Of Soil, Trees and Iron


The new Center for Conservation and Stewardship at the Cincinnati Nature Center.

This week I will be starting on a new large project that has been in the works for several months. One I’m really excited about. I will be making three sculptures for the Cincinnati Nature Center. The Nature Center is a local conservation center located on over 1,600 acres of protected native woodlands and grassland habitat just east of Cincinnati’s urban core.

The Nature Center recently acquired the Groesbeck mansion, which was once part of a 300-acre estate, adjacent to the Center. The property includes a Tudor Revival house surrounded by gardens designed by British landscape architect Gertrude Jekyll. In 2015 the property was listed on the National Registry. When Grace Groesbeck had the house built in 1929, she commissioned New York metalsmith Marie Zimmermann to make all the hinges, hardware and other metalwork for the house. Zimmermann notably referred to herself as a “craftsman,” not an artist, and sought to master all of the attendant crafts she needed to make the pieces she envisioned.

Restored front entrance to the Groesbeck mansion, with hand forged hardware by metalsmith Maria Zimmermann.

The hardware that Zimmermann came up with for the Groesbeck property were far ahead of their time, exhibiting a very modern aesthetic, compared to the traditional scrolls and curly cues that most blacksmiths were making at the time.

Hand-forged doors hardware by metalsmith Maria Zimmermann.

Hand-forged drawer pulls by metalsmith Maria Zimmermann.

Front entrance to the Center for Conservation and Stewardship. Note the light fixture made by metalsmith Maria Zimmermann.

As part of the restoration of the mansion to convert it into the “Center for Conservation and Stewardship,” the Nature Center raised several million dollars. As is the case with projects of that scope, they wanted to install a “donor wall” thanking all of the people who financially contributed to the effort. But they did not want just a plain old bronze plaque. They wanted something that fit with the artistry of the property. That’s where I came in.

The Nature Center commissioned me to come up with designs for the donor wall that would draw on the artistry of Zimmermann’s ironwork and bronze sculptures. The proposal I came up with used the tree-like structures of the door hinges as a base, along with a stylized heron form, to host bronze circles inscribed with the names of the donors. The varying sizes of the disks correspond to the varying amounts of each of the donors. The final sculptures will also resemble the forms created by Cincinnati artist Charley Harper in his famous “Jesus Bugs (Water Striders)” illustration. Harper has had a huge influence on my art and was also an earlier supporter of the Nature Center when it was founded in 1967.

Plans for sculptures for the Center for Conservation and Stewardship. Copyright Mark Gilsdorf 2016.

This project is going to involve a lot of moving parts over the next few months, but I am really excited about it. The Nature Center is a place dear to my heart, being the place where I first caught the “birding bug.” After seeing a Pileated Woodpecker on a cold November morning, high atop an oak tree, the sun shining through its red peak, making it look like it was aflame, my view of the world was forever transformed. I hope I can repay in some small way the debt I owe to this piece of land.

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