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9 of the US’s wildest, weirdest and most spectacular outdoor art experiences

After months of lockdown, there may be no better cleanse for the human spirit than art.

Across the US, museums, botanic gardens, community-based organizations and artists have built parks that let visitors enjoy that creativity in the sweeping expanse of the great outdoors.

These exhibits are often integrated with and pay tribute to the wonder of their natural settings. And, with special social distancing measures in place, many remain open to visitors seeking to leave behind the dust of everyday life, even if just for a few hours.

As Pablo Picasso once said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Below are some of the country’s best outdoor art experiences.

San Juan Islands Sculpture Park

Roche Harbor, Washington

On the northern tip of Washington’s San Juan Island — best known for marine adventures — The San Juan Islands Sculpture Park is home to more than 150 sculptures.

Five marked trails lace the 20-acre park, winding through forests, meandering over hills, and circling Frog Pond. The artwork is jury-selected every two years and some is for sale, so the experience is never the same twice.

Current favorites include a flock of sheep made from driftwood and netting and a newly acquired giant bronze grizzly with cubs.

Hours: Daily, dawn to dusk

Cost: $5 recommended donation for adults

New Orleans Museum of Art Sculpture Garden

New Orleans, Louisiana

Fifteen minutes by streetcar from the buzzing French Quarter, the Besthoff Sculpture Garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art is a sanctuary of nature and creativity.

The lagoon, magnolias and 200-year-old live oaks dripping with Spanish moss serve as a reminder of Louisiana’s wild beauty.

The garden features more than 90 sculptures by 19th- to 21st-century artists, several — including a 60-foot mosaic wall by Teresita Fernández, a glass bridge by Elyn Zimmerman, and an installation by Maya Lin — commissioned specifically for the unique site.

In 2019, a 6.5-acre expansion enhanced the sustainability and health of the water and added several experiential features, such as a 280-foot canal link bridge (the first of its kind in the US) that dips into the lagoon, bringing visitors nearly eye-level with the waterline.

Hours: Wednesday to Sunday; Senior and immunocompromised only — 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m.; General public — 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Museum members only — 4 to 6 p.m.

Cost: Adults — $5; Seniors, military, university students — $3; 19 years and under — free; Healthcare workers and first responders — free through December 31, 2020

Michigan Legacy Art Park

Thompsonville, Michigan

Just 20 minutes from Arcadia Dunes and the shores of Lake Michigan, the Michigan Legacy Art Park perches on 30 acres.

Among the wooded slopes and framing the grassy meadows, 51 sculptures — all envisioned and constructed by Michigan artists — are the product of nature and creativity coming together. And with two miles of hiking, cross-country ski, and snowshoe trails, the art adventure is accessible year-round.

In fact, MLAP has welcomed visitors every day since it first opened in 1995.

Hours: Daily, dawn to dusk

Cost: Adults — $5; Kids 17 and under — free

Laumeier Sculpture Park

St. Louis, Missouri

Sprawling over 105 acres just southwest of St. Louis, Laumeier Sculpture Park is dotted with native plants — goldenrod, black-eyed Susan, butterfly milkweed and more — and more than 70 large-scale sculptures.

The art, a mix of permanent and borrowed pieces and special temporary exhibitions, can be accessed via 1.56 miles of unpaved trails the cut across the lawns and weave through wooded areas.

Many of the works are accompanied by custom-created “aural portraits” as well as touchable to-scale models with braille descriptions.

Hours: Daily with exceptions, 8 a.m. to 30 minutes past sunset

Cost: Free

Franconia Sculpture Park

Shafer, Minnesota

Tucked into the St. Croix River Valley on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border (but just 45 minutes from Minneapolis/St. Paul), Franconia Sculpture Park aims to provide an experience that piques the curiosity of both rural and urban audiences.

The artists — many from overseas, nearly half based in Minnesota, and more than one-third people of color — work at the intersection of creativity and ecology, often building their pieces directly into the landscape.

Gravel and mowed-grass paths throughout the 43-acre park let visitors get up close and personal with the sculptures, and are navigable on foot or by golf cart.

Admission: Daily, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Cost: Free

Blackfoot Pathways: Sculpture in the Wild

Lincoln, Montana

Beneath the massive sky of southwestern Montana, Blackfoot Pathways: Sculpture in the Wild (BPSW) provides visitors a window into the region’s wild landscape, rich culture and industrial history.

Each year, the organization invites local, national and international artists to create works using natural and industrial materials that reflect the Blackfoot Valley. BPSW sits on over 26 acres and currently showcases 18 permanent large-scale installations that were inspired by the woodland site and its stories.

Hours: Daily, dawn to dusk

Cost: Free

Breckenridge International Festival of the Arts

Breckenridge, Colorado

For a week each summer, Breckenridge, Colorado, buzzes with creativity during the Breckenridge International Festival of Arts’ (BIFA). While 2020 festival details remain up in-the-air, hikers and bikers who visit during the event can still anticipate Trail Mix, a series of trailside and treetop concerts and art installations.

Those who miss the actual event needn’t worry. The festival leaves its mark. A 15-minute one-way hike into the woods will reveal Isak Heartstone, a 15-foot recycled-wood troll crafted by Danish artist Thomas Dambo for the 2018 BIFA.

Back in town, the Breckenridge Public Art Collection displays more than 30 outdoor sculptures inspired by the mountains, wildlife, mining history and more.

When: BIFA is scheduled for August 16-23, 2020

Cost: Trail Mix events are free; BIFA scheduled performance costs vary

Brookgreen Gardens

Murrells Inlet, South Carolina

Spanning 9,127 acres in the South Carolina lowcountry, Brookgreen Gardens is home to a zoo, museum, galleries, and a 250-acre botanical garden displaying more than 2,000 pieces created by 425 artists.

The property was originally purchased in 1930 as a retreat for one of those artists, Anna Hyatt Huntington, to recover from tuberculosis. Today, it’s the ultimate venue in the US to see American figurative sculpture.

In addition to the permanent display, the garden also hosts temporary exhibits, such as Bruce Munro’s light and mixed media installations.

Hours: Daily, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cost: Adults — $18; Children 3 & under — free; Children 4-12 — $10; Adults 65 & older — $16

Art Omi Sculpture & Architecture Park

Ghent, New York

Just 30 minutes south of Albany, New York, Art Omi Sculpture & Architecture Park sweeps across 120 acres of field and forest.

With more than 60 installations, it’s one of the few places in the world where practicing architects can display their creations alongside more traditional sculpture and has featured pavilions created by noted architects Steven Holl, Benjamin Cadena, and Hou de Sousa among others.

Approximately two miles of unpaved paths connect the artworks, which are installed everywhere from tucked into the woods to hovering above a pond.

Hours: Daily, dawn to dusk

Cost: Free

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