Sculpture installation by Dave Rogers
Through Sept. 16
Cheekwood Botanical Gardens
1200 Forrest Park Dr.
Hours: 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sun.
For information, call 356-8000 or go to www.cheekwood.org
Few kids are interested in walking around a garden, no matter how lovely or unusual the flora. Almost every kid, on the other hand, is fascinated by the faunaespecially the six- and eight-legged sort that creeps and crawls among the plants.
With that in mind, Bob Brackman and Long Island, N.Y., artist Dave Rogers got together back in the early 1990s to talk about combining art and public gardens in a way that would attract families with kids during the summer, when garden attendance traditionally drops. Brackman was then director at the Dallas Botanical Gardens, and his talks with Rogers resulted in the first “Big Bugs” sculptural installation in 1994 in Dallas. Since then, Rogers’ shows have been popping up at locations across the country and are so popular they must be booked three years in advance.
Ironically, Brackman never saw the exhibit he helped initiate in Dallas. “I planned the show with Dave, but then I left to come to Nashville before it debuted,” he says, referring to his move to Cheekwood as director of its botanical gardens in September 1993. “In talking with Dave about doing the show at Cheekwood this summer, he told me he thought it was time to ‘bring it back to Bob.’ ”
To do that, Rogers visited Cheekwood six months ago to walk the gardens with Brackman and select the sites for each of nine oversized insect sculptures. “We knew we wanted to have the bugs placed throughout Cheekwood’s 55 acres so visitors could meander around and just happen upon them,” says Brackman. “Other than that, we let Dave find the perfect spots for them. He’s an artist, which I’m not, and it was interesting to see where and how he placed the bugs.” Just prior to the exhibit’s opening in mid-June, Rogers returned to Cheekwood with a moving van filled with crates that contained the carefully labeled components of the massive insects. “Each of the sculptures comes apart into hundreds of pieces,” says Brackman. “In just two-and-a-half days, Dave had them all reassembled and placed.”
A summer stroll through Rogers’ “Big Bugs” installation, which remains on display until Sept. 16, is best taken in the morning. Even though much of the route is shaded, it covers a lot of ground. Armed with a colorful map that I’d picked up at Cheekwood’s front gate, I set out at about 11 a.m. and found my way to the first sculpturea 7-foot-long assassin bug. It’s not just the size that’s impressive about Rogers’ creations; it’s the materials from which they are constructed. All are made using wood that the artist has salvaged from fallen branches or dead trees, including black walnut, willow, black locust, and red cedar. “Dave uses all found wood,” says Brackman. “The heaviest piece in the show is the praying mantisDave used a fallen black locust tree for the body.” The 18-foot-tall mantis looms over a lawn behind the Frist Learning Center, looking like a set piece from a 1950s horror film.
Meanwhile, not far from the assassin bug, a handcrafted spider spins its web between two trees in the Dogwood Garden. On the morning of my visit, several preschool kids were happily pointing at the oversized arachnid and running under its web while their parents chatted nearby. A little farther along the path, a grandmother and her 3-year-old granddaughter had paused on the footbridge in the Wildflower Garden to examine Rogers’ damselfly in the pond below. The little girl was equally interested in an unseen but very vocal bullfrog. When I suggested to her that the damselfly, with a wingspan of about 10 feet, was too large even for such a big-sounding frog to eat, she enthusiastically agreed.
In the adjacent meadow, three ants the size of moving vans were on the march. The ants are the stars of the show, as much for their lifelike detail and size as for their placement on the lawn, which allows for viewer interaction. Their red cedar eyes are covered with a protective lacquer that gives them a realistic glint, while their bodies and appendages of sticks and branches also look quite natural. The trio’s clearance is such that all but the tallest adults can freely walk under the sculptures, and a number of visitors were having a ball doing just that.
Next, it was on to the praying mantis, who looks as if he’s contemplating his nextquite possibly humansnack. From there, one can backtrack past the Museum of Art for a shorter route to the last two bugs near Botanic Hall, or there’s the option of taking a longer path through Cheekwood’s permanent Carell Woodland Sculpture Trail. Dotted with modern sculptures, this trail is lovely, but kids and older folks might find it less than appealing in the heat and humidity of summer.
I emerged at the Japanese Garden and spotted the 17-foot dragonfly poised over the Water Garden, beautifully reflected in the water. Even better, real-life miniature versions of the sculpture were flitting all over the pond. The artworks’ assimilation into the natural world is also evident with the last piece of the show, a 7-foot ladybug positioned in the nearby Color Garden; there it seems to lend moral support to the real ladybugs who benefit the beautiful flowers by eating up to 50 aphids a day. “It’s like the lady I saw one day looking at the praying mantis,” chuckles Brackman. “She didn’t notice it, but a real praying mantis was actually on her shoulder. It’s like the art is mimicking nature and then you see nature observing the art.”
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