If, like me, you’ve more than once viewed a painting and wished you could walk right into it, you will find Topiary Park in Downtown Columbus an art lover’s dream come true. Ensconced in the shadow of ultra-modern high rises, paths wind through this ethereal space, a sculpted shrubbery rendition of Georges Seurat’s famous post-impressionistic painting, A Sunday on the Island of la Grande Jatte. Spread out over five acres, more than seventy life-like topiary sculptures, clipped and shaped into three dimensional figures of couples, children and pets, resemble the figures in Seurat’s artwork. Five boats bob in a reedy, reflective pond that stands in for the River Seine. Intended to create the sense of being within the actual “painting,” the figures are arranged just like Seurat’s painting but created in a new medium. With the painting as inspiration, Topiary Park brings visitors full circle, back into an afternoon in the park.
As you wander through the winding paths, you’ll find yourself taking unexpected turns and discovering intimate flower filled spaces where topiary “statues” stand. Picnickers often gather in small groups under shade trees in view of the pond. It’s a new and engaging experience every step of the way–art come to life, expressed through nature.
Near the park’s entrance, a plaque suggests a walk up the adjacent hillside where you can see the front of the “painting” from its peak. There you will find a relief of Seurat’s painting propped on an easel. From this viewpoint, you can see the scene as Seurat painted it. Be sure and notice how the topiary is done in exaggerated perspective. At the front, the figures are about twelve feet tall. At the far end of the pond, smaller figures give a sense of depth, as in the painting. The pond itself holds topiary characters too. Fishermen and women sit in boats, fishing rods at the ready. Unfazed by it all, real life ducks enjoy the waters.
When I visited on a warm May afternoon, I envisioned myself being there with a friend as we spread a blanket on the lawn overlooking the pond and then sharing a bottle of wine with a picnic lunch, all the while feeling immersed in the surrealistic sense of being one with those in the “painting.”
Seasonal maintenance of trimming and shaping of Topiary Park was scheduled for June, just after my May visit so the greenery was at its peak growth when I photographed the park.
How it came to be: It all started when Columbus resident Elaine Mason asked her sculptor husband, James, to design and create a topiary sculpture in their home garden. Serendipity stepped in when they learned the city was searching for unique ideas to showcase the site of the former home of Columbus School for the Deaf. It was then that the concept of creating a landscape design inspired by a painting took hold. Mason pitched the idea–recreating a painting in topiary form–to the powers that be and the couple’s original project spiraled into the grand result we see today. Work began in 1982 with the installation of artificial hills overlooking a pond that would come to represent the River Seine. Working as a team, James shaped the bronze frames that would coax the greenery into shape and his wife, Elaine, served as the original topiarist. The Mason’s creative vision came into full fruition when Topiary Park was officially dedicated by the city in 1992. With his design, Mason created a dynamic work of art, an immersive nature based “painting” that brings to life the textural and tactile experience of being both within a painting as you wander through the garden and actually becoming a moving part of it. Quite a concept. For Elaine Mason, it was a visionary wish fulfilled on a grand scale, a collaboration inspired by a painting, created by a present day artist in a city capable of supporting innovative art that embraces all who visit.
A Sensation: It took Seurat more than two years to complete his signature piece; the one that inspired not only Topiary Park, but also a play by Stephen Sondheim and a.feature in a hit movie. The completed work began with a series of almost 60 sketches he made while people-watching at the Paris park. When, in 1885, he exhibited A Sunday on the Island of la Grande Jatte at a prominent salon in Paris, it caused quite a stir. Because he broke free of tradition and followed his own vision, Seurat ushered in a new technique, a step beyond Impressionism called Pointillism. Both this and his other Impressionist pieces eventually sparked the artistic movement known as Neo-Impressionism.
Now, well over a century later, A Sunday on the Island of la Grande Jatte still inspires creativity and innovation. The painting and the life of its artist were the basis for the Pulitzer Prize Award-winning 1984 Broadway musical Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Since then, the play has been continually in production. Its plot follows the fictionalized Seurat during his young life and development as an artist. As recently as 2018, a musical revival production of Sunday in the Park with George ran for more than two months at the San Francisco Playhouse. Earlier this year, a rapt audience attended the production at Theatre 166 in Mansfireld, Ohio, just outside of Columbus. As a result, people often refer to the painting by the name of the play, “Sunday in the Park”.
Today, Seurat’s masterpiece is in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. View it there and then, for a complete counterpoint, watch the 1986 comedy film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off which prominently features the painting in the plot. Like all great master-pieces, La Grande Jatte continues to fascinate and inspire.
Columbus prides itself on its public art and gardens. Visiting Topiary Park is just one way to appreciate the arts and outdoor spaces that enrich the city. While visiting Columbus, I dipped into its cultural riches with a visit to the Columbus Museum of Art, explored an artist collective, strolled past colorful murals and knew I would come back for more. Next time a picnic in Topiary Park will be high on my agenda.
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