Alnoba’s outdoor sculpture collection is a fascinating vista of art that provokes and inspires | A&E

By the time I get halfway through the eclectic sculpture tour, I’m tuned in, if a bit muddled.

It’s mid-morning, the bugs aren’t biting thanks to a pleasant breeze, and I’m standing in a sun-drenched field on the sprawling 600-acre Alnoba grounds in Kensington.

I’ve stopped for a moment to take in a sea of ​​wildflowers, framed against green tree branches and a blue sky speckled with puffs of clouds.

That’s when it happens. My eyes drift to a stone wall, tucked behind a section of trail, and without warning, I wonder if the way the end of the wall dissolves into a puddle of small stones is an existential statement on the fragility and impermanence of life.

The thought comes out of nowhere, and I let out a self-conscious chuckle.

Um, maybe that cluster of rocks is … a cluster of rocks, because, well, this is the Granite State, and rocks happen.

Or maybe this tour is getting to me, in the best possible way.

'Colossal Fragment'

With a serene expression, “Colossal Fragment,” a 2016 bronze sculpture by South African artist Lionel Smit, has a blend of naturalism and abstraction. Be sure to walk around the piece to see the face created on the inverse side, especially on a sunny day when light filtering through the trees makes it appear to glow.

Alnoba’s mission is a feisty blend of conservation and connection with the planet. It’s a place meant to provoke as well as inspire, from empowering quotations etched into standing rocks to team-building ropes courses and meditative gathering spots.

Founded by Alan and Harriet Lewis and revolving around social and climate initiatives, Alnoba is only open to the public via registered tours and special events.

On a recent Friday, tour guide Susan Feltus greets a group of guests from New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the parking lot for a walking tour of some of the sculptures.

The fact that some of us haven’t been here before works in our favor, as we immediately begin scanning the woods, open fields and horizons for possible signs of creativity — and finding it in unexpected places.

Feltus is a spirited host, keeping the group — a mix of first-timers and repeat visitors — on pace in the 90-minute timeframe. She serves up background details on artists and sculptures, and tosses out quips and questions.

After a while, the line between art and nature starts to blur, and even changes perspective as we move toward and walk around each sculpture.

“It’s made me so much more aware of colors and shapes,” Feltus says.

In the woods, we find “Colossal Fragment,” a 2016 sculpture by South African artist Lionel Smit. It’s a serene and introspective bronze face that curves in the shape of a mask.

Be sure to circle around the piece, especially if visiting on a sunny day. The sun filters through the trees and makes the back of the blue-green sculpture, with its inverse view of the face, glow.

It’s placed across from a 2014 sculpture created by Shany Van Den Berg, also of South Africa. The abstract bronze work reflects her early work as a nurse. The indistinct head seems to be covered with layer upon layer of medical bandages. Harriet Lewis, who chose most of the pieces on display at Alnoba, has said she felt a connection to this sculpture as her mother was a psychiatric nurse.

Some visitors see a sense of healing when they look at the sculpture, but one visitor on the recent tour says softly, “It looks mummified.”

What do you see?

The purpose of this place is to get people to notice the colors, perspectives and shapes they might otherwise gloss over or take for granted.

It’s not always obvious, and it’s not always pretty, Feltus says.

A visitor favorite, made in 1994 by Joseph Wheelwright, rises from an incongruously picturesque field of yellow wildflowers. Called “Smokejumper,” the piece’s name is a reference to the firefighters who parachute in to reach and fight remote fires.

But the skeletal figure, and others he has created, also was inspired by Wheelwright’s childhood wariness of creepy, bare-branched trees on winter walks from the bus stop. As an artist, he’s flipped that unease on its head, using root structures of a tree for the bony fingers and arms of the upper body. Up close, it’s easy to imagine the bump on the back of one of its feet as a calloused heel and the knobs on the back as a spiny torso.

'Nuria and Irma'

Jaume Plensa, a Spanish artist who has several pieces on display at Alnoba’s grounds in Kensington, titled this metal mesh installation “Nuria and Irma.”

Next we head toward two amorphous heads crafted from metal mesh. Seen from afar, it has the feel of a computer-generated special effect. This 2011 creation — “Nuria and Irma,” by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, seems to superimpose outlines, with recognizable curves of foreheads, noses and chins, onto the landscape.

But it also has a sense of invisibility, since you can look right through the piece to see the scenery or an assortment of visitors in colorful summer shirts as they point overhead to features on the large-scale heads.

It also comes with a sort of optical illusion. From farther away, the pair seem to gaze in different directions, but when visitors get to a certain point on the downslope approach to the sculptures, the perspective shifts and the heads seem to be facing one another.

“We are always with one foot in normal life and one foot in the most amazing abstraction,” Plensa said in his artist statement.

It’s a message that repeats itself during the tour. One visitor likens it to opening up to possibilities and seeing art as an extension of the landscape.

Kids favorites

Two pieces children gravitate to are “Wildwood” and “Going Going Gone.”

'Going, Going, Gone'

In this close-up view of “Going, Going, Gone,” by New York artist Orly Genger, ripples of woven, recycled lobster rope stretch across a clearing at Alnoba in Kensington.

Artist Patrick Dougherty and his assistants in 2019 weaved the labyrinthian “Wildwood” out of willow branches and saplings from the Alnoba property. It mimics the twisting tree roots of the forest, and invites visitors on a short, winding route through swirled and rotated growth.

“If you were a 7-year-old, you’d be in it by now,” laughs Feltus, standing next to the hut-like structure.

“Going, Going, Gone,” a 2016 piece by Orly Genger of New York, is a wave-like installation made of hand-crocheted recycled lobster rope. It’s painted bright red and undulates across the green grass as if diving below the turf and remerging a few feet later.

“Going, Going, Gone,” with a nod to sustainability and repurposing of resources, invites interaction. People can touch — and walk on — the art. I give it a try and the rising layers feel sturdy, with a hint of give to the roping beneath my sneakers.

'The Gorilla'

Visitors gaze up at “The Gorilla,” by South African sculptor Brett Murray, in a clearing on Alnoba’s 600-acre property in Kensington. Some people see a friendly countenance in the rounded body while others see an angry or guarded stance in the hunched shoulders and taut hands held behind the back.

We also visit the “Gorilla,” a stout figure that some find cute while others see as taut with anger (Brett Murray, 2017); the contemplative silvery sculpture “Julia” (Jaume Plensa, 2011); seven figures sitting in an open meadow, their knees drawn up and their arms hugging beech trees (Plensa, 2016); and the “Wild West Buffalo” made of salvaged scrap metals, including shovels, rusty car parts and forks (John Lopez, 2013).

Throughout the tour, conversations range from social, economic and racial issues to things ethereal and playful.

As we come out of the woods at the end of the tour, five women in the group make a beeline toward what looks like large, strangely off-kilter spools outside the main building at Alnoba. The walkers plop themselves into cup-shaped seats, grip the rim on both sides, and lean forward and to the side to set things in motion. Then they wobble in circles, like well-versed Weebles that don’t fall down.

The moment seems a perfect way to end the tour. Life and art is what you make of it.