At the top of the Hill, down a gravel path and deep into the woods, there exists spot on campus that is part of Lehigh’s lore. The space is called the Outsider Art Enclave, better know as the sculpture garden.
It’s a grassy clearing within the densely wooded area off Upper Sayre Park Road, filled with unique sculptures — amateur pieces made with materials that are anything but conventional.
Upcycled trash items like bottles and cans are fastened to steel rods that stick out of the ground, lining the path to the garden with metallic imitations of the natural plant life that surrounds. An oddly shaped concrete archway embedded with mosaic patterns of mirrored and colored glass greets visitors at the entryway.
The garden is 17 years old. It was originally constructed as part of an art and religion class called Raw Vision: Creativity and Ecstasy in the Work of Shamans, Mystics and Artist Outsiders.
The class was instructed by now-retired professor of religion, Norman Girardot, who taught the course eight times. In the class’ first session, Girardot and his students collaborated with Broughal Middle School students and were mentored by Gregory Warmack, a local artist who goes by the moniker “Mr. Imagination,” or “Mr. I,” for short. He died in 2012.
Together, they created the archway at the entrance to the garden — which is formally titled “Millennium Folk Arch.” The sculpture features handprints of the students that contributed to its construction.
“It was one of those things that (my students) will remember for the rest of their lives, and there aren’t many of those,” Girardot said.
Girardot and his students constructed other pieces in the garden in the ensuing sessions of the class, sometimes with the help of local artists. One such sculpture is the “Concrete Tree of Sacred Debris” by Susan Small, who was a resident artist at the Banana Factory from 1999 to 2005, according to a blog post written by Bethlehem resident Vanessa Palumbo. Its trunk is made of stacked blocks that branch off into leaves of strung-up cans and other recycled goods. The piece is more than 10 years old, and still stands strong.
“The inspirational power of all of that was what we were really playing with,” Girardot said. “It has to do with much deeper issues of the mystery that’s present in life and in human beings, and what life itself is, what it means to be creative… There are many lessons that grew out of that, and many students were turned on by that.”
The garden is not officially part of the university’s art collection on campus, and its staff does not maintain the garden or its sculptures, according to Mark Wonsidler, coordinator of exhibitions and collections at Lehigh.
As a result, the garden continues to grow and change naturally.
“Part of its appeal is its kind of glorious scruffiness now,” Girardot said. “There is a mystery about it that in some ways displays the true nature of organic life.”
The sculptures’ use of unconventional materials is, in part, what some students find so intriguing.
“I felt a connection with all of the people who have ever witnessed it,” Steve Brodeur, ‘16, said. “It made me question — what is art?”
Wonsidler said university facilities cleaned out some of the hazardous materials that had accumulated in the garden since Girardot’s class began constructing it, but there are no plans to disassemble the sculptures or remove the garden. He said changing it into a formal park or moving the sculptures to different places on campus would alter the mysterious energy the garden exudes.
“They met up there with their class, the works got made, and then the class ended and it just kind of passed into the world as a thing that no one was particularly keeping an eye on,” Wonsidler said. “It’s like a wild thing — just art in the world.”