On a warm, sun-drenched morning this week, Stefan Schwarzkopf stood in a clearing near the historic pagoda in Southeast Baltimore's Patterson Park, gazed across the emerald-colored slope on which he had been working and gave a satisfied sigh.
"It's awesome to be able to get out of the normal routine ... and just be out of doors for a while," he said.
Schwarzkopf, 34, works for Gensler, an international architectural firm with a Baltimore branch that conceived and set up Park Life/City Movement, an exhibition of "environmental installation art" that envelops the park today and tomorrow.
As a half-dozen volunteers unrolled hunks of sod a few feet away, his words seemed apt for a "green"-friendly project whose motto is "Slow down. It's nice in here."
Based on the idea that nature and green spaces are essential parts of life in any healthy city, Park Life/City Movement is using mass quantities of natural materials to create an interactive experience in the park through which visitors can develop a fuller appreciation of the living world around them.
For the past two days, Schwarzkopf, lead architect Jason Neal and about 80 volunteers threaded 8,900 feet of crimson burlap through a pathway of trees along the park's western edge; drove 600 6-foot wooden stakes into the ground, creating a long path that intersects the burlap swath; and unfurled 6,000 feet of sod where the two lines converge just below the pagoda.
"Among other things, we're highlighting the beauties of the park," Neal said. "Things people already know about but might not always notice."
Using the $37,000 worth of sod as their clay, Schwarzkopf and his crew have sculpted two undulating "landforms" on which visitors can sit and children can play.
From this elevated spot, guests can see most of the installation, which reaches about three-fourths of a mile in two directions like a pair of outstretched arms that embrace the park, which Neal calls "the Central Park of Baltimore."
Between noon and 4 p.m. today, local bands will perform at this site, bubble machines and face painting will entertain kids, and guests can design their own leaf or sponsor a Baltimore tree. Between 1 p.m. and 1:30 p.m., speakers will discuss Gensler's concept, city trees and sustainability in general. The exhibition will remain open tomorrow and be taken down Monday.
Volunteers worked through a couple of downpours that weighed down the burlap and darkened its color, but Neal says the rains actually added to the beauty of the exhibition. They streaked the white paint atop the stakes, creating an organic pattern.
"You can't plan these things," he says, laughing. "Nature is part of the deal."
Weather forecasts, he noted hopefully, were calling for storm activity to leave the area late this morning.
Park Life/City Movement is the fourth of six events slated this spring and summer in an overarching enterprise called Baltimore: The Urban Forest Project. Visitors this weekend might already have noticed its most visible element: More than 450 local artists, designers and students have volunteered their time and talents to create 350 banners, now hung in various city neighborhoods. Each banner features "an image based on the sustainability of trees," says Rachael Baird, co-owner of Tilt Studio Foundation, an eco-friendly design firm that helped the Urban Forest Project.
Many have distinctly local themes: One shows a green bird in a Bawlmer beehive hairdo, another the Natty Boh man giving a thumbs-up to Charm City's trees.
The banners, made of recyclable plastic, will be turned into tote bags after June 28, when the Urban Forest Project ends. Members of the public can place orders for the bags, either this weekend or online at bmore-ufp.org. Proceeds will go toward TreeBaltimore, a mayoral initiative that aims to double Baltimore's "urban canopy" over the next two decades.
Park Life/City Movement is a strong visual statement, one perhaps best appreciated by a simple walk along the burlap ribbon. It starts at the park's southwest corner, where South Patterson Park and Eastern avenues intersect, and winds north. The fabric is meant to symbolize Baltimore's tree cover.
"It's all too easy to take trees for granted," says Baird, who, along with Jessica Pegorsch, co-owner of Tilt, helped kick-start the project. The installation's playful nature was reflected in the nametags Baird and Pegorsch wore as they toured the park: Baird's official title is "Ideas Lady"; Pegorsch's is "Art Force."
Where the burlap meets the stake line, visitors can turn right, head downhill and ply another "route," one where laminated placards attached to the stakes share factoids on trees.
"That path is meandering, and it's meant to provide moments of reflection," says Matt Roberts, a project spokesman.
Park Life/City Movement organizers - including Tilt Foundation Studios, the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks and the Friends of Patterson Park - say the installation "focuses on the value of our trees and green spaces both in the parks and in the city." It cost roughly $50,000, with volunteers providing more than 80 percent of the labor and expense.
Environmental art with a message also gained attention, and some infamy, in the city earlier this spring when students from the Maryland Institute College of Art ringed Mount Vernon Place with a gold chain-link fence - to encourage appreciation for the urban jewel - and held a parade with a giant trash can to clean up litter. Unlike the Mount Vernon project, which limited residents' access to that park, city and Patterson Park community leaders appear to be on board with this weekend's park project.
Baird says her favorite aspect of Park Life/City Movement - like the Urban Forest Project in general - is that "it produces no waste." Burlap will be donated to nurseries, stakes to the city and sod for use elsewhere in the park.
But some of the installation will remain.
Just below the pagoda, where Schwarzkopf took a moment to wipe his brow, the architect pointed to a baby elm his firm had donated and planted. It stood at the center of a huge circle. "Eventually, its canopy will fill that space, and then some," Schwarzkopf said. "It's a pleasure to add something to the community you love."
If you go
The Park Life/City Movement exhibition of "environmental art" will be held 9 a.m.-dusk today and tomorrow at Patterson Park, 27 S. Patterson Park Ave.
From noon-4 p.m. today, planned events include live local bands; family activities and games; face painting, bubble machines and art activities; an opportunity to adopt a tree; and distribution of materials on sustainable living. From 1 p.m.-1:30 p.m. today, there will be talks by assistant deputy mayor Tom Stosur on sustainability in Baltimore; Gensler architect Jim Camp; and Rachael Baird and Jessica Pegorsch, of Tilt Studio Foundation, on the urban canopy.
Future Urban Forest Project events include the Wyman Park Dell celebration during the Charles Village Festival, noon-4 p.m. May 31; a picnic in Carroll Park, noon-4 p.m. June 8; a labyrinth exhibit during the Herring Run Park Berry Festival, noon-4 p.m. June 21; and a closing exhibition at Maryland Institute College of Art, Leidy Auditorium at the Brown Center, 5 p.m.-7 p.m. June 28.
For more information (or to order tote bags made from recycled banners or T-shirts based on banner designs), go to bmore-ufp.org.