The lot near the gallery Ex Ovo, one acre amid the half-reclaimed warehouses of the Tin District in West Dallas, is called Sweet Pass, and its foliage flutters on a recent summer day. Here, an outdoor sculpture park is a locus of liminality in the elbow of Fabrication Street, an artist-run exhibition space defined only by a chain-link fence. As you approach, a sound sculpture—Eric McMaster’s four-channel recording of shivering, tremulous strings—lures, and a dog lolls under the spreading oaks. The couple who greet you (she in jeans and a T-shirt, he in shorts), handing you sunscreen, bug spray, and sparkling water, are artists Trey Burns and Tamara Johnson. They are your Virgils in this terrain.
Johnson, who grew up in Waco, attended the University of Texas at Austin, and studied sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design, recently accepted a two-year position teaching sculpture at Southern Methodist University. Burns, her co-founder and partner, is a new-media artist and multimedia producer; their skills in complementary spheres play out in the park they decided to found as a passion project.
Before the couple left New York, the notion of artists creating a generous ubiquity for other artists was born of a Google document wish-list that came to them on the subway: the amorphous kernel of a thing they thought of as Sculpture Ranch. “Wouldn’t it be cool to get some land?” Johnson says they dreamed. And to make a sculpture park? “And we just kept adding to it.”
Already, Johnson was moving in that direction with her own work, mining concepts of demographics and landscape. For the public art piece Picnic, which she created last year, she fixed a concrete blanket in Maria Hernandez Park in Brooklyn, New York, probing the possibilities of interaction in and with space, toying with the potential for inclusivity.
The idea that took form as Sweet Pass Sculpture Park was a response to the dearth of sites that allow emerging or mid-career artists to show outdoor work on a temporary basis. Burns and Johnson imagined room for themselves to become organizers and facilitators, filling a gap, pushing back against the stifling world they had left behind in New York, with its confluence of inhibiting factors: burdensome rent and the pressure of gallery representation in a relentlessly for-profit model. They craved looseness.
The first show, titled Getgo, which Johnson calls “a monument to beginnings,” included work by students in her Intro to Sculpture class: a totemic assemblage uniting a corn dog and a cowboy Shrek. A several-day residency workshop with the Boys and Girls Club of Richardson led to youth work populating a subsequent exhibit (“Like little Easter eggs in the park,” Johnson says). And in January, Burns created a 24-hour drive-in, visitors’ cars becoming sculptural vessels as they absorbed 14 artists’ sound pieces, broadcast over the available frequency of 96.1 FM. “To us, that was still sculptural,” Johnson says. “It’s just about turning the body a bit to understand what sculpture can be.”
The 2019 summer show, titled Looms, was organized in collaboration with SMU’s Pollock gallery and guest curated by Partial Shade, which Johnson describes as a “scrappy sister collective” that shows outdoors in Austin. In an exhibit that evokes the ephemeral and the stationary, the dualities of making and dissolution, a Brutalist-leaning Connect Four game poses political and identity questions with the deceptive nonchalance of a game of corn hole. Not far away, sheltered under a tree, a photograph printed on a swath of fabric and pinned to a clothesline—enigmatic, mute—fragilely frames the ravages of time and memory. A self-portrait of an artist in a body-suit cocoon disrupts certainties about what is natural, while in the center of the lot, a plaster-cast found papasan chair turns itself back into an element, plaster’s softness hardening and then dissolving, only to be used again.
In this secret-garden that upends expectations, the seasons and the lot itself are characters. Burns and Johnson ask themselves questions about every show. How will visitors move through the site? Should one piece hold the middle? How might they synchronize the volume level and presence of the sculptures—bold and loud or quiet, blending into the leaf cover? Why might there be camouflage-print S&M gear hanging from a tree limb? Or why does the sound piece make you feel like lingering?
Johnson has ceased to agonize over “everything being the perfect, ideal version of a sculpture park.” They want to fill the space in a way that grants freedom. “‘Why is this here? What is this?’ If someone says this about any outdoor work, that’s the right question; something’s happening here,” she says.
“It almost feels like we’re running a minor-league baseball team,” Burns admits—scouting talent on trips; doubling as handlers in the DIY art pick-ups that involve an SUV and trailer (often in Austin or Houston); making work for artists in situ using instructions as ad hoc, long-distance fabricators.
The future beckons, despite uncertainties. SP2, a small, derelict house Johnson and Burns recently acquired and restored as an annex adjacent to the park, houses a black-box space that affords a viewing spot for video, while the front room doubles as a venue for performance. Screen projections will eventually flicker against a now-graffitied wall that the duo plans to paint white. Sweet Pass also recently received nonprofit 501(c)(3) status and was awarded a 2019 Nasher Microgrant that will contribute to the upkeep of the park and an increase in artist stipends. The goal was to fund interesting work, and Burns and Johnson would like to incubate more, adding solo shows and larger projects, with perhaps a residency of sorts. Ultimately, the mission is to expand the definition of art and to do so close to home. “How can we move in a circle enough to create our own little tornado?” Johnson asks.
Address: 402 Fabrication Street, Dallas, Texas
Eve Hill-Agnus is a writer based in Dallas. She has written about chefs, Hare Krishna temples, and artists. Born in Paris, France, she earned degrees in English and education from Stanford University. She came by her loves honestly: a childhood spent with an artist mother and an adulthood spent in studios and museums fuel an imagination that is most at home in places where art is talked about and made. She is also obsessed with goats and cheese.
All photos: Nan Coulter