Inside/Outside: An Interactive Sculpture Experience for Families


Essay by Linda Thompson, Former Director of Education

Imagination meets interactivity in Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park’s newest sculpture experience, “Inside/Outside: An Interactive Sculpture Experience for Families.” The space was created to welcome families to this engaging new space, which was intentionally designed to encourage even the youngest children to experience the connection between sculpture and horticulture. It’s four-season fun, for all ages.

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Each of the eight educational stations includes a hands-on activity that underscores the main concept of the featured sculpture. Experience kinetic sculpture by moving a unique inspiration of George Rickey’s “Four Open Squares Horizontal Gyratory–Tapered” using your own strength as wind power. Create representations of Joan Miró’s “Woman and Bird” using selected recognizable found objects and magnets to personalize your work. Turn panels to create “shape designs” á la Louise Nevelson’s “Atmosphere and Environment XI.” Family-friendly signage accompanies all eight stations, to explain the significance of both the sculptures and the artists themselves — including interesting tidbits about the artists as children.

One sculpture, George Segal’s “Woman in Armchair,” begs kids to use their imaginations as they sit in a similar armchair and model the same body language as the figure while asking their parents to take a picture of them. Kids can then select their favorite background scene and “become” the sculpture itself.

Inside Outside

Even the flooring in this new exhibition is interactive. As you explore the space, note the digitally-printed carpeting that includes a meandering pathway through all four seasons and dozens of hidden images. This unusual search-and-find activity will surely delight guests, from toddlers to teens. Further defining the path will be photographic panels emphasizing the horticultural setting of each sculpture. Activity cards challenge kids to partner with their parents and tackle activities inside the exhibition space and outdoors, too.

“Inside/Outside: An Interactive Sculpture Experience for Families” is yet another way Meijer Gardens encourages children to bond with sculpture and foster a lifetime enjoyment of the arts. This intriguing exhibition experience will remain open until a new one replaces it in the upcoming Covenant Learning Center, which will feature permanent space dedicated to interactive family exhibitions.

Inside/Outside: An Interactive Sculpture Experience for Families opens Friday, September 15, 2017! 

Jess Hart steps into new role


Jessica Hart, Education Director. Photo by Nancy Crawley

By Nancy Crawley

Jessica Hart takes over as education director at an important pivot point for Meijer Gardens.

The 34-year-old suburban Boston native becomes the first new education leader in 17 years — just as The Gardens launches a major expansion this fall.

That includes construction of a 20,000-square-foot Covenant Learning Center that dramatically increases classroom space for the tens of thousands of school students who visit every year. Last year, 40,000 students alone streamed through the halls.

Starting her new job June 1, Jess, as she prefers to be called, succeeded Linda Thompson who retired after many years with the Gardens.

“I’m so excited about the opportunities that will come with the new education center,” Jess said. “It means a tripling of space that allows us to increase classroom activities and incorporate educational technology in new ways.”

The Learning Center will be a merging and expansion of the lower level classrooms, pushing space out toward the wetlands.

Jess is already familiar with the Gardens’ educational programming. For 2 1/2 years, she was indoor education manager, supervising scores of docents and Bus Buddy volunteers and the whole range of indoor activities for school groups.

With a staff of 12, Jess now manages a department that oversees outdoor school visits, summer  camps and Children’s Gardens events, classes for adults and families, bus trips, the various lecture series, programming for sculpture exhibits, the library and the many weekend and special events programs.

As the educational component grows to serve more students, “we hope to expand that staff in the years to come,” she said.

Jess comes with a strong background in education. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature at Boston University, she obtained a Massachusetts teaching license.

She traveled the country, working for a private firm specializing in literacy strategies. Before coming to Michigan, she lived in Louisiana, Colorado, Wyoming and Alaska, training teachers in literacy skills.  “It was great fun to travel, see new places and meet people,” she said.

She enjoys being outdoors, loves hiking and kayaking, and making annual trips to Maine to savor the rugged terrain, not mention the fresh seafood. She is also a gardener, putting in a large vegetable plot every summer. And in the fall, she gets busy putting up decorations to welcome trick or treaters at Halloween. “I have a new theme every year.”

Working at the Gardens has been a great fit for her, she said. “I love being here, it’s such an inspiring, exciting place with a fabulous team of talented and dedicated people.”

Hard-working volunteers take the night off for potluck


By Nancy Crawley 

Pulled pork, fancy casseroles, diet-busting desserts and lots of laughs were on the menu for the annual Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park Volunteer Potluck Dinner.

“I like the sense of family here, they’re all good people,” said Lena Meijer Children’s Garden volunteer Pam Rowe, who attended with her husband Steve.

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Pam Rowe, second from right, enjoys the sense of family among Gardens volunteers. She sits with her husband, Steve, right, and from left, Steve Beckwith and his wife, Francesca, both second-year volunteers. (Photo by Nancy Crawley)

About 200 joined in the fun Thursday, July 13 at the Gardens banquet hall, dining on dishes homemade by volunteers as well as steaming trays of pulled pork and tempting desserts provided by the Gardens.

A slide show of volunteers in action ran on screens through the evening. And after dinner, applause and good natured guffaws rang out as raffle prizes, like gourmet pasta, symphony tickets and a wine and cheese tasting, were handed out to lucky winners.


Tram volunteers enjoy the slide show.  From left, Jesse Stewart and his wife, Becky, Bob Goddard and Jay Kilpatrick.

Some volunteers are regulars at the long-running event.

“I’ve been coming as long as I’ve been volunteering, 20 years. I remember when they were grilling chicken outdoors” for dinner, said Sarabeth Carr who donates her time in the library.

Others were brand new to the event. Deborah Link has volunteered for three years, but this was her first potluck. She wanted to meet fellow volunteers and quickly found herself enjoying the evening with Sarabeth and Ardath McCall, a docent and 14-year volunteer.

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Sarabeth Carr, left, has attended potluck dinners since the Gardens’ early days. She is sitting with Ardath McCall, a docent and 14-year volunteer and, at right, Deborah Link, a 3-year volunteer who is attending her first potluck. (Photo by Nancy Crawley)

It was also the first potluck for the Gardens’ new volunteer manager, Amber Oudsema, who was mistress of ceremony. She was following in the footsteps of retired volunteer manager Tom Hoving.

“Tom said this was always one of his favorite events,” she told the crowd as the evening wrapped up. “I can tell it will be one of mine too.”

Welcome Amber, our new Volunteer Manager!

By Nancy Crawley

Amber Oudsema is the new face behind the manager’s desk at the Volunteer Office, but the 35-year-old Muskegon native is well known in many other roles at Meijer Gardens.


Amber Oudsema was most recently encountered at the tram office on weekends.  (Photo by Nancy Crawley)

Most recently the weekend tram coordinator, Amber has also been a volunteer docent, an intern, and later a part-time employee in the education, sculpture and visitor services departments.

In fact, she has been a volunteer since high school in numerous places, from a veterinarian’s office to an archeology dig in Virginia. It gives her an appreciation of the value people from many walks of life bring to a nonprofit. “Coming from blue collar background, I appreciate people who work for free and what they are contributing,”  she said.

Starting in June, Amber has spent her first month of the job learning from the Gardens’  longtime volunteer leader, Tom Hoving who is retiring after 14 years.

It has been a cram course in a wide variety of assignments: the complicated choreography of rotating hundreds of volunteers who help at the summer concerts, running the orientation sessions that draw dozens of new volunteers each quarter, planning for the annual volunteer picnic in July, all the holiday events, and mastering the administrative chores with having about 900 volunteers on the roster.

Until recently, Amber held down three part time jobs — a tram coordinator, ArtPrize education coordinator, and adjunct instructor of art history and appreciation at Muskegon Community College and Grand Valley State University. She plans to keep teaching, at least a course or a two a year.

She comes to her new role with a strong arts background. She grew up in a family that includes artists and craftspeople, but art history captured her imagination as a student at Muskegon Community College.

“The ancient Greeks are my favorites,” she said, and she traces their influence through history, even in the Gardens’ collection of contemporary sculpture.

She earned her undergraduate degree in art history at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids and her masters in art history at George Mason University in Virginia in 2012.

Amber steps into her new role just before the 22-year-old Gardens launches a major building project later this year. Those improvements will eventually attract more visitors and generate more demand for volunteers.

She welcomes the challenge, knowing the relationship between an organization and volunteer are vital to both.

“Individuals who donate their time and skills benefit both in health and welfare, many studies have shown,” Amber said. And, for the organization, “volunteering creates a real sense of community and then strengthens that community — that’s especially true at Meijer Gardens.”

Ai Weiwei: A Fascination with Porcelain

The work of artist, activist and humanist Ai Weiwei is conceptually layered. An initial viewing offers an appreciation for the pure beauty of the work. But a closer look reveals a deeper symbolism that gives insight into the artist’s intriguing life and political commentary.

Consider Ai Weiwei’s fascination with porcelain, which unfolds throughout the exhibition Ai Weiwei at Meijer Gardens: Natural State. The artist’s passion for the ancient art of porcelain—whose history spans two millennia—derives from a deep commitment to his Chinese heritage and its time-honored traditions. China is credited with the invention of porcelain, which is why dishes are called “fine China.” The city of Jingdezhen became (and remains) a center of porcelain production because it had an abundance of the raw material needed to make porcelain and proximity to a river that facilitated its transport.

Artists often rely on the abilities and art of others during the creation process. Many of the porcelain pieces in this exhibition are collaborative, with Ai Weiwei actually working alongside experienced Chinese craftspeople. Their connection and kinship is significant: the artist believes strongly in employing artisan talent and keeping these historical skilled trades alive.

Ai Weiwei reveres porcelain as one the oldest materials created by humankind, yet an enduring modern symbol. He challenges viewers to see the world differently, transforming everyday objects in innovative ways. “It’s interesting to think about porcelain as utilitarian—works look like jars, vases, plates and cubes,” says Joseph Becherer, Meijer Gardens Chief Curator and Vice President, Collections and Exhibitions. “What’s astounding here is the scale and detail. Ai Weiwei pushes the boundaries of traditional porcelain artisanship to see how grand and perfect a form can be in a size and proportion that are not anticipated.”

The diversity, detail and authenticity are remarkable when one examines Ai Weiwei’s porcelain work more closely. Viewers will be captivated by the gifted craftsmanship required to create these works.

Dramatic Diversity

At more than seven feet tall, Pillar appears quiet and stately in the Lena Meijer Tropical Conservatory. This colossal column exemplifies Ai Weiwei’s use of grand scale with porcelain. High above the paved paths of the conservatory, it emerges from the lush greenery in a perfectly natural ascension. The smooth form is familiar. But the dimension is unprecedented for porcelain, showing expert craftsmanship and daring in the creation and firing process.


Pillar, Ai Weiwei. Photo by Andy Terzes.

Contrast that with Tofu. Nestled into the tropical plants at ground level, Tofu is flat and square like the edible bean curd, but has an exaggerated proportion many times bigger than an actual piece of the food. Dig deeper and this sculpture makes a political statement, as the Chinese word for tofu is synonymous with poor quality and shoddy architecture—schools that collapsed in the grievous 2008 Sichuan earthquake were called “tofu-dregs” constructions. The collapse of those buildings took the lives of thousands of children.


Tofu, Ai Weiwei. Photo by Andy Terzes.

Meticulous Detail

Porcelain is an ideal medium for replicating the intricacies of the natural world, shown beautifully and meticulously in Blossom. Composed of hundreds of handcrafted flowers, this monumental work was created with accomplished craftspeople and offers a reflection on skilled labor and mass production in an age of globalization. It’s one of several of Ai Weiwei’s works that show individual forms coming together in a larger creative force, in this case, an expansive garden bed of blooming flowers, frozen in time.


Blossom, Ai Weiwei. Photo by Andy Terzes.

In contrast to the serene Blossom is the unsettling He Xie, which features 1,000 river crabs, each painstakingly created in porcelain. The visual impact is striking, the individuality and lifelike appearance taking the viewer by surprise. The phrase “he xie” has come to mean internet censorship in China. After Chinese officials demolished his studio, the artist served thousands of river crabs to his supporters in an act of defiance. Under house arrest, he was unable to attend the feast.


He Xie, Ai Weiwei. Photo by Andy Terzes.

Unapologetic Authenticity

The haunting work entitled Remains exemplifies how Ai Weiwei tests the possibilities of porcelain. The sobering likeness to human bones is so authentic that it seems impossible these works are crafted in porcelain. The high level of artistry makes Remains a deeply moving work, reminding the viewer of tragedies across the world where human rights were violated, including Chinese labor camps where Ai Weiwei and his family were confined.


Remains, Ai Weiwei. Photo by Andy Terzes.

Porcelain Rebar connotes tragedy as well, in a culmination of 20 porcelain pieces crafted into what appears to be rebar, the most frequently used element to reinforce concrete construction. This series of tangled, misshaped rebar is another nod to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed more than 70,000 people. Porcelain Rebar reminds us that life, like porcelain, is infinitely fragile.


Porcelain Rebar, Ai Weiwei. Photo by Andy Terzes.

Ai Weiwei at Meijer Gardens: Natural State January 27—August 20, 2017

Volunteer Manager Tom Hoving’s Next Chapter


You can get an idea of Tom’s personality by reading the back of his car!

By Nancy Crawley

Tom Hoving wraps up 14 years as Meijer Gardens Volunteer Manager in June, retiring with the well wishes of hundreds of volunteers. “We’re sad to see him go, but excited for him,” said volunteer Thora White. “He always has the volunteers’ back.”

During his time at Meijer Gardens, the ranks of volunteers swelled dramatically with the addition of the Lena Meijer Children’s Garden, Michigan’s Farm Garden, Frederik Meijer Gardens Amphitheater and the Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden. Every year, volunteers contributed 65,000 hours when Tom started. Now, the roster runs a thousand names long, with volunteers donating 88,000 hours for what is surely one of the largest volunteer operations in West Michigan.


Tom Hoving, sharing a few words during his employee send-off.

Tom’s job has been a big one—first to recruit and orient newbies before they become gardeners, docents, gift shop clerks, tram drivers and other important jobs, then to make sure they have uniforms, badges, login IDs, and coffee, lots of hot coffee in the volunteer center. He also lines up volunteers for the Fred & Dorothy Fichter Butterflies Are Blooming exhibition, Christmas tree decorating, holiday parties and 30 concerts during the Fifth Third Bank Summer Concerts at Meijer Gardens and nine concerts during the Tuesday Evening Music Club—each requiring 35 volunteers. “There are times when we have four or five concerts a week—that’s a lot of scheduling for back-to-back concerts,” he said. “That’s the hardest part of my job—that, and going to funerals of volunteers.” Through it all, Tom has been cheerful, patient and resilient. And volunteers love him for it. “I always knew Tom would be there to listen, provide advice, or put a smile on my face,” volunteer Sally Schaafsma said.

Born in Chicago and moving to Holland as a teen, Tom worked 22 years at an office furniture company—and one year as volunteer coordinator for the Ronald McDonald House. For five years, he volunteered in the Meijer Gardens indoor horticulture department—a natural fit for the master gardener who had a large garden at home. “Gardening was therapy for me,” he said.

In 2003, he was tapped for a job that quickly turned into Volunteer Manager. His success has much to do with setting a professional, friendly tone for all volunteers, from teens to those north of 90. “I think it’s my ability to connect with the volunteers,” he said, “and that it’s clear how much I love this place.”

But, once retired, Tom will not return to volunteering soon. He wants to wait until his replacement gets comfortable in the job. “I have 10 grandchildren, none in town, so I’m going to do some traveling.”

Still he intends to return some day. “It will feel,” he said, “like I’m going full circle.”


A Short History of the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park Logo


By Roger Bleiler, Director of Communications

Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park is a unique place, with a unique mission—and an even more unique logo. A graphic designer and personal friend recently commented that the Meijer Gardens logo is one of the most original and unusual logos she’d ever seen. It occurred to me that even though the logo is the most visible part of the Meijer Gardens communications, many people may not know much about how it came to be.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a logo is a design made up of text and images that helps guests identify one organization from another. Like most logos, the Meijer Gardens logo has two components: the logomark (the tree-like image that represents our mission) and the logotype (our name, designed in a customized way).

Here are some interesting factoids about our unique and enigmatic logo:

  • In 2003, the West Michigan Botanic Society, dba Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park (yes, that was our full name) commissioned a comprehensive brand evaluation from Grand Rapids-based De Meyer Brand Consultants. The two main recommendations were to shorten our name and to develop a new logo.
  • In January 2004, Gregg Palazzolo of Ada—one of Michigan’s premier brand designers—was chosen from 18 candidates to design our new logo.
  • Although many designs were submitted, the chosen design was clearly inspired by Kenneth Snelson’s B-Tree. As you can see in the comparison (above), the logomark is a free-form interpretation of the towering, stainless-steel abstract sculpture visible at the main entry.
  • The logo colors—a playful bright spring green and an elegant charcoal gray—complement our mission of promoting the enjoyment, understanding, and appreciation of gardens, sculpture, the natural environment and the arts.

While it may not look like other brand identities, the Meijer Gardens logo identifies a unique guest experience that resonates with millions of guests of all ages. The distinctive spring green tree symbolizes a warm and welcoming community gathering place that’s always growing, always beautiful…and always new.