By Dan Shannon | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Molecular biologist Dr. Forrest Greenslade retired before he really went to work, marrying his passions for art and science. ‘They are inextricable,’ he says, interlocking his fingers to make his point. ‘Are there separate boxes in ourselves for science and art? In my mind, no.’
The paths that wind through the darkly wooded, uneven terrain of Dr. Forrest Greenslade’s 1-plus-acre sculpture garden in Fearrington Village prove as captivating as the artwork in his Forrest Dweller Sculpture Garden. Whimsically named pieces like “Athena’s Wisdom,” “Facing Humanity,” “Generations of Genetically Grumpy Gnomes Gathering at the Gate,” “How to Keep Your Pet Giraffe From Running Away,” and “Fifty Ways to Leaf Your Lover” fill the garden. The carefully curated spaces give guests the impression of a much larger area, in part because the woods sprawl into neighbors’ yards and adjoining public areas. But it’s also the cleverly laid out trails that surprise visitors at nearly every turn or dip with well over 200 nature-inspired, impressionistic sculptures of owls, assorted birds, frogs and some unidentifiable creatures wholly the result of Forrest’s imagination.
You just can’t tour his outdoor gallery without smiling.
That observation pleases the active 81-year-old former molecular biologist and corporate executive. Forrest didn’t begin creating art till several years after his retirement in 1999. Despite a successful career working in a lab for a pharmaceutical company and later as the president of an international women’s health initiative, he felt inspired to launch a fulfilling passion project: Art for art’s sake.
“The whole time that I was a scientist or an executive, there was a hole,” he says, “but I didn’t know what that hole was. I knew that there’s something essential about using your hands and your brain together. The brain-hand connection is important.
“I honestly don’t know how people can stand just being in front of a screen all day. But truthfully, I came to be an artist by serendipity.”
In fact, Forrest had his post-career carefully laid out with a special plan to write management and leadership books and speak on topics related to women’s health – nothing at all to do with creating art. However, his design for living was derailed almost immediately. “I had a bad heart attack,” he recalls, “and was kind of despondent. Travel was out of the question, and I was kind of unsure of everything. While I was convalescing, my wife, Carol-Ann, dragged me out to the Chatham Artists Guild Studio Tour, and I was so impressed with how satisfying making art must be. I’ve always loved art, but beyond carving some birds and some projects I worked on with my daughter, I had never actually entertained the notion of creating art of my own.”
That is, until one day when he and Carol-Ann were having lunch and half-watching design show on TV when Martha Stewart started making a pot out of cement and peat moss. “I went out into the potting shed where I had some cement [and peat moss],” Forrest says. “I created a face. It was just looking back at me, and it was just kind of an amazing thing. Just staring right at me.”
Forrest connected with a Carrboro art gallery owner and asked for her opinion of his first attempt. “And she said, ‘I like it,’” Forrest says. “And she was willing to sell my work. So, just like that, I was a professional sculptor. Serendipity.”
He has published art books and still works primarily in cement, peat moss, acrylic, metal (thanks to metal and ceramics sculpture programs at Central Carolina Community College) and his oeuvre has expanded from his initial bas-relief works to painting to full three-dimensional sculptural renderings. This is, he believes, the nexus of his scientific training and his artistic bent. “I may be a tiny bit strange in that regard,” he says. “I can flip back and forth between deductive and inductive thinking. My scientific background totally dominates my art. I have to think my way through the engineering of a three-dimensional structure so that it’s not going to fall down. This is a blend of thinking of an art piece like an engineer – for example, how can I use a new material in a totally different way?”
The Greenslades’ home and gardens serve as an entrancing gallery for his work and, to be honest, for much of their world. They have an attached apartment above his studio – the Artist’s Garret – they rent via Airbnb, and it is almost exclusively rented by visiting artists. “These three things are synergistic: the garden, the art and the garret,” Forrest says. “They all work together. And we’ve made good friends from all around the world that we’ve met through the Artist’s Garret.”
Check It Out
The Greenslades welcome visitors to the studio, galleries and sculpture gardens. As a result, the Forrest Dweller Sculpture Garden has become a popular destination. To visit: Send an email to [email protected] or call 919-545-9743.