the emphasis on kid stuff, but everyone welcome to attend. Storytellers have their own niche in the woods, where a dozen yarn-spinners are sharing responsibilities this year. And definitely not least is the modern Artpark Theater, which hosts and impressive series of plays, operas, dance programs, and other events.

Artpark opened its doors seven years ago as a "publicly funded state park dedicated to all aspects of the arts." Its site is a 200-acre parcel of woods, flats, and cliffs along the Niagara River Gorge -- where the falls themselves fell a few millenniums ago, before erosion gradually removed them to their present location.

The park prides itself on being "kaleidoscopic," and that seems a fair word to describe its multifaceted bill of fare.

It's very much a "hands on" place, with plenty of workshops and demonstrations to complement the performances and artworks intended for "eyes only." It's a great place to bring the children, or your own childlike imagination. There's lot touch, hold, examine, even climb on, if that's your yen.

The success of Artpark is due partly to its excellent design. Two structures are most prominent. One is the theater, with removable rear walls so a casual outdoor audience -- even picnickers -- can augment the regular spectators inside.

The other is a sort of shelter called the ArtEl, a large L-shaped platform with open walls. Here the repertory company performs, chefs give cooking lessions, artists demonstrate their talents, and Miss Cohan hangs her immense post cards. It's a versatile and informal space where anything could happen, and an awful lot does -- helping to concentrate Artpark activities into a particular area, while avoiding any sense of stuffiness or confinement.

More specialized areas of the park are scattered everywhere, from the Storytelling Place to the Amphitheater, from the glass works to the forge. Meanwhile, works of art pop up where you least expect them: Those pastel stripes on Parking Lot C are a "major project" from a bygone year, and those "stitched rip-stop nylon units" hung along the ArtEl aren't party decorations, they're a sculpture by Debra Frasier called "Windwalls."

Away from the permanently constructed areas, Artpark is surprisingly varied, and artists make maximum use of this quality. Some choose to work in the most naturally attractive spots, along the river and beneath the cliffs. Here, for example, Bill and Mary Buchen have come from New York City to install their wonderful "Wind Bow," a giant harp that makes gentle noises when a determined breeze brushes its strings.

Yet other artists don't want to compete so directly with Mother Nature, and some relish the challenge of transforming dull flatlands into fascinating visions. The lovely "Cloister" of Audrey Hemenway serves just this function, brightening a boring bit of land with its inviting cluster of color surrounding a small rock garden. And the "Solar Chapel" of Bob Natalini creates its own indoor environment, complete with sun-powered music.

To its credit, Artpark does not limit its activities to the cozy or conventional. Its outdoor artworks generally seem aimed toward the future rather than the past, and its performers during the current season include such avantgardists as Sun Ra and Phillip glass, the latter offering the American premiere of his opera "Satyagraha." Yet tradition is well represented, too: The 1981 program includes such tried-and-true musicals as "George M!" and "Fiddler on the Roof," not to mention the opera "I Pagliacci" and a dance tribute to Anna Pavlova, plus concerts by everyone from Victor Borge (see the Monitor review on these pages, Wednesday, Aug. 19) to the New York Philharmonic.

For all its many activities Artpark manages not to be a three-ring circus of displays and distractions. Whether by design or by chance, the emphasis is on real art, not mere entertainment -- which doesn't mean its offerings are dull, only that they demand some thought or participation by the spectator. At the very least, you have to decide what you want to approach and spend time with. You can contemplate a finished work, or talk with an artist about a work-in-progress, or attend a performance.But the goodies won't parade before you. It's necessary to go on your own aesthetic hunt -- which is part of the fun, and part of the reward for visiting Artpark.

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