by Allison Hunter
Part nature trail, part pagan playground, and part Northern European art hub, the Open-Air Art Museum at Pedvale (or Pedvale, for short) draws international artists as well as a constant flow of tourists to the remote Talsi region of Western Latvia, 75 miles from capital city of Riga.
Ojars Feldbergs, a shy 54-year-old, spotted the lush rolling hills, forests, and streams of a German country estate abandoned after World War II. He knew instantly the bucolic setting would be perfect for his museum without walls. In fact, the only walls at Pedvale belong to 200-year-old historic landmarks and house secondary exhibitions. One of the most striking "rooms" at the park is a roofless gallery—the crumbling stone walls reach almost to ceiling height where they meet clouds and blue skies. Inside the walls, Feldbergs's carved stone sculptures rest on pedestals surrounded by red dirt, gravel, and weeds.
Invited artists create work for specific areas of the park, often using stone and wood from Pedvale, during summer workshops that adhere to themes chosen by Feldbergs. The park’s current theme, "Prime Elements of the World—Fire, Water, Earth, Air," attracts artists who, like Feldbergs, favor a down-to-earth atmosphere over the ego-circus of a splashy biennial.
Feldbergs, a renowned artist in Latvia, has also exhibited his work throughout Europe, in Japan and South Korea, as well as in nearby countries formerly within the Soviet orbit. Despite his pedigree, he has an elfish sense of humor. Last summer he served Bloody Marys at the opening of the "Fire" season, and vodka at "Water." Perhaps he'll set up an oxygen bar for the "Air" exhibition in 2003. And when the local residents smirk at his eclectic art collection, he laughs right back. Last June, he permitted artists to erect large white letters that spell PEDVALE, à la Hollywood, on a hill overlooking Sabile.
But the reality of life as an artist in post-Communist Latvia is no joke. Artists have confronted setbacks such as a lack of recognition, material resources, and funding. Feldbergs and his contemporaries endured decades of Soviet censorship only to find independence (in 1991) within a country practically in ruin. However, Feldbergs says Latvian traditions, folklore, and imagination sustained creativity during Soviet occupation. Today, according to Feldbergs, Latvia must learn from Western capitalist societies, which regularly sponsor artists and art centers. Without added support, the artistic development of Latvia may suffer.
With little government funding, Feldbergs fosters a dynamic art scene. He promotes artistic practice, experimentation, and the education of emerging Baltic artists at Pedvale. Two years ago, Feldbergs invited U.S. sculptors Kenneth Payne and Carl Billingsly (both professors of art, at Buffalo State College, State University of New York and East Carolina State University, respectively) to lead an iron-pour workshop, which resulted in their collaborative piece, Valley Fire. Valley Fire consists of a twelve-foot tall stone, brick, and cast iron structure with a working fire pit at the base.
Payne and Billingsly have enjoyed sharing their expert casting skills with the energetic, and appreciative Eastern and Northern European sculptors. They've returned to Pedvale, with select college students in tow, to lead workshops for the past three years, despite the lack of basics such as art supplies and safety materials. Once, instead of using the usual isopropyl alcohol to make a mold wash, they made due with a bottle of moonshine. The hardships Payne says, are worth it. "In the States, if you tell people you are a sculptor, they hide their children and lock up their wives and close the door and put away their valuables," he jokes. "But over there, it's quite different. Being an artist is actually considered to be an honored profession. There's an attempt to understand what you're doing as opposed to the 'Oh well, I don't like that modern art crap' attitude that you can run into here."
Danish artist Erik Schwarzbart, a seasoned professional with a 30-year career, installed The Cult Place at Pedvale last summer. Like Feldbergs, Schwarzbart talks about the magic of the land, claiming a "special energy" where his sculpture rests. "It is obvious that Ojars has a great love for Pedvale, and with his strong energy he has come far to create an international center of sculpture," says Schwarzbart. His only concern is for the future of the park: "I hope Pedvale does not become a place where artists just put their objects outdoors but that Ojars will keep the 'site specific' idea, where the art is made exactly for that place and has a dialogue with the surrounding nature."
Feldbergs keeps the park going with income from the two-dollar park entrance fee, the restaurant, and the hotel—all of which keep him glued to his cell phone. He manages a small handful of hardworking teenagers from Sabile who wait tables, scrub wood floors, and put fresh bouquets in every room. In return, Feldbergs allows them to blast Latvian muzak, which combines tunes by the likes of Elvis and Madonna, sung in Latvian, into the restaurant and the outside seating area. They claim the "country" people who visit the restaurant love it.
Many native Latvian visitors linger at the restaurant while their children play on the swings. This is fortunate for visitors who enjoy walking the mile-long trek without the distraction of human voices. The art blends so delicately into its surroundings—nestled in streambeds or tied to tree branches—that you might even miss some of it the first time around. Picking one's way down narrow paths and over mossy streams—more Druid crossing than Disney theme park—it becomes clear that the artworks are not about to overshadow the beauty already "installed" by nature. Feldbergs is quick to point out that the path is ancient—he just followed what seemed to have been there for centuries. The 45-minute walk often leaves tourists wanting to bail out after the first half—but there's no way you can cut it short without simply turning back. One Portuguese tourist joked that the endurance factor kept away "fat Americans."
Many park visitors come back year after year. They look forward to revisiting the permanent installations and are eager to catch the latest artwork by one of Feldbergs's high-quality picks. With the increase of interest in his workshops, Feldbergs has decided to dedicate more and more of the virgin land to new art. He sees the growth optimistically. "Pedvale is the convergence of natural landscape, agricultural landscape, cultural heritage, and contemporary art in one entirety," he says, sounding all business. But at sunset, he reveals a different side—the artist who believes "a sculpture is born and needs air—the space of life." Feldbergs quietly excuses himself from a conversation at the tavern, puts his cell phone away, and turns his attention to the sky above the rolling hills of Pedvale, watching the fiery light descend, as though for the first time.
is a writer, artist, and Web designer living in Albany, New York. More
information on The Open-Air Art Museum at Pedvale can be found at www.pedvale.lv