Docents are the unsung heroes of every museum; primarily volunteers, they go back to school before each new exhibit opens, then lead their quiet little tours and go home. But the five docents at the Museum of Outdoor Arts, fascinated by the museum's recently refurbished, topsy-turvy Red Grooms sculpture "Brooklyn Bridge," decided to try something new: They traveled together to New York City last year for a firsthand look at the real bridge and its indelibly unique urban milieu.
The resulting installation, Our Brooklyn Bridge Experience, an impeccably researched kaleidoscope of a show linking the Grooms work to the actual bridge, opens Friday at MOA. And what better artist than the whimsical, populistic, ruckusing Red Grooms could have provided so much inspiration to a bunch of ladies who adamantly deny having any kind of artistic talent? That energizing Grooms flair, paired with the bridge's own fantastic creation story, brought incredible stuff from them all, notes artist liaison Maggie Stewart, who helped the women give visual and three-dimensional shape to their ideas and experiences.
"If anyone should ever go to NYC, it should be five docents," Stewart says. "They were inspired by Red Grooms, but they fell in love with the Roebling bridge." Embedded in the installation's foundation is the amazing story of the bridge's genesis. Designer John Roebling, who first envisioned the Brooklyn Bridge, died before construction began in 1870, and work on the span was initially overseen by his son Washington. When the younger Roebling was stricken by the bends and paralyzed during installation of the structure's pneumatic caissons, his wife, Emily, jumped in; she learned her math and engineering skills on the job, acting on suggestions that Washington made while observing construction through a telescope at his window.
The five women learned all this and more in New York, where they were taken on the tour of the bridge, led by Joyce Gold, whom docent Byrnece Gluckstern calls the "doyenne of walking-tour guides in New York." They were more than impressed by its spectacular city views and sense of industrial bustle. "It's the most exciting thing in New York," enthuses Gluckstern. Another docent, Beverly Kidd Frank, adds: "Once everything was in motion, I thought, 'I hope I'm not going to be disappointed.' But it wasn't that way at all. Instead, I was awestruck, even beyond what I expected. It was something you really can't even put into words."
How did the docents then mesh historical facts and bridge minutiae with the fanciful spirit of the Grooms interpretation? You'll have to see for yourself, but expect plenty of fact and fancy to tangle in the installation, which includes a feet-on walkover bridge, a three-dimensional overview of Red Grooms and his work, a Brooklyn Bridge timeline, a papier-mâché model of Emily Roebling with orange cellophane hair, a River Wall plastered with photographs taken in New York, and other surprises.
"We're hoping it gives a real sense of New York City, so people will go in and say, 'Wow - the humanity!'" Stewart notes, comparing it in spirit to Grooms's famous "Ruckus Manhattan," a larger-than-life experiential piece that's like a walk-through moving cartoon. "Red Grooms's art is so accessible -- it's colorful, it's bright -- and he's alive!"
That very Grooms-like invitation to participate is perhaps what the group hopes most to impart to viewers of the show. "I think it's going to appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds," Frank says. "We aren't professional artists, but we all have a creative flair tucked inside of us, and that's how I see our museum: as a place to expose all kinds of people to all kinds of art."