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The Poetry Garden on Edge

The Poetry Garden, an installation artwork and public space on the southeastern corner of campus, remains a quiet enigma for some Beloit College students. 

“It’s kind of bizarre and underused,” said Hana Hassanpourgal’20. “And very weirdly constructed but very appealing to me. In the summer, I like to do my homework there. It’s a nice place to have talks with people because it’s private.” However, Hassanpourgal admits, “I go there maybe once a year.” 

“I don’t know what the Poetry Garden looks like,” said Eleanor Koenig’20, who expects to graduate next fall. “I’ve never been there. I don’t know where it is.” 

The Beloit College Poetry Garden was designed by Iranian sculptor Siah Armajani and sits on the opposite end of campus from the residential quad. The ambitious visions and ideas for the garden by the artist, school administrators, and Beloit students during its conception to the present day reveal a dream towards community integration that is largely unknown by current students. 

From Los Angeles to Beloit 

The original version of the Poetry Garden was commissioned by the Lannan Foundation as an installation for its headquarters’ previous location in Los Angeles. Founded in 1960, the Lannan Foundation grants financial support for creative projects with an interest in cultural freedom. The garden had to be moved when the headquarters relocated to Santa Fe in 1997. 

An April 13, 1997 article from the Los Angeles Times succinctly describes the relationship between the Lannan Foundation, Armajani, and Beloit College: “[Beloit] College President Victor E. Ferrall Jr. is an old friend of J. Patrick Lannan Jr., president of the foundation established in 1960… Armajani… is a former college classmate of Alan G. McIvor, vice president for enrollment services at Beloit. Ferrall said ‘The Poetry Garden’ is being given to Beloit because he asked for it.” 

Victor E. Ferrall, the president of Beloit College from 1991 to 2000, had been asking Patrick J. Lannan, the president of the Lannan Foundation, for the garden since before Sept. 4, 1995. A letter from Ferrall to Lannan on that day indicates that relocations were being considered for New York or Los Angeles. He expresses interest again in a letter to Lannan on Dec. 30, 1996. On Feb. 6, 1997, a letter to Lannan indicates that Ferrall, Lannan, and Armajani met on Beloit College campus the week before. The garden had been committed to the college by Lannan and Armajani at least privately by this point. 

Armajani’s artworks had already made its way to Beloit College several times by 1997. He held a solo exhibition in 1993 at the Wright Museum titled “Recent Works” and another in 1997 on campus called “The Poetry of Public Art.” The cage-like sculpture between the World Affairs Center and the Wright Museum, titled “Gazebo for One Anarchist: Emma Goldman,” was created by Armajani in 1993. He also designed “The Beloit Fishing Bridge” in 1997, which now crosses the Rock River near the college. 

The original Los Angeles installation featured “…a narrow band of glazed ceramic that runs across the tops of chairs and benches that line the walls of the garden. Thirty, three-foot-tall ceramic jars, glazed in luminous blue and green hues, stand in a corner… High-backed armchairs and benches line the perimeter of the space providing permanent seating for 50,” according to a “News From Beloit College” release after April 6, 1997. 

                             The Poetry Garden at Lannan Foundation. Walker Art Center, 1994.

Armajani said about the Beloit garden, “It will be totally different. The garden will probably be four times as large and I will probably add new elements,” according to the April 13, 1997 edition of the Los Angeles Times

Today, a student at Beloit College sees these benches not in the garden but in the Wright Museum. Two of the original chairs sit in the courtyard gallery. “The two chairs are remnants,” Director of the Wright Museum of Art Joy Beckman said in a recent interview. “When the chairs got here they were so sun damaged that Armajani had to come back and do a new installation… The chairs in the courtyard were original to the garden in LA, but they didn’t have the sun damage like the rest of the benches, so they were saved. [The two in the courtyard] were never in the [Beloit] garden… The Poetry Garden benches are slightly different. He had to make them new.” 

 Original chairs in the Wright courtyard. Kali Lo-Ng

      Current chairs in the Poetry Garden. Kali Lo-Ng

The ceramic pots in the original design also did not reappear in the Beloit version. “There were a lot of pottery jars,” Beckman said. “And pottery breaks below freezing.” Pots do currently feature in the garden, but they are not made of ceramic. 

Current pots in the Poetry Garden. Kali Lo-Ng

In Feb. 6, 1997 letter, Ferrall asked Lannan if his foundation would continue to support the garden in the future. Ferrall proposed a “poet in residence” program at the college, summer poetry workshops for children, and a poetry reading series in the garden. Lannan responded in an undated letter with the subject line “Lannan Commitment Re Siah’s Poetry Garden at Beloit.” He agreed to a publication and a video featuring the new garden, but deemed the rest as only eligible for periodic grants from Lannan.  

From the Residential Side to Academic Side 

The first spot publicized for the Poetry Garden was the student residential quad at the north end of campus. Ferrall indicates this as the location agreed upon by himself, Armajani, and Lannan in his Feb. 6, 1997 letter. 

Beloit College students at the time expressed their thoughts to the Round Table. The following is quoted from an undated clip in the Wright Museum’s accession file on the chairs: “Sophomore Will Clark expressed concern that The Poetry Garden would ‘not allow for Frisbee golf to be played where it is usually played, on the open quad area on the residential side of campus.’ He suggested that The Poetry Garden might fit better in the area in front of Pearsons. Senior Michael Spelman wondered about losing the open space in front of Chapin Hall. ‘If there are fences and gates, those vertical structures will take away from the function of Chapin Quad’s open environment,’ said Spelman.” 

Armajani told Ferrall that he wanted to move the garden to a quieter space in a letter on March 29, 1998. He lists the quad buildings and preexisting college library as his reasons that the garden in the previous location would not contribute to the community. 

The southeastern corner of campus, where the garden was relocated, had been used before as an entrance to the college featuring a stone arch donated by the class of 1907. The arch was removed during construction of the Poetry Garden, but its main keystone is preserved within a doorway of the Eaton Chapel. 

From Vision to Reality  

Ferrall and professors imagined that Beloit students would frequent the garden as a multipurpose space. “Ferrall said he is not concerned about the garden displacing any recreation areas. ‘Armajani designs things practically,’ Ferrall said. ‘I know he designs (his work) to be used. So I expect it will be available not only for literary activities but for ‘Frisbee’ and everything else,’” according to an article on April 7, 1997, in the Beloit Daily News. 

Clint McCown, an award-winning author who taught creative writing courses at Beloit, said, “‘I see it as a nice springboard to introduce students to poetry,’” in a Beloit Magazine article from the summer of 1997. The article also says, “As for relying on the garden to accommodate regular, structured activities, McCown is less enthusiastic. He cites the potential for weather to hold even summer events hostage… ‘I can imagine it as a wonderful place for students to congregate, study, sit to meditate or write a poem. I think it’s an option for spontaneous use by students in their daily routines, rather than an auditorium for a public forum.’”

A 2008 picture on gettyimages.com, a royalty-free stock images website, pictures a class being taught at the Poetry Garden. Created on Dec. 31, 2008, the caption reads, “Students being taught in the Poetry Gardens at Beloit College.” The image features in a 2018 article on forbes.com.

Students being taught in the Poetry Gardens at Beloit College. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Facilities Office Manager LeeAnn Ryan spoke in a recent interview about ongoing maintenance of the garden. “Grounds takes care of mowing and weeding. Lights or anything like that is maintenance,” Ryan said. 

Ryan also said that the tables and benches were redone in the summer of 2018. The boardwalk on the exterior of the garden was removed later in the spring of 2019. “The wood was deteriorating and becoming a danger and safety hazard. The boardwalk, all of that was removed. They were getting pretty torn up and it was easier for snow removal… That was the first time we replaced those [the exterior boardwalk and benches].” 

The garden’s flowers used to be kept with grant money. With the grant, the college had a person from outside the college dedicated to the flowers, according to Ryan. Now, they are maintained by the college’s grounds staff and the Office of Facilities. “Since we’ve lost the grant it hasn’t been kept up as well… Our grounds staff needs to find the time, which is more limited, for its care, but they do the best they can,” Ryan said. She added in reference to the bench and boardwalk repairs, “That was from a donation. Sometimes there are donations for that kind of thing.” 

When asked whether the garden was smartly designed, Ryan answered, “I guess it depends on its use. I don’t see any problems with it. I like it. It’s peaceful, rustic. It’s restful.” 

Current students share mixed opinions about the garden’s design but agree that the space could be used better. 

Naomi Nyeme’ ‘20 said that she has been to the Poetry Garden twice. “We had a class outside once just ‘cause it was a nice day… It was a [Adjunct Assistant Professor of Classics] Matthew Taylor class. Then I think it was for a club meeting for BUG [Beloit Urban Garden].” Nyeme, who is a chemistry major, adds, “When it’s decent outside, it’s nice and pleasant, just ‘cause in STEM you can’t really have class outside. Otherwise, it’s not a big deal. I can’t have a lab in the Poetry Garden obviously… It’s basic. Nothing special. I think if the overall appearance was better, more students and more classes would be held there.” 

Hassanpourgal said on the garden’s design, “There’s so much table space that you can’t use. But it’s also an installation. It’s a sculpture itself… It’s very cold and snowy. It’s hard to utilize that space, but in the spring and summer it’s nice to have.” 

Martina Pulido’22 said that she has used the garden a few times to hang out with friends. She said, “I went last semester with a group of friends late at night. We sat on the stage and listened to music… I do like the Poetry Garden, but it could be advertised or used better. I haven’t really heard of anyone using it other than maybe for class when it’s nice out.” 

The Poetry Garden remains an available on-campus space. The Beloit College website notes that the Office of Safety and Security should be contacted for access on evenings and weekends. 

Sources: Beloit College Archives, Los Angeles Times, The Round Table, Beloit Daily News, Beloit Magazine: Summer 1997, Forbes

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