Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Midland's Dow Gardens hosting 100 pieces of sculpture from Zimbabwe

story and photos by janet i. martineau

Vivienne Croisette and some of the smaller sculptures
A ballerina in an arabesque pose lies prone on the grass, next to a babbling brook.

An owl cocks its head sideways, as if to wonder who you are invading its thicket home.

And a mother clutches her daughter as they stand on a hill overlooking a forest.

All of them carved out of serpentine stone, in a far away tropical land called Zimbabwe, making their home through Aug. 4 with 100 other pieces in Midland’s 110-acre Dow Gardens, in what is one of the most unusual and must-see sculpture exhibitions to ever visit the Great Lakes Bay Region.

Said a Newsweek article, “Zimbabwean sculpture is perhaps the most important art form to emerge from Africa in this century.” 

And with the show in Dow Gardens are two artists from that nation, demonstrating their craft seven days a week. (Dow Gardens, 1809 Eastman Ave., is open 9am to 8:30pm daily. And if you have mobility problems, check the ending of this story.)

How the sculptures, some weighing up to a ton, and the two men got to Midland is a story 13 years in the making, when a British woman with `an art  promotion background was invited to Zimbabwe “to see if I could help promote their art and introduce it to the world. I was supposed to be there three weeks.”

Now Vivienne Croisette lives in a suburb of that country’s capital city of 1.2 million with her French husband Joseph and son Emile, 4, and devotes her entire life to Zimbabwean sculpture. “I am there for life unless I get kicked out.

“My husband and I  spend six months in Zimbabwe (which translates to great stone house) looking for pieces -- just about every day I go in one direction and he in another -- and then we spend six months touring it,” says Croisette in her British accent, which quickly turns to French when her husband appears on the scene.

A ballerina in serpentine stone
It is she visitors will likely meet in the Dow Gardens gift shop, selling smaller and more affordable pieces than the also-for-sale ones spread throughout the grounds outside with prices that can go past $1,000. 

Midland is one of only two stops in the U.S. this year; the first being the Naples Botanical Garden in Florida.  

From Midland  the show heads to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ont. 

It also has visited the Chelsea Flower Show in London. Plans are in the works for the Shanghai Botanical Garden in China. 

And among the buyers of pieces are places like MOMA in New York and the Rodin in Paris ... .which means Midland is traveling in impressive company.

Croisette says she prefers a garden-like setting for the show, “because the stone is a natural product, and it just looks better in a garden environment with flowers,” so Midland was a natural when she learned about it during their Florida venue. Each stop is a six-week stay, given the massive installation process at  each venue -- a process her husband oversees.

Back home the couple works with 200 artists, some of them now fifth generations of family stone carvers working in a variety of serpentine  mined in that nation with a land mass slightly larger than Montana.

“We buy pieces from carvers  who are 80 and 90 and young ones 14 to 16. Each year we always try to find new artists as well as ones we have worked with for years.”

One of abstract works
She then relates a story of a young man who sought her out and begged her to come see his pieces -- in what turned out a “four-hour drive to the middle of nowhere on a mostly dirt one-track road.”

The more she drove the angrier she got that she was talked into this trip, which would include traveling in darkness. “He kept telling me, ‘You will sell every piece.’”

And she has of his giraffe forms, “some of the most beautiful things I had seen in a long time. I bought the whole lot.”

What is interesting about this traveling show is that it comes at virtually  no cost to Midland. The Croisettes buy the pieces from the artists in Zimbabwe and then live off the sales they make of the pieces at each stop, through the Internet, and to museums and collectors. 

The touring works travel in two 40-foot trucks -- and each of them, no matter how large, is carved from a single piece of stone.

“At the end of the day we can do this because we have no overhead costs and we are not out to make a massive profit. We are in this to make people aware of this art form and the Zimbabwean culture.”

It is, she says, a struggling culture with 80 percent unemployment, with a life expectancy of but the mid-30s due to AIÎS/HIV and poor health care, ruled by a dictator,  but whose 13 million citizens are  kind  and welcoming.

The  country also mines granite, platinum, gold and diamonds in addition to the serpentine artistry and tourism that includes Victoria Falls.

As for the mobility challenged who would like to view the Dow Gardens installation, there are two options. At 12:45pm Monday through Friday, a five-passenger vehicle makes the rounds and the gardens also has three wheelchairs and four Amigos.  Reservations are advised, at a cost of $5, by calling 989-631-2677.

Admission to the gardens  is $5 for adults and $1 for students ages 6-17; free for 5 and under. 

For more pictures of the pieces in Midland: 

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