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On the shoulders of giants: Bernheim curator links art to preservation of nature

By Amy Joseph Landon

Source: The Courier-Journal
July 26, 2023
By Connor Giffin

Jenny Zeller is the Arts in Nature Curator at Bernheim Forest, where she also oversees the Artist in Residence program. Behind Zeller is one of Bernheim's lates art installations, OXYGEN, by Netherland artists AKUNZO (Aris de Bakker and Karola Pazarro). Created out of steel and American beech branches collected from Bernheim’s forest, depicting the silhouette of a human face looking up to the sky. July 14, 2023

An enormous, humanoid head emerges from the earth in a small forest clearing, gasping for air and staring up at the sky.

Its bones of rebar and skin of intertwined American beech branches, collected from the surrounding Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, catch the eyes of passersby, who stop to admire and understand the unexpected figure.

Jenny Zeller smiles at the visitors’ childlike wonder. She’s Bernheim’s arts in nature curator, and these reactions are exactly what she’s going for.

The larger-than-life art installation, titled “OXYGEN,” is the work of Netherlands-based artist collective AKUNZO, consisting of Aris de Bakker and Karola Pezzaro, part of Bernheim’s 2022 artist-in-residence program.

Art like this, Zeller said, has the ability to reach hearts and minds in ways nothing else can. And when people feel a connection to natural places like Bernheim, she said, maybe they’ll take steps to protect them.

Come for the giants, stay for the forest

Jenny Zeller, Arts and Nature Curator at Bernheim Forest, cleaned the face of giant troll Mama Loumari as part of an annual cleaning and repair of the wooden sculptures. July 20, 2022

Bernheim’s art installations, like the iconic Forest Giants, have captured the hearts of the public.

After they were installed in 2019 — thanks to Danish artist Thomas Dambo and dozens of volunteers — Zeller said Bernheim’s attendance doubled. The giants seemed to have “ignited something about arts in nature.”

The three wooden figures, positioned in different corners of Bernheim’s 16,000 acres of preserved forestland, have become synonymous with the organization’s mission to help the public connect with nature in new ways — a mission that Zeller says is aligned with the vision of the forest’s founder, German immigrant Isaac Wolfe Bernheim.

Little Nis sits over the Olmsted Ponds at Bernheim Forest, one of three Forest Giants created by Danish artist, Thomas Dambo to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Bernheim Wednesday, July 10, 2019 in Clermont, Ky. According to Mark Wourms, Bernheim has never had a threat like the proposed LG&E pipeline in its 90 year existence and they are battling that as well as a highway expansion project now at the same time.

The artist-in-residence program includes lodging, a stipend, studio support and more. Last year, about 250 artists applied, sharing artistic visions for Bernheim from all over the world.

And each year, Zeller has the painstaking task of narrowing those applications down to four artists. One slot is dedicated to a regional artist in Kentucky or Southern Indiana.

After bringing her photography and mixed-media background to Bernheim’s regional artist-in-residence program, Zeller started as visual arts coordinator in 2017.

Her curation aims to bring visitors to the forest, but also to get them thinking about topics like conservation, biodiversity and climate change in approachable ways.

Now, those same debates are banging on Bernheim’s gates, as a utility’s proposed gas pipeline threatens to slice through the forest’s Cedar Grove Wildlife Corridor.

A judge in Bullitt County recently granted LG&E the authority to break a conservation easement to build the pipeline under eminent domain laws, a ruling Bernheim has appealed. LG&E, a sponsor of some Bernheim programs, says the pipeline is necessary to serve nearby communities.

An international spotlight on Kentucky’s natural charm

Water streams through the Cedar Grove Wildlife Corridor, where LG&E wants to build a new gas pipeline. July 9, 2019

When the Bullitt Circuit Court issued its ruling against Bernheim, bringing the proposed pipeline one step closer to construction, Carla Rhodes called Jenny Zeller, in tears.

Rhodes, a wildlife conservation photographer, was an artist-in-residence in 2022. During her time at Bernheim, she photographed the Cedar Grove area, seeking to capture under-appreciated life, like micro snails, and promote its importance as a wildlife corridor.

Nearing a century of operations to the south of Louisville, Bernheim has become an enduring favorite for locals. Yellow “Save Bernheim Forest” signs are staked in yards around Louisville, rallying support against the pipeline, and Louisville Metro Council approved a resolution opposing the land seizure.

But when Rhodes’ photography was amplified beyond Kentucky, she said audiences seemed surprised that Kentucky had so much biodiversity to offer, adding that the natural beauty of the American South is too often overlooked.

The arts in nature program, now part of the forest’s operations for over four decades, has “put Bernheim on the map in a different way,” Rhodes said.

Zeller has played a key role in that since she started at Bernheim in 2017. But she gives credit to the many artists who’ve joined Bernheim’s ranks over the years, and the environment itself.

Jenny Zeller is the Arts in Nature Curator at Bernheim Forest, where she also oversees the Artist in Residence program. Zeller is standing at one of Bernheim's lates art installations, OXYGEN, by Netherland artists AKUNZO (Aris de Bakker and Karola Pazarro). Created out of steel and American beech branches collected from Bernheim’s forest, depicting the silhouette of a human face looking up to the sky. July 14, 2023

“They come to Bernheim, and they freak out,” Zeller said of the artists she’s worked with, “because this is such a grand space, and there’s magic here.”

That was the case even for Rhodes, a Louisville native who has spent her adult life in New York (where she says no one knows how to make good biscuits). Missing Kentucky, she came back for the Bernheim residency and was inspired, both by the forest and by Zeller.

“I was a different person after Bernheim,” Rhodes said.

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