By Marie Bradby

Martha Slaughter has found a job that embodies two of her favorite things. Photos by Patti Hartog

While the warm spring breeze blew against her face and ruffled the pastel blossoms of the trees, Martha Slaughter swung on an art piece entitled Philosofa, a sculpted, suspended bench just outside the Visitor’s Center at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, and mused.

“Art and nature connect us to the natural world through our senses,” says Martha, a visual arts coordinator for both Bernheim and KentuckyOne Health. “Bernheim is a place that people know they can come to and have that experience. It gives people a sense of well-being. Scientific studies have shown that being in touch with nature is good for the mind and body.”

Martha sits on the Philosofa swing with Jessie Burke, Ava and Cecily Schardein and Emmalyn Lies. They have come to
Bernheim for a visit. 

Martha earned a bachelor’s degree in art history from the University of California, Irvine and did a fellowship at the Whitney Museum in New York. She has decades of experience as a curator and administrative art director. She went straight from undergraduate school to jobs around the country at museums and galleries in San Diego, Seattle, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Louisville, where in 2011, she served as interim director for the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft.

“I’ve always been an outdoors person — I sailed, I skied,” says Martha, who was raised in Westchester, New York; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Monterey and Newport Beach, California. “I never thought my love of art history and nature would be combined in one job.”

The sculpture Earth Measure, made of Bedford limestone, was created by Matt Weir to honor Barry Bingham, Jr. for his service to Bernheim. Earth Measure is an educational, interactive sculpture that invites the viewer to play with reflected sound. 

Martha runs Bernheim’s artist-in-residence program, which was started in 1980. This spring, an overview of the Bernheim art residency collection was the subject of an exhibit at the Carnegie Center in New Albany, Indiana. The exhibit celebrated the program’s 35 years of artwork — photographs, paintings, sculptures, and videos. “Some people may not come to Bernheim for the art, but it is there as one of the facets they can explore to deepen their appreciation of nature,” Martha says.

An inviting bench located outside the visitors’ center of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest provides
a space for quiet reflection. 

What’s the artist program like?
The artist has a cabin that they stay in for two to four months (they typically come one at a time), and they get a $2,500 honorarium. There is a selection process. It’s a global program. Last year we had more than 100 applications from all over the world. We emphasize that they create work to help connect people with nature.

How does the process work?
We ask artists to create a proposal, but we don’t hold them to it. The creative process takes place while they are here. One artist from Quebec was intrigued by the mason bees here. She made the Atomic Apartment, a mid-century modern complex of living spaces for bees. It is a way our educators can talk to kids and adults about the importance of bees and the environment.

This untitled piece, referred to as Mushroom Bump, is a wheat straw and twine structure created by Mei-ling Hom during her Artist-in-Residency program in 2013. The piece is on loan from Bernheim to the Carnegie Center for Art & History in New Albany and was included in their recent exhibit Bernheim: A Natural Muse, Celebrating 35 Years of the Artist in Residence Program.

What’s your vision for the artist program?
I would say in the next decade, we want to challenge visitors on the notion of what art is. For example, Chiel Kujcl, an environmental sculptor from Holland, just made the Philosofa piece. It serves as a kind of suspended bench, but it’s so creative that it serves as art as well. People will be sitting on it and questioning who made it and why it is here. So you experience it physically as well. Some of the most successful art projects here engage and delight people before they even know it’s art or understand the creative process that’s taking place.

In the last two decades, the work has been more experimental. An artist from the University of Oklahoma did scent mapping. She found materials in the forest and meadow and boiled them down to their essences to represent each area.

Earth Measure is an acoustic piece that amplifies the sounds of nature. It’s by a Louisville artist, Matt Weir, who was commissioned to do the piece to honor Barry Bingham Jr., who was on Bernheim’s board for 38 years. It’s a wonderful piece that puts you out into a field. We are trying to create a library of different art pieces that engage people. We want people to have a sense of discovery.

How has the purpose of art changed?
Art can have more than its use as an artifact. It can be used for social and political purposes, to create dialogue and connect and expand communities. The work here is to connect people to nature. Isaac Bernheim purchased this property for people to come here to recreate and connect with the beauty of nature and art, and that was 1929. That’s pretty amazing.

What’s your work with KentuckyOne Health?
Mr. Bernheim was also a founder of Jewish Hospital, which is now affiliated with KentuckyOne Health. For the hospital and clinic walls, I hang large 42-by-42-inch color photos of Bernheim subjects taken by our staff. It’s interesting how it’s come full circle. Nature-based photography creates a sense of calm and serenity and helps patients transcend their situation.

My first big project was for Our Lady of Peace. I installed 65 images, many of them in patient units. Talk about being able to transcend your environment — the patients all like it. It’s been a huge morale boost for the staff. It gives their workplace a sense of value and appreciation of what they are doing in their environment.

 How do you incorporate art and nature into your life?