The perfect time to walk the sculpture trail at Cheekwood is when you are alone. It’s even better if it’s a gray day in December when all the trees are scrawny and brown and most people don’t opt to peruse the bit of forest that holds the museum’s permanent outdoor art collection.
The Carrell Woodland Sculpture Trail is a 0.9-mile hike to 15 sculptures by a surprising range artists, such as James Turrell, Ulrich Rückreim, Sophie Ryder, George Hickey, and Mel Chin. From giant crawling rabbit-human hybrids to a covered bridge made entirely of glass, each work is awe-inducing in its own way and considerate of the space it occupies. But the one I had always heard about, yet had never actually seen (in person or in pictures), was an unassuming work by one of my favorite artists, Jenny Holzer.
An art-poet of the first order, Holzer’s arrangement of language in the environment is spellbinding and near perfect. There are few artists in the canon of contemporary art that have done more to successfully push the boundaries of text-based art than Holzer. For disciples of both art and literature, like myself, Holzer is basically the Holy Grail.
That said, somehow, I’d never managed to walk the trail until recently. As an art writer, most of my visits to Cheekwood have been on assignment. I’ve buzzed in to take notes on an exhibition in the mansion’s gallery space, usually on a tight schedule without extra time to explore the premises. But on a brisk day as last year was coming to an end, I decided to go wander.
Alone and slightly chilled, I crunched my way through the winding footpath, my enjoyment of every artwork magnified by being alone. I’ve found that I can only experience wonder—that thrill of being completely engulfed by the beauty of something—when I’m by myself. Do you ever feel that way? I’m not sure what it is about having my friends or my family or my fiancé around, but there’s something about the presence of another human that anchors me to the tangible world and to my sense of adulthood. However, when it’s just me, I feel like I’m 12, running around the world kicking dandelions, inspired by sunlight and shattered glass on the sidewalk. That’s how this day was.
After an hour of slow browsing, on the outermost brink of the sculpture trail, I walked right by an unassuming stool that sat just off the path. After a few paces, I stopped and backtracked to the stool. There it was. The Holzer.
Etched into the top of the Vermont white marble stool were the words I knew could only be hers:
IN A DREAM
YOU SAW A WAY
AND YOU WERE
FULL OF JOY
I stood there, in front of the sculpture rereading the words. The moment felt bigger than me. Better than me. The wind blew my sweater and tickled the nape of my neck. I think I fell in love. Right there, in that moment. In my mind, I just kept saying Thank you thank you thank you. I suppose I was addressing Holzer, or maybe the object itself, or maybe it was nothing specific at all, just art. That it exists to create moments exactly like this one. Thank god it still exists, I thought. On a Tuesday when I’d felt nothing all day, nothing heavy and nothing light, here was a message from a distant human being that found its way to my feet, that gave me an incredible feeling. Wonder may not be the right word, but it’s the only one that comes to mind. Pure, undiluted wonder—which, with every year I stay alive, I learn to appreciate just a little bit more.
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean and an editor at Number, an independent arts journal of the South. She also works with David Lusk Gallery and Cumberland Art Conservation, and is cofounder of the gallery Threesquared. Her writing has also been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, ArtNow, and others. For more: saraestes.com.