Who Mows the Lawn at Storm King, New Yorks Largest Sculpture Park?


It takes a crew of eight to maintain the 500 acres at Storm King Art Center, where art lives in the landscape.

Storm King Art Center isnt a museum, exactly. Instead of hanging on white walls or resting on pedestals under track lighting, the art here is nestled amid 500 acres of verdant hills, exposed to the ever-shifting and unrelenting climate of New Yorks Hudson Valley.

The surrounding landscape frames the pieces in ways that squares of gilded wood never could. At the property in Cornwall, N.Y. the color of Mark di Suveros Mother Peace can be appreciated alongside the matching hue of local Red-winged Blackbirds and the plastic dynamism of sculptures like Jerome Kirks Orbit (1972) is only heightened by the darting of rabbits nearby.

Mike Seaman and his seven-person facilities crew are the stewards of this complex, evolving environment. They keep the carefully sculpted lawns mowed, the trees trimmed and the sculptures clean and intact. When a hole needs to be dug, they perform the excavation. When something needs to be fabricated, theyre the ones to do it.

Seaman, who has worked at Storm King for almost 30 years, is modest about the role he and his crew play at Storm King. He would rather, it seems, talk about chemical reactions than about himself. You have to use distilled water to refurbish certain sculptures, he explained, because otherwise contaminants can leave blemishes behind. Sculptures that tend to be touched by visitors (touching, in general, is not allowed) need special attention, because the oil on human hands can damage their patina. Wax, used to protect some pieces, should be applied sparingly, because it can catch pollen and dust.

He sounds like one-part high school science teacher and one-part medieval alchemist. When he lights up a blowtorch in the summer heat to retouch Nam June Paiks Waiting for UFO (1992), he transforms into a master craftsman careful, deliberate, attuned to his instrument.

Seaman sees himself, primarily, as a facilitator and mediator between artists and curators and the demands of nature. When installing a new piece, his aim is to help actualize the centers artworks by placing them in the environment in the least invasive way possible. Disturbing the sites plants and wildlife is always avoided when it can be.

For us, you cant just impose something on the landscape, said Nora Lawrence, a senior curator at Storm King. Thats not only because it goes against the centers artistic and environmental commitments. There are also practical constraints to consider, and Seamans team knows the propertys weather and topography intimately. Sometimes, Lawrence explained, artists have to be told things like, thats going to flood or we cant possibly create something that deep in the ground or if we dig there were going to hit a boulder.

At a place where the art is meant to interact with its surroundings, even basic maintenance work has a big impact. When a member of the crew mows Maya Lins Storm King Wavefield, theyre not just keeping the grounds neat. Theyre also participating, along with the sites natural forces, in the re-creation of the artwork. And cleaning Alyson Shotzs Mirror Fence so it can reflect the faces of visitors and the surrounding foliage isnt only good housekeeping. Its necessary for the piece to function in the way it was intended.

Seaman and his team are also integral to ensuring that Storm King is environmentally friendly and hospitable to the local wildlife. In 2012, they planted six acres of local grasses and wildflowers to attract more endemic birds and insects. Six more acres followed the next year, seeded with grass and forb suited to the microclimates within the site, and there have been several more such planting projects since. Seaman is currently preparing to replant the area near Mother Peace with more flora native to the Hudson Valley.

After working there for decades, watching Storm King evolve over time, Seaman said, is what hes most enjoyed about his career. During his tenure, he has seen saplings flourish, new species of animals visit and major artworks added. Day-trippers might not catch the subtle changes that unfold over years, but despite Storm Kings vastness, Seaman still encourages visitors to slow down to look at small details.

Thomas Prior is a New York-based visual journalist. Peter Libbey is a News Assistant on the Culture desk.

Surfacing is a weekly column that explores the intersection of art and life, produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben and Josephine Sedgwick.

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