What You Don’t Know About the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden

Artists’ visit to campus ‘flipped the script’ on anthropological field work.

March 2023

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Statue in the position of "The Thinker"

Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Down a gravel path in a forested nook near Roble Hall, if you search you will find them: more than 20 intricate stone figures and towering wooden poles carved into animal and human forms. Collectively, they’re known as the Papua New Guinea Sculpture Garden. During his work as an anthropology field researcher in the island nation, James Mason, ’91, MA ’93, met two artists who proposed a cultural exchange. Mason ran with the idea, and in 1994, he invited 10 artists and an interpreter to campus where, over a three-month period, they sculpted and painted works depicting ancient myths and legends, as well as two with a bit of inspiration from Rodin. Mason, who couldn’t be reached for an interview, raised funds and secured the site, and later signed on local resident Barbara Slone—who happened across the project while jogging—as a volunteer fundraiser, hostess, and “project mom.”

Trans-Pacific tree transport

The ambitious project involved the transportation from Papua New Guinea of nearly 40-foot-long kwila and garamut tree trunks chosen by the artists. The project would flip the script on the anthropological practice of going to another country to study a different culture, says Sadie Blancaflor, ’22, MS ’22. Blancaflor, who also studied anthropology, stumbled upon the gardens, quite literally, when she tripped on a tree trunk carved into the shape of a crocodile on the way to her frosh dorm one night. In her senior year, she wrote a thesis on the history of the garden.

Pole positions

The artists, age 27 to 74, came from six societies living in the Iatmul and Kwoma regions along the Sepik River. At Stanford, they worked in teams of two or three, combining the mythic and artistic knowledge of the older men with the physical strength of the younger. The center of the garden is laid out in the typical floor plan of “spirit homes,” where the men of the villages hold initiation ceremonies, and hang out to gossip and chew betel nuts, says Mary Hoeber, a docent for the Cantor Arts Center. The garden features rows of poles that would normally support a thatched roof, some painted in the reds and blacks of the Kwoma tradition, and others decorated with carvings, in the Iatmul tradition.

Carved wooden poles in the garden.

Close-up of painted poles.

Tall, thin statue of the goddess Kura.LEGENDARY: Stone figures and wooden poles adorn the garden grove near Roble Hall and depict stories important to the Kwoma and Iatmul traditions of Papua New Guinea. The goddess Kura (above) is shown with one of her children, who is part eagle, part crocodile. (Photos: Andrew Brodhead/Stanford News Service)

Marriage pact

Mason was studying mythology and gender when he traveled to Papua New Guinea, Hoeber says, and many of the sculptures reflect an emphasis on both. Kura, a protective goddess, is carved into several of the poles. In one, the goddess (forced to marry a crocodile to save her own life) is depicted as being flown back to her village by one of her children, who is part eagle and part crocodile. 

Rodin upmanship

When Iatmul sculptor Teddy Balangu first saw photographs of the nearby Rodin sculpture garden, he said: “This is nothing. We can do better than that,” according to plaques in the Papua New Guinea garden. The result was two sculptures that bear the same names as their bronze Rodin counterparts on campus: The Thinker and The Gates of Hell. The Thinker tells the story of an ancestor sitting by the hole from which he emerged into the world, thinking about how he might create fellow humans out of clay. His first attempt has just failed, and the broken body parts lay scattered around his feet. The tale harks back to the Iatmul creation legend. “Ours has a deep story behind it, unlike the one you did,” the plaque says.

Tracie White is a senior writer at Stanford. Email her at

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