Part I: Folklore and Fact: Fairies, “Friends” and a Farrago (What put the “wild” in Wildwood)
Legend has it that magical creatures, sprites and fairies reside amongst the lichens and moss found in Wildwood Park. Will-o’ the wisps light up the nights on the lake, and whispers from wee folk are heard on the walking trails if you listen closely.
The lore surrounding the environ speaks to this haven for nature and its otherworldly inhabitants. The 229 acres comprising the space within the park’s parameters have been designated as a natural habitat now approaching 120 years in operation. The superstition, “knock on wood,” has its origins in the days of yore when the Celts roamed Europe. People would run into the woods to share secrets then literally knock on the trees, so the spirits abiding within would not hear what was divulged.
In late afternoon, Wildwood Park becomes a photo from an album of bygone years—blue sky, calm water, a lone heron on the lake and twee chipmunks frolicking among the ground cover. It wasn’t always that way. Wildwood Park’s history has had its share of ups and downs over its six score years.
It was originally called Wetzel’s Swamp. In 1901, Wildwood Lake was established by Harrisburg as part of a national movement called “City Beautiful,” incorporating elements of interest well advanced for the day. It housed a zoo that counted “lions and tigers and bears” oh my…(just kidding) among its constituency. Seriously, the zoo was home to a whimsical farrago of animals that included elk, buffalo, a black bear and a barrel full of monkeys, 24, in fact, exotic and enchanting. The zoo was a popular feature from the 1920s through the 1940s. The menagerie included a mountain lion, muskrat, raccoon, mink and white-tailed deer among the attractions. Where the deer and antelope played was situated on the acreage today that is the HACC campus. Riding stables, boating concessions and a ball field all provided entertainment and recreational opportunities. Combine the legend and lore, and therein lies the foundation for “Wildwood.”
The park fell to disrepair and ended up becoming a dumping site by the 1960s. Also, later in that decade, the Audubon Society, through a study, determined Wildwood to be ideal for a nature center with programming as a natural extension. The Dauphin County commissioners purchased the land we recognize today as Wildwood Park for the magnanimous sum of $1 in 1976 with the blessing of Harrisburg City Council and a land transfer. The nonprofit “Friends of Wildwood” was established in 1987 and, in 1989, the American lotus, native to Wildwood, was placed on the endangered plant species list. In 1992, philanthropist and one of Wildwood’s greatest “friends,” Benjamin Olewine, established a trust and, in 1999, the $4-million-plus Olewine Nature Center opened. To this day, it stands as a cherished treasure. The center anchors the park as the repository for education, enlightenment and entertainment of the outdoor variety.
This nod to Wildwood’s storied past acknowledges Wildwood’s friends and Dauphin County Parks and Recreation’s role, as well as Harold Plasterer, the original zookeeper, historians Floyd Demmy and Ernest Morrison and the generosity of Benjamin Olewine. So, in the spirit of knocking wood, I have left that bit of history out of the bag. There you have, in part, some of the backstory—what put the ”wild” in Wildwood.
Speaking of history, the 2020 edition of “Art in The Wild,” an annual event now in its eighth year, owes its success to the visionaries steering its committee.
Elizabeth Johnson’s humble demeanor and gentle spirit belies the embodiment of a passionate advocate for the environment, particularly that of Wildwood Park. She is assisted in her mission by longstanding committee members Marcy Brenner and Jim Caufield, equally invested in the gift “Art in the Wild” brings to the residents of Dauphin County. As in most endeavors, it takes a village, and, in this case, perhaps a forest, which includes committee members Donna Curancy-Seltzer, Patricia Garcia, Moe Hickey, Carol Lopus, Michelle McKeown, Mara Shall and Olivia Susskind, who all do their part to make this annual event a success. Park Manager Chris Rebert nurtured the first seven years with a passion and love before handing the torch to Richelle Corty, the park’s environmental educator. Sending emails and making personal calls to all the entrants, she ensured participation and kept everyone up to date on all the changes as they occurred.
Part II: “Art in the Wild” Installations 2020
Nature and art are irrepressible forces as are the artists creating. As the seasons evolve, so does the landscape. You can almost hear the gentle hum that stops for a brief reverie, then begins anew.
“Art in the Wild,” like any other art event, relies on the artists to deliver the goods. What started out as the largest field of participants (20), dwindled to a smaller group (due to the pandemic) of committed environmental artists.
Past winners truly stepped up to the challenge solely for arts sake. Two teams, Eve Gurbacki and Adrianne Zimmerman along with Beau and Jana MacGinnes, won back-to-back, first-place awards and have been at the vanguard since AITW’s inception.
Advancing this year’s theme of harmony, Gurbacki spread the visual field with crop circle totems to Mother Earth in her installation entitled “Kindred Spirits.” The MacGinnes team pushed an apocalyptic vision to new heights in “The Last Wave,” with a tsunami of a wave reaching towards the heavens, so powerful in its scope that it leaps the path to the other side. In fact, both use wide angles in promoting visual acuity as 20-20 comes into focus.
New to the mix, Suzanne Pagel created a triptych of transformation incorporating hanging ceramic disks using filament that gives the sense of being trapped in a spider web, capturing the very essence of art’s fragility in her piece, “Rings of Reflection.” “Ecospheric Tones,” created by Jill Lippert, is, on the surface, a sphere replete with pinecones camouflaging the wind chimes within.
In fairness to the other entrants, no more spoilers will be revealed as viewers need to experience the installations by walking the 3.1-mile trail. They say competition is good for the soul, and everyone likes to be recognized, but the core group of AITW winners over the past few years share a mutual admiration and appreciation for each others’ work. It embodies a sense of camaraderie more than competition. Perhaps a landscape leitmotif will run through the installations, offering individual takes on the chosen theme, “Woodland Harmony.” Jim Caufield, at last year’s awards ceremony, spoke to the level of involvement, citing the number of installations to date, which now tops 100 with this year’s offering. Mick Corman, film/video teacher at Capital Area School for the Arts, graciously videotaped the installations, as the students who previously did so were unable to this year.
By all accounts, there have been more visitors to the park since the pandemic began in March, which has resulted in greater public interest and awareness than ever before. Up close and personal is still the best way to view AITW while practicing social distancing. “Art in the Wild” has become an annual rite of spring, like the geese migrating back north, the sight of the first robin and the buds blooming on the trees. This time around promises art in nature from seasoned veterans and first-time entrants presenting a varied collection of installations for the public’s consideration, rendered refreshingly radiant. It speaks to this dedicated group. They have created monuments to nature out of fertile imaginations, from conceptualized theme to articulated achievement.
What could very well be the only new art event in the area for spring opens to the public on May 16 and runs through September’s end.