Into the woods: A hidden art exhibit in the Palisades

A hiker continues along the trail of the hidden art exhibit in the Palisades.
A hiker continues along the trail of the hidden art exhibit in the Palisades.

By: Elaine Bole

There is an art exhibit hidden in the woods just a block from Palisades Park. Encountering this exhibit during a trek through the woods might give you the eerie feeling that you have accidentally stumbled upon something strange, private, and forbidden.

James McMahon, a Palisades resident for 30 years, created this exhibit 15 years ago. But many Palisades residents have never seen or heard about it. That’s just the way McMahon always wanted it to be. Indeed, he wants you to discover the art by accident while venturing off the neighborhood trail and into the woods.  

McMahon is not new to the art world. Dale Johnson, his wife, owns Watergate Gallery and Frame Design in D.C. When he started this project 15 years ago, there was unused inaccessible land behind the McMahon’s house on Sherier Place N.W., near a right-of-way that parallels Sherier Place, which was an old trolley track line.

“It was just a piece of land that was totally idle. You couldn’t even get back there, it was covered with prickly vines, poison ivy, and brambles,” McMahon said.   

“I started with one piece and it just expanded. The neighborhood has been incredibly supportive. I initially thought one sour puss would want to shut it down, but the neighbors have been supportive. I go to great lengths to pick up trash,” McMahon said.

Over the years, a lot of the sculptures have come and gone by being exposed to the elements. Of course, they were always meant to be temporary. It is an ongoing project.

“What has been cool is strangers have actually put pieces back there, independently. I love that. I’m open to that as long as it is within reason and they clean up their mess,” McMahon said.

Moreover, his favorite pieces are the hanging mirrored glass, which reflects the changing seasons, and the chimes, a huge conglomeration of junk metal pieces strung together in ways that create a wind chime.  

McMahon spoke of wonderful moments over the years when he could hear the chimes respond to violent wind storms in the winter or thunderstorms in the summer. He can now almost use those sounds to tell what the weather is like out there.

The chimes create the most mystical and delicate high pitches, then sometimes, when the wind is really blowing hard, incredibly violent loud sounds as well. These provide a mystical aural component to the visual experience of accidentally coming upon the exhibit in the woods.

There is also a fallen log that McMahon turned into a totem pole, a homage to the Indians that use to live in the area. Small children are sometimes scared by the totem pole and cry. Indeed, McMahon takes that as a sign that the art has worked. “The exhibit isn’t dangerous, but it is not toddler proof, so parents do have to supervise their young kids,” said McMahon.

“Probably the only downside is I have been hit a couple times by juvenile delinquents. They have trashed some of the sculptures. For a 13-year-old boy, I can understand the irresistible nature of destroying hanging glass.  I just think of them as my worst critics,” McMahon joked.

Furthermore, I talked to some neighbors along Sherier Place about whether they knew about the artwork in the woods and the identity of the person responsible. “Oh yes, James McMahon,” was the immediate reply of one neighbor. Consistent with what McMahon said, she wasn’t a “sour puss.” However, she did express some concern that a news article on the exhibit could drive more traffic to the street, which is now heavily used by people visiting Palisades Park for sporting events.   

The only cost of admission to this outdoor exhibit, “Into the Woods,” is to be respectful and not clog the neighborhood streets with cars, just as it has always been over the past 15 years.   

To find the exhibit, go to Palisades Park (5200 Sherier Pl, N.W.). There is a right-of-way that parallels Sherier Pl., which used to be an old trolley track line. It is visible from the Park and goes behind the houses. Facing the Park, it is half a block to the left. You will see an unmarked opening into the woods. The exhibit is a walking trail that loops through the woods, where you go in one side and come out on the other.   

For those of you who can’t make it or find it, go online to Palisades resident, videographer, and founder of the Palisades Museum of Prehistory, Doug Dupin, posted two short films about the exhibit over the years. Search for this: “Into the Woods” with James McMahon, or Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Man.