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The Children’s Playgrounds of Noguchi

Author John Cech
Air Date 5/29/2006

The Children’s Playgrounds of Noguchi Transcript

During his long life, from 1904-1988, the world-renowned artist Isamu Noguchi made paintings and later sculptures of wood, paper, bronze and stone. And for more than 30 years he created innovative play spaces for children, only one of which was built in his lifetime, in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park in 1976. Perhaps these years of dedication to children and the environments in which they experience the world are bound inextricably to his own childhood. Although he was born in the United States of an American mother of Scottish Irish and American Indian heritage, and a Japanese father, Isamu and his mother moved to Japan to be closer to his father, an internationally known poet. But acceptance of mixed-race children was difficult in Japan.

So, in 1917, at the age of 13, Noguchi was sent off alone for school in the United States. But, even before he left, Isamu was already well-practiced in the application of learning. His mother wanted him to be well prepared for life in an unwelcoming world, and so she had apprenticed him to a Japanese cabinetmaker and had a set of tools made for him to take to America to his new school. But Noguchi’s journey crossing the Pacific by boat and then through the American West and Plains by train brought him to shifting ground. The school had been turned over to the U.S. Army for use as a training camp for WW I troops, and Isamu lived among the soldiers until they left for duty. He was then taken in by a family and attended high school under the American name of Sam Gilmour.

Despite such buffeting about during his childhood years, Noguchi remained steadfast to his childhood ambition of becoming an artist. He studied at Columbia University and got to Paris in the 1920s where he apprenticed himself to Constantin Brancusi. In his wide-ranging career, Noguchi would be a portrait painter, a ceramics artist, and a designer of sets for Martha Graham’s Dance Company. But his study of Japanese gardens, made on his numerous trips back to Japan, were a continuing inspiration for him. He had a chance to act on this dream when, in the 1950s, UNESCO asked him to create a garden — the first of his designs for public spaces, including playgrounds for children. This was no small thing for Noguchi. “For me playgrounds are a way of creating the world,” he wrote. “It’s a way of creating an ideal land — on a small scale…. a land in which one can run around, three feet high . . . . the very restrictions make room for the more intense experience of childhood — where the world is newer, fresher. . . .mysterious and evocative.”

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