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Maybe it’s for the best that Don Clayton didn’t live to see this. Clayton was the creator of Putt-Putt golf. He died last month after spending most of his adult life valiantly trying to convince people that miniature golf is a real sport and that adding distracting displays diminishes the game.
No doubt Clayton would not have approved of Art Links, a Baltimore miniature golf course that opens this week at the Inner Harbor. What makes Art Links blasphemous to Putt-Putt dogmatics—and at least slightly different from most miniature golf courses—is that each of its 18 holes was designed by a different artist. Two D.C.-area artists, David Chung and Ed Bisese, received commissions for the project, and not only did they violate almost everything Clayton stood for, they also ignored the advice of the professional miniature golf course designer who consulted on the venture.
But Art Links is not entirely art for art’s sake. The design of each hole had to relate in some way to the history and culture of Baltimore. Thus, one can play the Edgar Allan Poe “Pit and the Pendulum” hole, the crab feast hole, the Preakness hole. Sportsters may also drag their putters across the likeness of former Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer. When the ball plops into the hole in his head (nice touch), players will hear his voice saying, “What took you so long?”
Inspired by the vista that greets most Washingtonians approaching Charm City, Chung has envisioned his hole as an I-95 interchange.
“This is totally way outside the scope of my normal work,” Chung admits. His normal scope involves such traditional disciplines as painting, drawing, and printmaking. At the moment, Chung is kneeling on a Mount Rainier studio floor wielding an electric screwdriver, adjusting his working model.
As we test the model, the maddening sense of powerlessness one gets from negotiating the real highway seems well captured as ball after ball flies past the proper exit and goes rolling off into the uncharted territory of the fabrication studio.
“I made it so it’s not the easiest thing,” says the artist blithely. “Half the reason why I was interested in it,” he adds, tightening a wobbly support, “was that my father owned a miniature golf course for several years.”
But Chung didn’t draw on any inside information in creating his hole. “The first thing the golf pro said was, ‘This is never going to work,’” Chung discloses with a grin. One of the prime directives of miniature golf course design is: Never start with an uphill ramp. “I just didn’t like that,” Chung counters. “I liked the whole idea of a climbing ramp. That was the last time I consulted with him.”
The excluded expert is James Bryan, a friendly former university professor whose 12-pound curriculum vitae touts him as a leading authority on both goofy golf design and the works of reclusive writer J.D. Salinger. For his part, Bryan is magnanimous. “It should be a lot of fun,” he says graciously. “There’s no gravitas associated with the project. We tried to make the project playable and not too hard and not too easy. And something that showed off the objet d’art to best advantage.”
If the project lacks conceptual gravitas, the hole designed by Ed Bisese of College Park certainly compensates in actual tonnage. His contribution is epic in both scale and theme—the entire history of Maryland, from Jurassic to Glendening, all expressed in cement.
As we wait for two overly obliging neighbors to come and help haul the last pair of heavy, hobbit-size figures out of Bisese’s basement, the artist explains his concept: “You have two options. You can either shoot through this dinosaur’s mouth, or shoot underneath the volcano—from prehistoric Maryland to Colonial Maryland—and then between Pocahontas and John Smith you get to go to present-day Baltimore.” There a statue of Bisese’s grandfather waits in a blue suit.
Bisese’s history is as wildly personalized as the art itself, based primarily on childhood memories of vacations with an “aunt” who in retrospect had little to do with Baltimore, or even the Old Line State (likewise for Old Dominion resident Pocahontas). But then, Bisese has little to do with golf, either. “And I don’t plan to take it up as a sport,” he proudly proclaims. “I don’t like to get involved with things that take a lot of patience.”
Surrounded by Bisese’s concrete creatures, the artist reveals the unwritten rule of miniature golf course design: “It’s supposed to look complicated but be very easy to play, so that people don’t get frustrated.”
Bisese certainly tried the patience of some of the project administrators in venturing further from minigolf convention than expected. It seems his Pocahontas bears no resemblance to Disney’s, featuring as it does naked breasts. Though his wife has promised to make a naugahyde brassiere, Bisese was delighted with the mini controversy. The artist gleefully recalls that when the topic was broached, “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to say to someone, ‘It’s written in cement.’” CP
Art Links is located at the Power Plant, 601 East Pratt St., Baltimore. (410) 962-8565. The $5 greens fee benefits Maryland Art Place.