Southern California offers an embarrassment of riches in terms of outdoor recreation. So why do we always seem to go to the same hiking trails and botanic gardens, when there are so many other treasures explore?
Well, if you’re one of the few who’s already mastered the lesser-known gardens, rail trails, and lakes of SoCal – and if you’re no longer satisfied with just flowers, succulents, and trees – then it’s time to start discovering some art in our parks and gardens.
Specifically, you can set off on an adventure to a park or garden that’s devoted to sculpture and statuary.
Now, you probably already know about some of our more traditional sculpture gardens, like the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden on the UCLA campus (which is technically part of the Hammer Museum), the lovely courtyard at the Norton Simon Museum, or even the Boone Sculpture Garden at Pasadena City College.
But here are five other gardens and parks where you’ll find some rather unexpected examples of sculptural art – some of which are perhaps unfit for inclusion at an institute of higher learning or high culture. And even better? They’re all FREE to visit.
The Hollywood Sculpture Garden, Hollywood
Although technically this sculpture garden is artist Robby Gordon’s backyard in the Hollywood Hills, most of it is visible from the roads on either side of it. Given its steep hillside location – and the slippery footing atop the loose dirt, strewn with pine needles – it’s unlikely you’ll actually be able to walk around it much, but it’s worth stopping by to take a gander. At the top of the hill, two figures hang from a tree, arms interlocked. Another tree up there has been yarn bombed, and a bright pink headless figure (painted by Robby) stands glowing in the sun to greet you. Be sure to look up at the roof of the painted garage, where two mannequins painted by Gordon flank Brian Carlson's "Flamenco Sol.”
Old Trapper's Lodge statues, Woodland Hills
A bunch of endangered old statues – handmade by amateur sculptor John Ehn, a descendent of pioneers who dubbed himself "The Old Trapper" – have found a safe haven in a little nook on the Pierce College campus in a suburban part of the Valley. Ehn had no training besides briefly shadowing Claude Bell of Knott's Berry Farm / Cabazon Dinosaurs fame, but he used the property he owned and operated as a motel near the Burbank Airport, The Old Trapper's Lodge, as his canvas to tell stories of pioneer families. They’re maintained by a group of anonymous preservationists – mysterious benefactors who’ve been coming to paint them ever since their motel was demolished and they were relocated here. It’s grotesque, creepy, and delightful – especially with the inclusion of a mini “cemetery.”
Noah’s Art, Joshua Tree
If you missed the recent Noah Purifoy exhibit at LACMA – or even if you happened to catch it – the “Noah’s Art” exhibit of assemblage art at the Outdoor Desert Art Museum in Joshua Tree is a must-visit. These “junk art” sculptures were meant to be seen out in the middle of the desert, against a cloudless, blue sky. This is the desert where Purifoy lived – and this is the site he devoted the last 15 years of his life to building. This is also one of the crown jewels of the High Desert Test Sites art program in Joshua Tree, so you can find out more (and get a map) by stopping by their visitors center or their stand at the Sky Village Swap Meet.
Desert Christ Park, Yucca Valley
It’s funny how cast-offs of an urbane society somehow just belong in the desert. Out in the Mojave, you can be driving along any road and see a menagerie of rusty machinery, disembodied heads, and other artifacts hewn out of scrap metal and other materials that have been tossed aside by others. And this is never more evident than at Desert Christ Park. Sculptor Frank Antone Martin dreamed of placing a giant, steel-reinforced concrete statue of Jesus perched over the rim of the Grand Canyon – but when he pitched it, his offer was rejected. Instead, Martin brought his “Unwanted Christ” to the top of a hill in Yucca Valley – and over the next ten years, more statues followed. Eventually, they were arranged into the outdoor sculpture garden you see today – but because Martin died before all of his sculptures could be completed, they now stand unfinished, just as he left them.
Jurupa Mountains Discovery Center, Riverside
When you mention Southern California roadside dinosaurs, everybody talks about the giant ones in Cabazon, which have been clearly visible off the north side of the 10 freeway for over 30 years, and were famously featured in the movie Pee Wee's Big Adventure. But they're not the only dinosaurs in the game, but the ones at Jurupa Mountains Discovery Center aren’t quite so obvious. Instead, they play hard to get. To find your own private Jurassic park, follow the marked “Dinosaur Trail” to the top of the hill, where you’ll find portrayals of prehistoric beasts made out of metal, burlap, and even Styrofoam. Fans of the Galleta Meadows metal sculptures in Borrego Springs may also enjoy the JMDC, although these dinos need a bit more TLC.