By Tammy Scileppi
A sculpture garden grows in Elmhurst.
What started out as an overgrown, neglected lot behind the Olive Garden at 92-10 59th Ave. has gradually been transformed into an urban garden and user-friendly art space, complete with sculptures crafted by local artists and “inspirational” benches.
But it didn’t magically get that way. As with all gardens, it took time, hard work and lots of TLC to help it grow and blossom.
The entire project — a work in progress — has been a labor of love. Thanks to dedicated volunteers who teamed up for the first beautification phase, a massive cleanup took place from July 23 to July 28, and after weeding and discarding large amounts of debris, benches were designed, built and installed.
One whimsical aluminum sculpture now graces that newly revived space, but more are in the works, based on designs submitted by several imaginative artists.
The idea for this collaborative community project came after Forest Hills visual artist Susan Varo approached founder and Executive director Yvonne Shortt of RPGA Studio — a well-known local nonprofit — to collaborate on the under-served area and see how they could change it.
“I have passed this immense location for years, on a daily basis, and it had been neglected, overgrown with vegetation and had a well-worn path from foot traffic,” Varo said. “I thought how nice it would be to turn this heavily used lot space into a user-friendly art space.”
Varo and Shortt visited the site together, and the duo began its collaboration.
“After visiting the space with Susan, I also thought this might be a great place to revitalize, since I recently received the Burning Man Global Arts Grant to create community sculpture pieces made from aluminum,” Shortt explained. “As an artist, I’m seeing a different possibility for this place, and asking the community to come along on the adventure.”
By once again “using creativity to address community issues” — her nonprofit’s motto — Shortt put her plan into action and launched Phase 1 of the Elmhurst Sculpture Garden project, working with 45 young people from a Texas mission group, who traveled to Queens for one week to clean out the lot.
She said it was important to bring awareness to this project in the hopes that more folks would join in to help make it a reality.
Volunteers would work on 2,500 square feet or so, which wasn’t the entire space, according to Shortt. Her layout design concept includes four trees that will have a pebble area with four benches that she designed, which would be painted with an inspiring message: 1. “Life can be” 2. “an adventure” 3. “It’s up to” 4. “you.”
The benches were built by five young women, who learned hands-on, how to work with tools. “I’m so proud of them,” said Shortt. “One remarked, ‘I never used a drill before in my life. She has now.’”
As the garden takes shape, more exciting things are in the works. A sculpture design class is set for Aug. 17, and everyone is welcome to help create artwork for this special space. “With the grant I received, I will cover the cost of all materials,” said Shortt, who is looking forward to putting up additional community-crafted aluminum sculptures through September. Along with the grant, funding for the project is also provided by Queens Council for the Arts.
The garden’s first sculpture, a giraffe called Ms. Polka Dot Red, was designed and built by Shortt, along with Kew Gardens artist Mayuko Fujino, and Flushing creative Joel Esquite. “Polka dots are for the theme that will run through each piece, and red is for her desire to be bold and find innovative ways to grow her community,” Shortt explained.
“When we get involved, we meet other people, work together, build community, and show our kids through hard work what is possible,” said the longtime Queens activist and educator, who taught her own children the importance of giving back.
“My entire focus is on turning the space into something our community can be proud of. We shouldn’t see so much garbage and trash on our way home from the Woodhaven station.”
The estimated completion date for Phase 1 is sometime in November, according to Shortt, who noted that Phase 2 starts this month through October. During this time, her goal is to teach more people how to turn their sketches into sculptures and mount them with U-channel posts in the garden.
“At this point in my career, I can no longer be happy with my work in galleries and hotels. I see my work being used in my community. This is why I have a nonprofit social practice and why I do what I do,” said Shortt.
“The youth coming here from Texas to help out have also been a great way to engage in dialogue. I think these kids show us how it’s not about Democrats or Republicans. It’s about people and our desire to connect to make communities better.
Dr. Andrew Weil — author and world-renowned leader and pioneer in the field of integrative medicine — once said: “In the garden, cause and effect, labor and reward, are recoupled. Gardening makes sense in a senseless world. By extension, then, the more gardens in the world, the more justice, the more sense is created.”
Anyone interested in the sculpture design class — set for Thursday, Aug. 17, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. — can call 718-205-5207.