Among the many art installations in Kansas City's Open Spaces arts festival, one in Swope Park explores John Milton's "Paradise Lost." It's the Biblical story of Adam and Eve's temptation by the fallen angel Satan and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
New Orleans, Louisiana-based artist Dawn DeDeaux admits that it’s not go-to reading for everyone. The epic poem in blank verse dates back to the 17th century.
"I know very few of my friends have even read 'Paradise Lost.' It's not an easy text," DeDeaux says, "but I think (it’s important) to start to get people to even think about some of the themes."
Themes like sin and revenge, obedience and free will.
On a grassy ridge in Swope Park, DeDeaux and her team installed 48 concrete and fiberglass columns. Each pillar is 10 or 12 feet tall and covered with text from Milton’s verses. They jut out at different angles, in a state of falling.
"That’s why I called this piece 'Free Fall,'" says DeDeaux. "And it’s the prophecy and free will in Milton’s 'Paradise Lost,' but it’s really about that free will in that we have a very short window to turn things around."
DeDeaux printed Milton's text in the same reflective vinyl used on highways. It’s a nod to the poet’s language, combining the words "darkness visible."
During the day, the verses on the columns read as pearly white. But at night, car headlights illuminate the text to create, as she puts it, "a choreography of light and language."
"Really it's the moving light that will, I think, bring the piece artistically to its fruition. And make it more exciting," she says.
"I’m happy to have a top in the walnut grove, a density that gives an overture to an archaeological setting, a ruin. They’re atop this grove in a cluster," she adds.
Open Spaces artistic director Dan Cameron says these falling columns evoke the past — and the present.
"It depicts a civilization that’s askew, where the architectural firmament is no longer stable, but what remains as a trace of civilization are words," he says. "And what you can see from this experience is that language, architecture, art history, landscape, ecology, and freewill, philosophical questions of free will, can all come together in one single art experience."
But this particular art experience wasn’t always supposed to be at this location. When DeDeaux first visited Kansas City, she also explored The Paseo, driving up and down the 10-mile boulevard and making connections.
"I think I know every house on the Paseo. There are several with the lions in the front, and then there’s a house next door with angels," she notes. "And then we can’t have all virtue. We need some vice, and there were a few good liquor stores. And we need some vanity, and there were a few good beauty salons. So that was fun."
But Milton’s themes of a lost earthly paradise proved untimely for Kansas City. In the spring, the city was debating an idea to re-name The Paseo in honor of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (an idea that's now on hold), so DeDeaux decided to return to her original vision in Swope Park.
"On The Paseo, some of the quotes (from Milton) I had selected were human interaction, human dynamic, a bit more the morality play," says DeDeaux, "but here, coming into the park setting again, I switched back to things that addressed the environment and nature."
Swope Park, says Cameron, could also be compared to a paradise lost, or maybe just one that’s ripe with potential.
"Swope Park is one of the true jewels of city parks in the American system. At 1,800 acres, it's two and a half times the size of Central Park," he says. "And this is the first, real, large-scale cultural initiative that's focused on Swope Park. So when you see it, you'll be seeing it in all of its, kind of, majestic glory."
Accoding to DeDeaux, there are several ways to experience the work, including just driving by, day or night.
"The poetry as grand as it is, it’s the message of the poetry that I want to share," DeDeaux says.
"The wondrouusness of Milton is that he had his command on the science of the day and he all knew all the classics. I mean, you can read this and you're going find Homer, you're going to find Virgil, you're going to find all the mythologies. He was just, for his time and place, one of the most knowledgeable people and the most brilliant poet."
So she also hopes that some visitors dig a little deeper: park their cars, walk around and experience a bit of theater in the round, reading Milton’s verses, in a quiet walnut grove. Maybe they'll find their own paradise not far from the entrance to Swope Park.
Listen to and read more stories about Open Spaces, the two-month visual and performing arts festival, here.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.