Published in 1865, Lewis Carroll’s eerie, whimsical and surreal masterpiece “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” has inspired films, plays, drawings, songs and cartoons.
At the Memphis Botanical Garden, it inspired foliage.
To be more specific, the Queen with her flamingo croquet mallet, the Cheshire Cat with her magical smile, the card game soldiers and young Alice herself were brought to literal botanical life in the form of sculptures. of “mosaïculture”, placed inside the attraction for an exhibition entitled “Alice’s Adventures in the Garden”. (Like most adaptations of “Alice,” the exposition also borrows elements from Carroll’s 1871 sequel, “Through the Looking Glass.”)
If topiary is the art of forming trees and shrubs into the shapes of sculptures, “mosaiculture” is the art of creating large topiary-like sculptures by attaching plant beds to steel frames. The plants inside the beds – red and white begonias, “blue baby’s tears”, colorful “polka dot plants” – give shape, color and definition to the subjects.
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If that sounds technical, the results could be described as – to use a word that never actually appears in the texts of “Alice” or “Looking Glass” – magical.
“It’s very gratifying to be here and hear children walking by and panicking, and even hearing adults say, ‘I can’t believe this,'” said Botanical Garden worker Marianne Spengler. , as she cut one of the 9 feet tall. plant-wrapped pawn sculptures in the garden’s ‘Chess Set’ tableau, which recreates the famous scene in which Alice is part of a giant set of living chess pieces.
“I love my job,” enthused Spengler. “It’s so rewarding to work with these sculptures and to know that I helped make them beautiful.”
Presented by International Paper, “Alice’s Adventures in the Garden” is the Botanical Garden’s first attempt in the post-pandemic shutdown era to mount what marketing director Olivia Wall called a “seasonal exhibit.”
Such exhibits, she said, are “a way to add something new and original”, to augment the 30 “specialty gardens” – the Japanese garden, the herb garden, the iris garden, etc. – which already dot the 96 landscapes of the attraction. acres on Cherry Road in East Memphis, next to similar sanctuaries of natural beauty in an urban landscape like Audubon Park and the Dixon Gallery & Gardens.
Previous “seasonal exhibits” included an exhibit of “Origami” sculptures in 2019 and “Big Bugs,” a 2017 installation of wooden sculptures of giant insects and arachnids.
Perhaps because it’s more horticulture-based than its predecessors, “Alice’s Adventures in the Garden” could prove to be the Botanical Garden’s most popular exhibit, said Michael D. Allen, executive director of the garden.
He said about 2,500 people visited the exhibition for its opening on May 8 (Mother’s Day), and he expects nearly 10,000 schoolchildren to see “Alice” before the exhibition closes. at the end of the year. (As currently designed, “Alice” will run until October 31; after that date, the armatures will remain, but the flowerbeds will be replaced with Christmas lights for the winter.) Approximately 240,000 people visit the Memphis Botanical Garden each year.
“Alice’s Adventures in the Garden” includes four sculptures or groups of sculptures: The nearly 6-foot-long Cheshire Cat; the “Chess” group; the 19-foot-tall “Queen,” whose flamingo croquet mallet is poised to hit a hedgehog ball under the wicket-like bent back of one of her playing card guards; and “Alice” herself, also standing 19 feet tall and weighing approximately 23,600 pounds.
Additionally, eight renditions of Carroll’s bunny characters were created by local artists and placed, like Easter eggs, around the botanical garden. Paige Warner’s sculpture features a rabbit balancing a stack of teacups, while Angela Wheeler created a bench that contains a stained glass portrait of the White Rabbit.
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Other Alice-themed activities and events will take place throughout the year. Some are not for children; for example, Memphis Made Brewery is developing specialty beers to coincide with the exhibition, including Cheshire Cat Nap, Red Queen Red Ale, and Down the Rabbit Hole. “901-derland” caps and other souvenirs are sold in the gift shop.
The exhibit was conceived and first presented at the Atlanta Botanical Garden; Memphis is his first stop since his debut. Four refrigerated FedEx trucks brought the living sculptures to Memphis, while Barnhart Crane set up the gargantuan pieces on the grounds of the garden.
Each sculpture is essentially a steel truss covered with shallow beds that are filled with soil mixes and covered with landscape fabric that holds the soil in place (even on vertical trusses) as the plants grow outwards , like hairs on a carpet. Different plants offer different textures and colors. For example, Alice’s blonde hair is represented by a blooming Alternanthera, better known as Joseph’s yellow coat. Meanwhile, the hedgehog that functions like a croquet ball is covered in sedges, a spiky grass-like species. Almost every sculpture requires thousands of individual plants, which are watered daily and pruned approximately every two weeks.
Standing on a ladder and giving the Queen what could be called a full body shave with a pair of sheep shears, Sennett Holcomb, event production manager at the Memphis Botanic Garden, ‘manipulated’ – her word – foliage with tonal precision and artisanal sensibility. He said the aim was to encourage the plants to spread thickly across the surface of the sculpture rather than elongate.
“A lot of people think it’s just about pruning,” he said. “No, it’s sculpture. It’s art.”
The Memphis Botanical Garden is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Admission is $12, adults; $10, seniors (62+); $7, children (2-12). Children under 2 years are admitted free.
For more information about the garden, “Alice” and related events, visit membg.org.