Take a hat, lather on the sunscreen, and lose the flip-flops - this year, the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education has decided to make you hike to its annual summer outdoor sculpture exhibition. It's an unchallenging ramble along the center's Widener Trail, as it turns out, through lovely, sun-dappled woods, open meadows, and an unexpected pine grove, with birds and other wildlife your only company.
Even better, the show, "Facts and Fables: Stories of the Natural World," is the first one I've seen here (or at the center's Second Site, a former farm located a mile or so away) to introduce visitors to a trail as the many trails here are intended to be used, thereby revealing more of the benefits of this accessible nature preserve within the city limits. The art gains from the trail logistics, too: Each sculpture you encounter gets your undivided attention.
Stop at the center's main building first and pick up the show's brochure, which contains a map identifying the locations of various sculptures. Some of the show's seven artists have small works in the gallery, among them Jeremy Beaudry, who invites you to take a copy of his small book, Nature Study: An Ambivalent Guide. Take him up on his offer - his book helps clarify his contributions to the exhibit outdoors.
All the works in "Facts and Fables" explore true or fictional stories involving nature, and they accomplish this in surprisingly different ways. They are also exceptionally modest works, even when they are large, possibly because they are not about art. When they do express a particular artist's style, it's in the service of illuminating or reexamining someone else's idea or story.
Taking the trail format literally and imaginatively, Beaudry has placed signs at intervals, bearing fragments of his conversations about nature with fellow artists and the center's director, and excerpts from books by the naturalist John Muir and others.
You can read these in their entirety in Beaudry's book, but the experience of coming upon them in nature, isolated from their book context, is magical.
David Dempewolf's Kitchen (Carelessness and Inattention Can Afford Us Any Remedy), a video in the gallery and a hand-stenciled panel outside, consists of images from memories and reveries relating to a text he read about the meeting between the poet Paul Celan and the philosopher Martin Heidegger. It's a fascinating piece, but the complex images in the panel would be easier to unravel in a pristine gallery space.
The exhibition's only large piece, Chad Curtis' geometric "mountain," is intended to invite human and animal visitors; a strategically placed solar-powered camera streams any activity and broadcasts it in real time on the artist's website. When I came across Mother Nature, no people or animals were on or in it, and I'd be surprised if any creature were to find this cool, forbidding form welcoming. I prefer the piece as a sculpture, plain and simple.
Susan Hagen's carved cedar dolphins and fish mounted on metal poles look like fish out of water in their grassy clearing, but also strangely beautiful in this improbable setting. They constitute Hagen's memorial to the species killed, injured, and endangered because of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
I like the idea behind Brian Collier's Bird Shift: Ghosts and Strangers - to call attention to the effects of human beings on birds - better than the painted aluminum representations of extinct species attached to a tree, and I'd be interested to read the responses he receives on the cards he has made available in the bird blind and elsewhere for visitors to note the birds they have seen on their walks.
Jean Jaffe's Little Red Riding Hood as a Crime Scene, set in the pine grove, is a marvelous idea, but I wish she'd gone as over the top with some of her crime-scene clues as she did with her gigantic white ceramic disembodied legs and her writhing life-size wolf. Red drippy paint, rather than red spray paint, would have looked much more macabre on the pinecones.
Blane de St. Croix's faux miniaturized landscape is too small and delicate for its outdoor setting, but, like Hagen's sculptures, it overcomes its site in a loopy sort of way. You have to wend your way through the weeds to get a good look at this fragile assemblage of many landscapes subjected to such indignities as mountaintop-removal coal mining and deforestation, but it's worth it. God is in the details.
The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, 8480 Hagy's Mill Rd., daily, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (main building open until 5 p.m.). Through Oct. 29. Information: 215-482-7300 or www.schuylkillcenter.org/department/art/.