Sculpture Fields at Montague Park Creates an Oasis in the Southside

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They say art is transformative— with the power to awaken, heal and center— and that’s exactly what is happening in the heart of Southside Chattanooga where the previously condemned Montague Park is getting more than a face lift—it’s getting a soul lift. From a deserted city dump to a thriving creative hub, the 33 acres hemmed in by Main and 23rd Streets are being reclaimed for a new life and a new purpose with the opening of the Sculpture Fields at Montague Park this fall.

A New Vision
Left untouched, uncapped and uninhabited for years due to environmental concerns, the stretch of land gifted to the city by the Montague family in 1911 for public use is being stirred from its slumber by the vision of world-renowned sculptor John Henry and his wife Pamela. After first moving into the building adjacent Montague Park 15 years ago, the couple quickly spotted the potential hidden underneath the neglected, overgrown wilderness.Henry - Bette Davis Eyes

“When we bought the building, all these windows were covered in metal, and so we peeled the metal back, looked out the back window and immediately said, ‘Sculpture park!’ That was in 2000,” says Pamela Henry.

Having experienced firsthand the life sculpture parks can bring to a community, work began on turning the brownfield into a greenfield, bringing in more than 100,000 cubic yards of dirt to cap the ground and create a safe and healthy community space. The extra soil was also used to form berms— or embankments— framing and providing rooming situations to better enjoy each sculpture piece.

Drawing from his extensive experience working with sculpture parks, John Henry— whose own art can be seen displayed throughout America, Europe and Asia— approached Montague Park not as a hopeless landfill but as a waiting canvas.

“The land was pretty much not fit for anything else because it was a brownfield site, and the softball fields that were once here were shut down due to environmental concerns,” says Henry, Sculpture Fields Founder. “The idea is to create for this region and for Chattanooga a major cultural destination. Sculpture parks are popping up all over the world, and I’ve been involved with some from their inception…so I figured why don’t we give this a try.”

The Power in a Park
But more than cultural destinations, many sculpture parks become economic drivers for their host communities, attracting hundreds of thousands of art-lovers, outdoor enthusiasts, students, families and more each year who fill surrounding restaurants, hotels and local businesses.

“I think Chattanooga already has an appreciation for the arts—more so than other cities—but I think that’s going to grow when they see the impact and the people that will come to visit the sculpture park from around the world…and how it can change the city around it,” says Catherine Clifford, Sculpture Fields executive director. “You look at Millennium Park in Chicago. Truly the city has started to build itself around the park.”

The brainchild of Mayor Richard M. Daley, Millennium Park bears a story similar in origin to Montague’s own restoration tale. Looking down on the commuter railroad tracks that once butchered the city’s landscape from the high-rise office of his dentist, Daley envisioned a beautiful alternative— a park that has since become central to the city’s identity and a $4 billion economic driver, noted Pamela Henry. It’s the power of cultural tourism at work—a strain of tourism Sculpture Fields now aims to bring to Chattanooga.

“We have got a lot of work ahead of us,” said Clifford. “We’re working with the city government, and we’re working for this community, and we’re trying to provide something that’s going to be special…”Neltje Woman

Coming This Fall
The first of its kind in the Southeastern region, the Sculpture Fields at Montague Park will converge art with nature, punctuating the park’s sprawling green with 75 monumental sculpture pieces upon the park’s completion that will be tucked amidst a series of rambling walkways. The collection, forged by the hands of local, national and international artists, will also be consistently refreshed with newer pieces. More than 20 of these large-scale sculptures will be on display in the park come fall, which will be open free to the public beginning November 21 during weekends from dawn until dusk. Following the grand opening in spring 2016, visitors will be able to enjoy the park seven days a week.

Sculpture Fields officials expect the spring opening to include the unveiling of a visitor’s center, along with an interactive children’s art program and more. An outdoor amphitheater is also at the center of plans for the third phase of the park’s grand opening, providing a unique space for the community to enjoy outdoor concerts, theatrical performances and other special events. Students in kindergarten through college additionally will find in the park an unmatched resource, giving local schools and families a chance to make art larger-than-life.

“We want to make the park user-friendly and create a real oasis in Chattanooga for people to come out with their families, have picnics, enjoy the park and see something they’ve never seen before with major works of sculpture from all over the world,” Henry says.

Set in the heart of the Southside, John Henry believes Sculpture Fields will pick up where the Hunter Museum leaves off, expanding the city’s artistic offerings from national to international and mid-scale to monumental. The outdoor museum’s main entrance will be located on Polk Street.

“Think about this park and where it is juxtaposed in the city— it’s really smack in the center of the whole city,” says Pamela. “The draw here for the Southside, which is booming with people moving in, is that they’re going to have a 33-acre park to walk in; fly kites in; do yoga in; to just contemplate and be quiet in, if they want, and have this magnificent view of Lookout Mountain and be in a serene place. The neighborhoods that are surrounding us will have the great use of this, as well.”

Paying Tribute

Anchors Memorial Statue

Anchors Memorial Statue

In September, the Sculpture Fields paid tribute to the five servicemen slain in the July 16 tragedy with a 60-foot, 100-ton concrete and metal piece created by international artist Peter Lundberg. A now permanent addition to the park’s collection, the massive crossing spire, entitled “Anchors,” stands tall as a lasting beacon of strength and solace. The largest work in the park—and the largest work yet created by Lundberg—it speaks to sculpture’s poignant ability to embody prayers, channel visions or, in this case, honor heroes.

“My sculpture can’t do anything to bring back those lives we lost, but the word ‘celebration’ is appropriate,” says Lundberg, whose work is currently featured on four continents. “I think what’s important is that we celebrate their lives and pay tribute in the finest way we can.”

Just the Beginning
Heading now toward the November opening, the Sculpture Fields at Montague Park is on track with only $40,000 remaining of its $1 million fundraising goal for the fall debut. If interested in volunteering or contributing toward the Sculpture Fields at Montague Park, please visit SculptureFields.org and join Sculpture Fields on November 21.

November is only the beginning. As Peter Lundberg notes, “I’m telling you, this is the beginning of something extraordinary here.” And it seems he may be right.

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Callie Smith is a frequent contributor to Chattanooga Magazine.

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