At the end of August 2015 we were saddened to hear about the passing of Michigan Legacy Art Park founder, David Barr. David was an associate professor of sculpture at Macomb Community College for forty years and there are eight of his sculptures placed throughout the Art Park at Crystal Mountain. He brought his artistic vision to Northern Michigan and in the September 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine we ran a feature that celebrates the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Michigan Legacy Art Park. Read on to learn more about the history and growth of the Michigan Legacy Art Park over the last 20 years and to celebrate the artistic legacy that David Barr leaves behind.

A woodlot full of 3-D art rises on a hillside in Benzie County, each work channeling some piece of what makes Michigan Michigan. Wander the trails this September, as the park marks its 20th year.

I scooped up
the moon
in my water
bucket and
spilled it
on the grass.—Ryuho

This Japanese haiku is etched on a smooth marble-gray rock nestled on the forest floor, surrounded by towering hardwoods. Of the 30 poetry stones in the Michigan Legacy Art Park, this one happens to be Renee Hintz’s most cherished.

“That just has so much imagery in it,” says Hintz, executive director of the park. We pause on the sloped trail, both of us a bit mesmerized as we contemplate the words. “And being up here in Northern Michigan, if you’ve spent any time on the water, or on the beach at night and seen the moon on those perfect nights, it drops on the water … it’s beautiful.” This haiku, this idea, everyone can grasp.

Connecting with outdoor art, whether it’s carved on a rock or erected alongside pine trees and a winding path, is what this 30-acre nature preserve in Benzie County with its more than 40 sculptures in addition to the 30 poetry stones—is all about. And as executive director, Hintz is intimately aware of the countless ways in which visitors experience and share their connections.

“When people get to ‘Fallen Comrade,’ they’ll tell me about their World War II stories. Or when we get to ‘Michigan,’ people tell me about their sailing experiences, and to ‘Ontonagon,’ about their grandfather who worked in the mines. Each sculpture is seen differently through everyone’s eyes.”

All the while, this artwork that meshes Michigan history with nature provides a soul-pleasing jaunt in the forest. Taken at a leisurely pace with moments for reflection, a hike through the Art Park lasts between 90 minutes and two hours. Situated on property leased from Crystal Mountain Resort & Spa, the park covers nearly two miles of trail.
“It’s a real hike—a rustic hike through the woods,” Hintz says.

This year marks Michigan Legacy Art Park’s 20th year. It was 1995 when internationally acclaimed artist David Barr founded the park with the intent of creating a place in nature for artists to install art inspired by the stories of the people, events and natural resources that continue to shape the legacy of Michigan.

Finding a place for the park took several years, says Barr, who lives in Novi. The partnership with Crystal Mountain was a natural fit given the resort had, in its master planning, already decided to preserve the land, which the Michigan Legacy Art Park now leases for $1 a year.

“Everything that went into the park was sweat equity,” says Hintz, who has been with the nonprofit for almost a decade, taking on her current role as full-time executive director within the past couple of years. “Our angel was Crystal Mountain.”

For a long time, as the Art Park got established and grew, Barr spent many days Up North, working with a group of supporters.

“We didn’t have any real money or sponsors—we had to manufacture all of that, with everyone pitching in,” he recalls. “Like any start-up, it was very intense and difficult, but very good. I don’t mind the struggle. It was a good struggle.”

It was exciting to inject culture and art in Benzie County, Barr says, and over time the Art Park has rightfully evolved.

“My own belief is if you do a project like this, with the right philosophy and right set of people, it tells you what it wants to be. As we went along, it kept defining itself,” he says.

At the time, the Art Park was among only a handful of its kind in the United States. “Our inspiration for doing it in the woods like this was based on a place called Grizedale Park in England,” Hintz says. “It’s a sculpture park and they tend to focus on things that will go back to nature, things like stick work and natural materials.”

Tribute to White-Tailed Deer by Sandra Osip

Tribute to White-Tailed Deer by Sandra Osip

The Michigan Legacy Art Park features environmental sculptures, along with a number of pieces that are made from a variety of materials, such as ferrocement—mortar over mesh wire—in the sculpture titled “Bonnet,” by Lois Teicher-a piece that rises 9 feet amid the trees.

Teicher, a friend of Barr’s, created Bonnet for the park in 1998. She noticed that all of the sculptures at that point had themes related to men and told Barr she wanted to do a sculpture that pays homage to women’s contributions to Michigan.

After all, when Northern Michigan’s logging industry was in full tilt in the 1800s, the men were not here alone. Wives, daughters and girlfriends were here creating community, taking care of families. “It’s kind of incredible,” Hintz says. “This piece is, I think, strongest in the winter, when it’s covered in snow and you think about just how hard that life would have been. It makes it a little more real.”

“Serpent Mound,” by Patricia Innis, is among the park’s environmental sculptures. Just off the trail a 120-foot-long mass of earth winds its way through the woods and has an open mouth about to swallow an egg. Both the serpent and the egg are made of sand covered with a layer of topsoil and mulch. Sweet woodruff groundcover blankets the serpent while moss grows on the egg.

“She wanted to tell the story of the ancient mound builders who were here over 2,000 years ago,” Hintz says. Elementary school students assisted Innis with its creation.
Innis, who serves as education director for the park, works with 21 schools from 10 different Michigan counties. She’s also behind the Ernest Hemingway–inspired artwork “Hemingway Haunts”—five silhouettes that emerge from among the trees.

Painted with natural dyes, these five figures on the tree trunks depict characters from Hemingway’s books, such as Nick Adams, the young man, and Gregoria Fuentes, the captain of Hemingway’s boat the “Pilar” (representative of the hero in the Old Man and the Sea).

“It pays homage to him and also the time he spent as a young man and child in Northern Michigan. We like to imagine that Hemingway tromped through these forests,” Hintz says.
We move farther along the trail, and soon Hintz stops again. “I love this angle,” she says. We’ve crested a hill, trekked down several steps to a dip in the pathway, and one of the park’s largest sculptures stands to our right: “Five Needles,” by Michael McGillis, which honors Michigan’s state tree, the white pine.

Today, virgin white pine is nearly gone in the Lower Peninsula, but stands can be found at Hartwick Pines and Interlochen State Parks. McGillis’s work at the Art Park is designed to honor this vanishing part of Michigan—the title is derived from the five needles that make up the white pine needle bundle.

Five leaning pine trunks with aging canvas sails, attached to booms, spiral up toward the sky. The branches with sails are arranged in a sequence reminiscent of the Fibonacci Spiral, the natural growth pattern for tree-branches and cones, many seashells and other natural forms. The sails are “just so magnificent,” Hintz says. “They’re so big, and it makes you feel so little.” The tallest sail reaches 40 feet high, and each mast is sunk at least 10 feet into the earth.

Visitors are encouraged to use their senses while touring the park. At a 300-pound granite egg—“Nurture/Nature,” by David Barr—Hintz turns to me. “I encourage everyone to touch this egg,” she says. It’s smooth and cold and beautifully big.

Farther down the trail, we come to “Fallen Comrade,” by David Greenwood. As is the case with many of the park’s sculptures, the installation process is a story in and of itself.

“Fallen Comrade” is a stylized interpretation of a P-51 Mustang, a fighter plane that played a dominant role in World War II air battles. Greenwood, whose father fought in World War II, designed his plane to create a spiritual, dreamlike impression.

Numerous volunteers, including school children, helped assemble and even paint the wooden sculpture, which arrived at the park in eight pieces. Nearby Thompsonville Airport even assisted with a hangar.

“It took a lot of effort by lots of people to make it happen,” Hintz says.

The centerpiece of the Art Park comes toward the end of the tour, with Barr’s “Stockade Labyrinth,” inspired by words often attributed to Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

“Life can only be understood backward; but it must be lived forward.” This multi-level labyrinth modeled after a frontier stockade fort is to be explored. It showcases Michigan history throughout past centuries.

Each year, some 10,000 people visit the Art Park. At least 1,000 kids see the sculptures during school field trips. The park’s amphitheater, an original feature, plays host to outdoor concerts and other special events year-round. In early July, Traverse City’s Joshua Davis, of The Voice fame, performed for a sold-out crowd.

The Summer Sounds concert series is held on Fridays through mid-August. Last winter, a snowy Winter Sounds holiday concert took place in December.

The Art Park continues to grow and change, just as it was intended to do. A recent fundraising campaign and Rotary Charities grant provided for an improved, barrier-free arrival area as well as a new quarter-mile trail leading to the amphitheater and new benches, among other upgrades.

New artwork will continue to be added. “We have by no means told the entire story of Michigan,” Hintz says. “We have lots more stories to be told. We have a lot more space in the park, too, especially if we continue to do sculptures that are environmental, that go back to nature.”

Founder David Barr likewise looks forward to a continued evolution at the Art Park. “It’s still in development—there can be a lot more there, a lot more reacting to contemporary times and new points of view as we go along. I think it will continue to re-define itself. Some works are meant to be there for a short amount of time, some are meant to be there longer, and some are meant to be re-thought. I encourage that.”


Make it a weekend 

The park:
The Michigan Legacy Art Park, celebrating 20 years in 2015, is open daylight hours every day of the year. Admission is $5 for adults, free for children. 231.378.4963.

Pack a picnic and eat at the tables near the trailhead or amphitheater. Or enjoy an après-hike meal at one of Crystal Mountain’s restaurants, all within walking distance or a short drive from the Art Park: Thistle Pub & Grille is open year round for lunch and dinner; the Wild Tomato Restaurant & Bar has family- and kid-friendly options. The resort also has a convenience store and deli.

Stay on site at Crystal Mountain:
Lodging options include over 250 hotel rooms, suites, condos, townhomes and resort residences. Along with visiting the Art Park, take advantage of the resort’s trail systems, for walking, hiking and mountain biking. 855.995.5146.

Also in Benzie County:
Check out the Betsie Valley Trail, built on the bed of the former Ann Arbor Railroad. The 22-mile trail is asphalt from Frankfort to Beulah (6 miles) and compacted aggregate the remaining miles to Thompsonville (near where the Art Park is located). The trail passes through beautiful stretches of forest and occasionally by the Betsie River.

Reserve time to roam Frankfort, the nearest harbor town, 15 miles northwest. Wander the pier—a third of a mile long; catch a film at the nicely renovated Garden Theater and sample downtown restaurants like Fusion (Asian), Cru Cellars (wine bar), Stormcloud Brewing (microbrewery), and Dinghy’s (classic Americana). The beach is wide and clean.

Find more lodging options in Benzie County here.  

Find more restaurants, things to do and places to see in the MyNorth Vacation Guide for Benzie County! 
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More Northern Michigan Art

Michigan Artists Gallery in Traverse City

Leland’s Old Art Building: Q&A with Instructor Jenna Chapman

Grayling Artist Anthony Neal Goes Above the Clouds for Grand Rapids ArtPrize 2015

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski