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Hands-on: At this art park, you can touch the sculptures

About the series: This part of the state has some of Connecticut's biggest and most popular tourist attractions. But in this occasional series, we're going to bring you places worthy of a visit that you might otherwise have never heard of.

Old Lyme — If you apply to the art world the concept that our forefathers made sacrifices to ensure freedoms for their grandchildren's generation, then Gilbert "Gil" Boro got kicked out of the Museum of Modern Art — twice — so that 8-year-old Ashlen Schmelzer could in 2019 have permission to climb on a sculpture at Studio 80 + Sculpture Grounds.

After a warning in MoMA years ago, "I started smoothing my hand over the sculptures, going over the crevices, and the same security guard came back," Boro recalled. "They asked me to stop, and I said, 'I can't.' So they walked me out." When he and his late wife, Emily Seward Boro, returned to the museum three months later, the same thing happened.

"The guards, they know touchers; they can see us a hundred miles away," he said.

A sculptor with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Duke University and an architecture degree from Columbia, Boro always had the urge to touch sculptures. He and his wife decided, "Someday we'll have a gallery or sculpture garden where we encourage people to touch things."

On June 8, Deep River resident Linalynn Schmelzer stood outside while her son sat on Boro's sculpture "Turning Point III/Chromalux Purpleen," an iridescent, twisting sculpture of steel tubing that hangs from a 12-foot stand. The sculpture can look purple or gold or gray or blue, depending on how the light hits it.

"Mom, can you spin me?" Ashlen asked, and she obliged.

Linalynn Schmelzer is the artistic director of River Valley Dance Project and has performed at the sculpture grounds. She wanted to go to the opening reception of the Summer Sculpture Showcase on June 8, and when she mentioned it to her son, he asked, "Is that the place I get to climb on sculptures?"

Boro and Christina Goldberg, his exhibitions coordinator and photographer, estimate that more than 250 people came to the opening.

The theory of Boro's wife was that the reason Studio 80 gets so many people throughout the year is that "we're very children-friendly. We encourage people to fully explore the sculptures. There are very few rules here," Boro said. "We've had almost no injuries. We've had a few splinters, some sprained ankles, some spiders and a couple ticks."

A space to support other artists

Boro estimates there are 120 to 130 sculptures on site, most of which are his. The Summer Sculpture Showcase, which began five or six years ago, came about after other artists asked if they could put their sculptures on his property. Studio 80 usually gets about 100 applications each year.

"It's like herding kittens. It's very hard to work with artists," Boro said. "It's a joy, but it's very hard. Everyone has a different idea."

In the past, he and Goldberg typically have had between three and five jurors selecting pieces for each showcase. He said big juries can take six to 10 hours to make decisions, and it's only after the wine or booze comes out that decisions get made.

This year, only Boro and Goldberg made the decisions, and it took them only three hours. There are 20 sculptures from 19 sculptors this year, mostly Connecticut residents.

The showcase will be up until Oct. 26, at which point Boro and Goldberg will ask some of the artists to keep their work on the grounds, if they don't need it for another show and if it hasn't sold. Boro said he charges 20 percent commission, whereas most galleries do 40 or 50 percent.

Last year, Boro said eight of the 20 sculptures were sold. He called that "unbelievable" when one considers that the sculptures were there for only three months and typically sell for between $3,000 and $10,000.

One sculptor at the opening last Saturday was Jerold Ehrlich, a Connecticut College alumnus who now lives in Narragansett, R.I. He calls his piece "Closing the Deal" because he was sketching ideas while attending his brother's painting exhibition, and his brother was "schmoozing with the gallery owner and a prospective buyer."

The $10,000, all-steel sculpture features two planks forming a V, with a piece designed to look like rope pulled taut between the two.

"I like to deal with things that are in tension, and also things that are in balance," Ehrlich explained. This is his third or fourth summer showcase.

John Bonsignore's "Ikumi – Toe Dancer" is a wiry person formed from stainless steel, arms stretched out to the side and one knee in the air. Bryan Gorneau has a faerie sculpture. Gints Grinbergs' "Wall Flower" features spiky ends curling inward. Deborah Hornbake has a sculpture made from laurel wood, part of a series she describes as "quirky and fun but still a bit fragile."

There's plenty more to come at the 4.5-acre property this summer. GUSTO Dance is performing there for Make Music Day on June 21 and for the Old Lyme Midsummer Festival on July 27.

Boro said he also is doing a show at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum on Sept. 5, focused on sculptures of knots. The working title is "What's Knot to Like?" but he said he's trying to think of a less corny name and will happily take suggestions.

Even locals don't know about it

Boro and his late wife moved from West Newton, Mass., to Old Lyme in May 2004. Along with his West Newton studio, he had a studio in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester and was chairman of the board of Carving Studio & Sculpture Center in Rutland, Vt.

They had lived in the same house for more than 30 years, but Boro decided that having three studios wasn't feasible and he had to "sort of bring my life together."

Today in Old Lyme, one can find in Boro's work a lot of spheres and a lot of curved tubing — he calls himself a "a squiggle guy."

On Monday morning, sculpture viewers intermittently strolled through the property. Upon seeing people pushing wheelchairs through the grass, Boro commented that he's going to have to put a covered, concrete path in.

After another group entered, he asked his team, "Does anyone know who these people are, walking around so earnestly?"

"Visitors," his assistant replied wryly.

Four women stopped inside Studio 80 to chat with Boro. One commented that she has lived in Old Lyme her entire life but didn't know the sculpture park was here.

While visitors can see Interstate 95 from the back of the grounds, the part adjacent to the Lieutenant River, one wouldn't notice the sculptures from the highway or from Lyme Street. But for as many trees as the property contains, many sculptures are placed in spots where the light hits them perfectly.

As Boro gave The Day a tour and talked about the sculptures, he pointed out a hidden garden where visitors sit reflectively, and a small gallery near where he has a few spaces for handicapped parking; the remaining parking is available at the adjacent Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts.

The gallery is loaded with his maquettes, or small models for his sculptures. It's called the ESB Gallery, after his wife. He was married to Emily Steward Boro for 48 years, and he talks about her as the light of his life, with great adoration and respect.

"She had a great sense of humor," he said. "She understood the life of an artist has its ups and downs."

If you go

Studio 80 + Sculpture Grounds

Where: 80 Lyme St., Old Lyme (parking is available at the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts next door, with several handicapped spots by the studio)

Owner: Gilbert Boro

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

What other places in southeastern Connecticut should we look into?


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