Monarch still reigns

Monarch still reigns You can tell you’ve reached the Monarch Sculpture Park when you see a giant tree of metal butterflies by the side of the road. Whimsical yet fitting right in with the real trees, the butterfly-tree sets the tone for the nonprofit sculpture park nestled in farmland south of Olympia: It’s a place where serious art and childlike play go hand in hand, and where artists do their work surrounded by nature.

Monarch had its beginnings in 1995, when Tacoma sculptor Myrna Orsini was traveling Europe attending stone-carving symposia. Impressed by the beautiful and big spaces that artists had there for their large-scale work, she decided to create something just like it back home.

A search all over the Puget Sound region finally resulted in a purchase of 70 acres near Tenino and another 10 acres on the other side of the road, including some buildings. Orsini sold her Tacoma home and studio, and together with her former student Doris Coonrod, turned those 10 acres into a place where artists could live, work on large sculpture and exhibit it alongside other international work. The sculpture park opened in 1998 with, appropriately, a stone-carving symposium, the 13 artists donating their work to the park.

“It was always my idea to make this a gift to the community, and a space for artists to work,” explains Orsini.

Eleven years later, Monarch has a permanent collection of 28 works, mostly donated by artists, and 87 other works displayed on consignment. There’s an office (which doubles as Orsini’s residence), a low building housing three artists-in-residence, and a gallery for those artists’ less durable work like wood and painting. The park hosts outdoor concerts, art camps and events, and is a unique experience, blending fine art with a whimsical “fantasy” garden, butterfly garden, maze and interactive sound-sculpture area.

Yet Monarch isn’t what it used to be. Since Coonrod died a year ago, Orsini has managed the place on her own. The 66-year-old Spokane native maintains the grounds while looking after resident artists, searching for new artists and soliciting the donations that keep the nonprofit charitable corporation going – all of which takes her away from her own studio work. Some of the park’s expenses, says Orsini, are paid out of her own pocket. And while at first resident artists were paid a stipend, for the last three years they’ve had to pay their own board to help Monarch stay afloat.

“I would love to see a lot more people here,” says Tom Yody, a sculptor and painter who’s been in residence at Monarch for over a year now. “I’d like to see the symposia back, an exchange of ideas between European and American artists. It could be more like an art compound. I’m also hoping Myrna could get out more and promote Monarch, instead of mowing the grass. She’s more accomplished than most other artists I’ve met.”

For Yody, Monarch is the perfect place to create art. Living as he does on disability and in a wheelchair, the sculptor’s options for city studios are limited. At Monarch, he has enough space and long-term support, and he finds the tranquil country surroundings excellent for making art: “I get a lot done here,” he says, showing a complex curved wood carving he’s spent the morning on. Many more of his finished works hang in the gallery.

Orsini has certainly made good on her goal to create a gift to the community. Always free and always open, the Monarch Sculpture Park is both restful and inspiring. Laid out but slightly overgrown, the gardens that wind their way down a slope from the road feel like an English country property straight out of Austen or Eliot.

Near the open-air stage, Orsini’s “Three Graces” stand tall and elegantly slender before a circular green hedge, their white concrete sinuous. Down through the Fantasy Garden, with its crayon-bright giant croquet set and tangled boingy red metal hose, there’s the Sacred Grove: peaceful, with a prayer tree tied with carefully sweeping waves of pink and orange plastic ribbons, each written on by visitors. By the quiet creek, frogs hop alongside Brian Kennedy’s installation of cloudy glass shards – Celtic standing stones made vulnerably transparent.

Kids run from sculpture to sculpture, banging the gongs, admiring the figures, oohing at Orsini’s giant steel Monarch butterfly and her enormous steel hand clutching 15-foot-long pick-up sticks. In the Sound Garden they delight in the bell-harps, steel drums and hanging chimes, and climb the carved wooden ladders that lead, Tolkien-like, to imaginary elf-houses in the tall trees.

There’s work by local artists like Justin Hahn, by international artists like Urs Twellmann and Doug Neil, and by resident artists like Yody, most of it either chunkily modern or gracefully figurative. It’s a place where you’d want to spend at least a whole morning or afternoon, wandering and relaxing.

Which is what Orsini had in mind at the beginning – and now, despite the hard work of maintaining a sculpture park singlehandedly, she’s planning to expand. A recent donation of land on Ketron Island, off the shore near Steilacoom, will be the site of Monarch’s first satellite campus, housing resident artists and hosting daylong art camps for children and adults. Orsini’s planning to open the Ketron site next year.

“We’re reaching out to a lot of people and enriching their lives,” Orsini says. “And that’s our goal.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568