Beverly Pepper gifts personal archive to Meijer Gardens

Meijer Gardens will become the permanent home to Beverly Pepper’s personal archive of hundreds of drawings, prints, sketchbooks and works on paper.


Untitled (Studies for Stainless Steel Sculptures)

In conjunction with the 94th birthday of iconic American sculptor Beverly Pepper, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park is honored to announce the gift of Pepper’s expansive print and drawing archives to its permanent collection.  Seven decades of work are included.  The extraordinary gift from Pepper, one of the pioneering Contemporary sculptors, includes hundreds of drawings, prints, works on paper and notebooks – many containing sketches of her major sculptural endeavors. Meijer Gardens will become the repository of her two-dimensional legacy spanning her career, beginning in the 1950s.

Pepper is world-renowned for her work, which often incorporates industrial metals like iron, bronze, stainless steel and stone into sculptural of a monumental scale, but her vast drawing and print repertoire is lesser known.  Although never formally associated with any particular “school”, her concern for abstraction and commitment to materials ran parallel to David Smith with whom she was very close, developing with those of Richard Serra, Mark di Suvero and Richard Hunt.

In his recent monograph on Pepper, the noted art historian Robert Hobbs writes, “an American living mainly in Italy since the 1950s and an artist with an enviable reputation beginning in the early 1960s, Beverly Pepper, together with the two “Louises” – Bourgeois and Nevelson- heads the list of outstanding American women sculptors achieving artistic maturity in the mid-twentieth century.”

“The enormity of Beverly Pepper’s gift cannot be understated,” states Joseph Antenucci Becherer, Chief Curator and Vice President of Meijer Gardens. “Drawing has been an integral part of her artistic practice, but like her printmaking, is little known even to scholars.” Meijer Gardens engagement with Pepper began with 2009 commission of the colossus, Galileo’s Wedge – an iconic work central to the world-renowned collection.

“Over the last two decades, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park has clearly demonstrated a strong commitment to my sculpture and I am enthusiastic to now have this major body of my work there.” states Pepper. “To have in one location a space to study, compare and sequence my drawings and prints is an exceptional opportunity; I am most grateful to leave this record and have the curatorial team there looking after my work.”

In honor of her remarkable gift and life, Meijer Gardens will be hosting a retrospective exhibition of work drawn from the archives in 2018. This exhibition will run from February 2 – April 19, 2018 and will display sketches, studies, prints, experimental drawings from across her entire career. These works will be on display in the Holton, Balk, and Bank of America Galleries.  An on-line catalogue of the oeuvre is planned.

“The 2018 retrospective surveying sixty-five years of work is a rare luxury, and an unbelievable opportunity.” said Pepper.

Ai Weiwei, Conceptual Master

Essay by Joseph Antenucci Becherer, Chief Curator and Vice President


Ai Weiwei’s iconic Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn is a photo triptych (three-part panel) that dates to 1995. Its daring concept, form, use of objects and actions helped establish the artist and activist in the cultural world two decades ago. His idea was to illustrate the willful destruction of China’s historic buildings and antique objects during the Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao. The forms are a set of documentary-style photographs. The symbolic object was a centuries-old vessel, and the action was its intentional destruction from his very own hands. The destruction of the vessel was a symbol of the Maoist destruction of traditional culture. Ai Weiwei realized his concept in a highly unique way and captured our attention.

The seed of every great work of art, piece of literature or music is a concept or idea that the artist wants to express. The timeless struggle is how the artist will give form to the ideas. Rodin used plaster, then bronze—while di Suvero uses steel. Shakespeare and Hemingway used words and carefully crafted sentences, while composers like Mozart and Marley used specific compositions and musical instruments. It’s a difficult journey to give form to one’s ideas, but we have come to expect our greatest artists to create something unlike anything we have experienced before. Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn does that.

Ai Weiwei is an artist overflowing with ideas, with concepts. There is much he wants to express regarding history and humanity, cultural and personal injustice, freedom of speech and human dignity. In fact, his ideas are so unique and important, he is most frequently viewed as a conceptual artist. To realize his concepts, he uses a broad and diverse array of objects that help convey his thinking. Ancient vessels or furniture become symbolic of Chinese history; the use of backpacks are stand-ins for children; traditionally crafted kites become symbols of freedom.

Consider for a moment Iron Tree, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park’s own colossal sculpture. Here, Ai Weiwei wanted to create a work around the concept of numerous, disparate things coming together to form a new whole—like a society that seems homogenous, but is really composed of many different types of people. Specifically, he was looking for a visual metaphor to talk about individuality and nationality forging, awkwardly so, into a new reality. The form this object took was in 99 individual tree parts, of differing species, bolted together. Yes, it is a whole, but it is ultimately composed of many parts. Ai Weiwei’s decision to cast the wooden original in iron also tells us he wants his ideas and his forms to last.

As a conceptual artist, Ai Weiwei is not a maker of objects like Rodin was in plaster and bronze or di Suvero in steel. Although he is an excellent craftsman, photographer, and architect, Ai Weiwei frequently relies on existing or found objects to express his concepts. The artist found an ancient vessel just like he found pieces of trees, which he went on to transform. Ai Weiwei is a steadfast admirer of artists like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, who realized in the early and mid-20th century that anything could become art if it translated their ideas effectively. As a result, looking carefully at the materials that give form to an artist’s ideas is one of the most important and fascinating aspects of Contemporary art.

As a conceptual artist, Ai Weiwei might also use the work of artisans known for their painted ceramics or carved marble. As one of the first major artists to fully embrace social media, his Twitter feeds and Instagram posts have proved to be a form of art as well. He has far exceeded what either Duchamp or Warhol imagined a work of art could be. Although the diversity of form is broad for Ai Weiwei, his commitment to sharing his concepts and ideas remains steadfast and always keeps viewers thinking.

Returning to Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, consider how others would have traditionally approached the work. Maybe a painted picture or a carved sculpture? A long documentary film? These forms may have been perfectly appropriate in another time and place. But maybe not for society today. We need a jolt, a new way of seeing, an unusual presentation of an idea. We are willing to think about a concept or idea, but we often need the vision of a new master to grab our attention and keep it. This is what Ai Weiwei does so well. After all, he is a master.

Who is Ai Weiwei?


Ai Weiwei

Essay by Joseph Antenucci Becherer, Chief Curator and Vice President

Artist and activist Ai Weiwei is among the most inspiring and influential cultural figures in the world today. In the last few years, his image and images of his work have been featured on the cover of every major art publication and most magazines and newspapers across the globe. In recent months, his exhibitions have shattered attendance records in London, Paris, Helsinki and San Francisco. In 2017, his work is coming to Grand Rapids in a highly unique exhibition designed especially for Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. But, one might ask, who is Ai Weiwei?

One of China’s most recognizable citizens, Ai Weiwei has celebrated both the art and people of his native country, and has criticized the government over the suppression of human rights and freedom of speech. Such concerns have not been limited to China, as he advocates for the dignity and equality of all people through his art, his actions and his active social media presence. Although the type of work he creates may vary greatly from project to project, his meaning and message are always meant to engage and enlighten his audience. Antique furniture, backpacks, kites and even Iron Tree, from our permanent collection, form a significant part of his repertoire and his messages to the world.

Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957. His father was the highly regarded and influential poet Ai Qing. When he was still an infant, the government suppressed thousands of free thinking intellectuals like his father and the family was exiled to a remote labor camp in northwest China. Once among the nation’s most highly regarded cultural figures, Ai Qing was forced to scrub toilets for nearly 20 years. Young Ai Weiwei and his brother grew up far beyond the developing boundaries of modern and industrial China yet grew attached to the longstanding traditions and artisan efforts of rural China.

The family returned to Beijing in 1976 following the death of Chairman Mao and the brief relaxation of government restrictions that ensued. Two years later, Ai Weiwei entered the Beijing Film Academy and became a central figure of that city’s youthful avantgarde. In 1981, he obtained a visa and came to the United States, eventually settling in New York for nearly a decade. Although he briefly studied art, the importance of the American experience for the artist developed through photography and his observations of the freedoms Americans enjoyed, as well as the creative diversity of the art world centered in that city.

It was during this period that Ai Weiwei began to understand and undertake a more conceptual, idea-based approach to his art. Influenced by iconic masters like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, Ai Weiwei realized that any object found could be transformed into a work of art, and that the very act of creating was sometimes as powerful as the work itself. In 1993, at a time when his career was unfolding in New York, he received word that his illustrious father was gravely ill and made the decision to return to China.

During Ai Weiwei’s American sojourn, Beijing and much of China had rapidly changed. As an artist, filmmaker, photographer, architect and activist, he found himself at the center of the capital’s art world. In 2005, he began blogging as an integral part of his artistic practice. Later, he turned to Twitter and Instagram, where he still posts daily. In 2008, he collaborated on the design of the famed “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympics, yet later that year, the infamous Sichuan earthquake became a focal point of his energy in criticizing the government for shoddy construction that led to the deaths of thousands. In the following years, Ai Weiwei came under surveillance and was beaten, hospitalized and denied the right to travel. In 2011, he was arrested and mysteriously detained for 81 days, to the shock of the international cultural community.

Throughout this entire period, Ai Weiwei continued to create a broad and diverse body of work. In the tradition of Duchamp and Warhol, anything could become the basis for a work of art: bicycles could be transformed as a means to discuss population; children’s backpacks could be assembled to illustrate the loss of innocent lives; works made of antiques, pottery or jade might be a vehicle to examine China’s past and present. Even our own Iron Tree in the Sculpture Park was based on dozens of found tree elements brought together as a way of discussing visual and cultural individuality and unity.

In July 2015, Ai Weiwei’s passport was returned and he was able to travel once again. Today, he divides his time between Beijing and Berlin, where he maintains studios. He works tirelessly on new projects and installations that allow him to experiment with materials and ideas, while still focusing on issues of human rights and freedom. Among his top priorities is a large exhibition under development for Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

A Horticulturist’s Holiday Home Decor

Written by Nancy Crawley


Here is some Christmas decorating help from a Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park landscape pro.

It’s a big, busy job.

Ed McKee, Meijer Gardens horticulture manager in charge of the acres of outdoor gardens, could be forgiven for skipping outdoor decorating chores at home. But no, he’s already dressed up his Jenison home for the holidays.

What does Ed do and what are this landscape pro’s secrets?

A wide porch at the house he and his wife Tricia bought this year inspired him to a whole new design – one organized around a Christmas classic, the nutcracker toy soldier.


He tucks colorful nutcracker figures he’s collected – from less than a foot tall to three feet – into window boxes and big porch pots filled with evergreen boughs.

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He also adds white birch branches to lighten things up and bits of Michigan holly and purple-green kale for contrast. He adds dried Juncus grass from his summer plantings for a bit of whimsy.

Of course, the doormat and chair pillows are decorated with nutcrackers. A small, lighted tree stands next to the door and wreaths, including a big, 30-inch-wide one over the window, complement his theme.


Ed offered more tips during a quick chat last week:

  • Use a variety of evergreens for more interest. Pine branches are firmer than other boughs and help with structure. Arborvitae give a graceful, feathery touch. Fraser firs lend a blue tone and balsam and spruce, deep green.
  • During your fall cleanup, leave root balls of mums and grasses in the pots so you can insert evergreen branches in between the root network to stabilize them.
  • Keep your design simple and natural.
  • Power your lights with a dark green electric cord that you can more easily hide and use battery operated timers to turn lights on and off automatically. He sets his for 6 hours.
  • When hanging bulbs on your tree, start with the biggest bulbs tucked inside, closest to the trunk and then move out along the branch with progressively smaller bulbs.

All this doesn’t take too long, he assures us amateurs. A few hours and, voila, your house is beautiful and welcoming for the season of good cheer.


20 gifts under $20 in the Meijer Gardens Gift Shop

As you head to do your holiday shopping, keep the Meijer Gardens Gift Shop on your radar! We have unique items that will please anyone on your list. These are just some of many great finds that cost less than $20!

December at a glance


Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park is full of the magic of the holidays – and 400,000 twinkling lights! We have a lot of fun events to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year.

  • Christmas and Holiday Traditions Around the World:
    • Ring in the holiday season with our most beloved winter exhibition. We’re taking a new look at stories of old, with an intriguing exploration of the folklore and traditions that shape holiday celebrations around the world. Honoring holiday cultures around the world, Meijer Gardens focuses on the authenticity of holiday traditions: Germany tree, adorned with handmade glass ornaments and homemade springerle cookies, the England tree with antique Christmas cards and mistletoe, and the beautiful Eid ul-Fitr display, which celebrates the end of Ramadan. The companion Railway Garden exhibition is a unique horticultural display that incorporates garden design, miniature buildings made from natural materials, and model trolleys and trains.
  • Santa Visits:
    • All visitors are welcome to share their holiday wishes with Santa. Remember to bring your camera for a Santa selfie or a photo with him on his sleigh. Santa will be in the Cook Entryway Tuesday evenings (December 6th, 13th, 20th) from 5:00pm – 8:00pm.
  • Winter-Time Walks
    • Tuesdays, Thursdays & Saturdays Winter in the Lena Meijer Children’s Garden can be chilly, but fun! Bundle up and join us on an outdoor interactive discovery walk (Tuesdays & Thursdays at 10:15am and 11:15am and Saturdays at 11:15am) to investigate the Children’s Garden in new ways. We’ll explore different winter themes, each with kid-friendly conversation, stories and finger plays.
  • Rooftop Reindeer
    • Reindeer will be on-hand near the entrance to the Lena Meijer Children’s Garden on Saturdays through December 17th from 1:00pm – 4:00pm. Guests can visit the reindeer, get an up-close look and maybe even pet them.
  • The Original Dickens Carolers
    • They’re a holiday tradition at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. Hear from this wonderful troupe of strolling singers as they perform holiday favorites. They perform Tuesday evenings (December 6th, 13th, 20th ) from 6:00pm – 8:00pm.


Hope to see you before 2017!

Why I Volunteer: Bob VanBragt

Written by Nancy Crawley

Dirt. Digging in dirt. Planting in dirt. That’s what Bob VanBragt wanted to do when he retired.


Bob VanBragt

It was natural, really. He grew up on a tulip farm in Holland, the West Michigan town famous for its annual Tulip Festival. He had learned how to grow all kinds of bulbs, but once he went to work in an office, he missed spending time with a spade and shovel.

So Meijer Gardens was on Bob’s to-do list when he retired 10 years ago. Attending one of the volunteer orientation meetings, he met horticulturist Ian Warnock. who gave him a tour of the Children’s Garden. It was clear they would find a common bond in their affinity for dirt.

“He has a Scottish accent and a great sense of humor,” Bob said of Ian, whose impressive resume includes the H.M. British Embassy garden in Washington, D.C.

Soon, Bob was a Monday morning regular at the Children’s Garden, tending the ever changing landscape winding through places like the sensory garden, butterfly maze, and the Great Lakes ponds.

“We’ll pull mums, plant bulbs and pansies, do a lot of weeding and pruning. You never know with Ian,” he chuckled.

Bob, 81, has gained many friends during his 1,500 volunteer hours. “I love being outside, with all the kids.” And, besides, at the Gardens, there’s always plenty of dirt yet to be dug.

To explore volunteering, visit, or contact Tom Hoving at or 616-974-5221. Volunteer orientation sessions are set for Dec. 7, 2016, and Feb. 7 and April 11, 2017, starting at 10:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m.