Public Art at McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens
● By Richard DuPertuis
The Secret Garden
Story by Richard Dupertuis
Photos courtesy of the Turtle Bay Exploration Park
EVERYBODY KNOWS there are plants in a garden, just as everybody knows you can tour more than 10 themed gardens in McConnell Botanical Gardens which, as everybody knows, fills more than two-thirds of the acreage at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding. And, as everybody knows, there’s no clearer marker for the start of this tour than the towering gnomon at the north end of the Sundial Bridge.
But not everyone knows that hidden among all these paths that wind through the gardens are unique, durable works of art. All are assembled, cast or fired with a focus on the environment, particularly the immediate environment where they stand, in locations carefully chosen. For example, look to the right. There’s a pyramid! Did you know there are pyramids in the botanical gardens? Yes, there’s another one, way back there.
They were placed with a plan, as Turtle Bay’s curator of collections and exhibits explains. “They are calling you off the beaten path,” says Julia Cronin. “People who come to the gardens to see plants are going to be surprised. Those pyramids lead you to more surprises.”
Redding master potter Paul Rideout crafted these ceramic spikes, this one decorated with mountain forest symbols – with blue sky, white clouds down to a waterfall cascading over a cliff of stone using a color palette that blends into the live vegetation around its base. To see what decorations he molded for the other one, we have to go down this path, then left, through the South African garden, out Willow Pond Trail.
Wait. What is that?
It’s EarthStone, a stunning cleaved mosaic festooned with countless images of riparian wildlife. The detail is astonishing, from what looks like prehistoric snails below the water line to butterflies and birds of every description filling the sky above. Redding sculptor Colleen Barry hand-wrought each of hundreds of cast concrete or hard-fired clay figures and assembled them into something as still as stone, yet somehow moving, as if with the pace of natural life on earth.
Be warned. We can study the vast details presented by EarthStone only as long as children’s patience can endure. But even if the youngsters do overwhelm us with their calls to move on, fret not, for we will soon visit another of Barry’s mosaics. This way, over the spider Charlotte’s Bridge, and around the lagoon, where on a good day you get a close look at a beaver swimming to its lodge, or an egret wading for supper.
It’s in Children’s Garden we find the Barry mosaic kids will want to hang with a little longer. For the Oasis Mosaic Fountain is a glorious work of art, a curving, low-standing wall made of thousands of brightly colored tiles framing a vast collage of animal and plant life. Kids love the vibrant hues, the “can you find it?” hunt for a featured piece among the multitude of ceramic figures and the fact that, unlike EarthStone, they are encouraged to climb on it.
This gives the adults time to take in some of the awe-inspiring details in the Oasis Mosaic wall. Some, but not all. Seeing them all takes more than one visit, according to Cronin. “The best thing about it is every time you come back you see different things,” she says. “And even though it’s made of all these bits and pieces, if you step back a bit and blur your eyes, you can see that it fits the site.”
Cronin’s favorite among the artworks in the botanical gardens is the Sounds of Water Fountain, by New York sculptor Betsy Damon. In contrast to the teeming detail in Barry’s mosaics, Sounds of Water looks sedate, like a minimal construct of stone slabs channeling water to a reflecting pond. But it comes with words. And they speak to the curator.
“There are poignant messages about water, and you can see people stopping and reading the messages,” she says of environmental quotes etched in the stones. “It’s a natural, organic feel. On a quiet day, you can sit on the stones and listen to the water, watch the fish.”
During our return trip, we wander through the rest of the more than 10 botanical gardens which, as everybody knows, are filled with plants. These gardens are painstakingly cultivated with flora to represent not only California’s Mediterranean climate, but identified by names like Australian Garden and Chilean Garden, also represent the other four Mediterranean zones on the planet, the plants of which – as everybody knows – can thrive in any of those other zones.
As good example is the Puya berteroniana which, of course, is the Chilean blue puya flourishing in Turtle Bay’s McConnell Botanical Gardens. A bromeliad related to the pineapple, it can grow to a towering height of seven feet, and blossoms in spectacular, botanically rare turquoise-colored flowers with contrasting reddish stamen. Here in Redding, this blossoming takes place close to Mother’s Day, which makes it a favorite for visitors on that special Sunday.
But everybody knows that. •
Turtle Bay Exploration Park
McConnell Botanical Gardens
844 Sundial Bridge Drive, Redding
(530) 243-8850 • www.turtlebay.org
Hours: Wednesday-Friday, 9am-4pm; Saturday-Sunday, 10am-4pm; closed Monday and Tuesday