Big Bugs! at the Morton Arboretum
The Morton Arboretum is best known for its collections of trees and shrubs, but this spring its grounds have been invaded by a swarm of giant wooden bugs. Well, there is actually only one true bug, but the collection of oversized insects and spiders is a wonder to behold. The work of sculptor David Rogers, the figures are astonishingly beautiful, combining gleaming varnished wood with thick glued and woven branches that have the appearance of wicker. Stationed at the entrance to the arboretum's visitors center, the most striking exhibit, the praying mantis, looks almost like a dinosaur striding through the flower bed, poised to strike.
The exhibit is aimed primarily at children, and the children are enthusiastic. The grounds when I visited were full of school groups, as well as parents with their children. Even the youngest could eagerly identify several of the specimens - ants, spiders, ladybug - and I did not notice any who appeared to be frightened by encountering giant bugs, some big enough to have eaten them if they were real. There are a number of additional educational features included in the exhibit. Each bug has an informative sign next to it, and there are videos in the visitors' center that show the actual insects and spiders. But the kids were clearly most fascinated by the main attraction, the giant bugs. Adults were no less interested, although much of their appeciation was for the artistry involved in their creation.
After the praying mantis at the entrance, the rest of the exhibits are placed just off the .6 mile trail that circles the Meadow Lake.
Huge, looming overhead, the mantis radiates a distinct sense of menace. You know that you are in the presence of a predator. You also can see that you are viewing a work of art. The mantis is entirely of smooth, gleaming wood, except for the combs lining its front limbs. The artist has made good use of the wood grain, particularly in the animal's head. The sculpture has a strikingly kinetic appearance, as if it were about to pounce or go rushing into the parking lot.
This exhibit is most notable for its placement just about the shallow margin of Meadow Lake, seeming to hover in mid-air, just as a dragonfly would do. The outstretched wings are made of curved wooden withes, while the body is solid wood.
I think it is the overwhelming size of the ants that makes them the favorite of the children. The bodies of the insects are constructed entirely from wicker-like withes, glued and varnished. A line of three ants marches in formation across the meadow. It is easy to imagine more of them coming in the distance, too far away to see.
This exhibit is hidden off the trail in a stand of trees, so that it presents a slightly ominous appearance, as if the web were woven between the trunks. I thought of Mirkwood. Up close, it is one of the most striking of the sculptures. When the sunlight catches it, the varnished body of the spider glows, in contrast with the darker branches that make up the web. The spider is clearly a generalized Agriope type, one of the most realistic figures in the entire exhibit.
The ladybug seems to be one of the favorites with the children, and they easily recognize it, despite its being one of the least realistic in appearance of all the creatures in the display, because of the lack of color. The artist has made good use of contrasting woods, the body composed of withes with spots of solid wood. It is also one of the smaller figures, and the least likely to be considered menacing by a fearful child.
This is another hugely oversized figure. Even a tall adult could easily walk underneath the body, which is made of wicker-like withes, while the legs are solid wood in contrast. It does not present a very realistic appearance, yet the positioning of the legs gives it a kinetic effect, as if it might come scuttling after the visitors. The expression on its face, however, keeps it from being very menacing.
Probably the smallest and the simplest figure on display.
This exhibit is the one children are least likely to recognize, as they are less familiar with this insect. While the huge manibles make it clear that this is a predator, the positioning of the figure give it a static appearance, which makes it less frightening than it might have been. The artist's use of contrasting woods makes the sculpture particularly interesting.
The Morton Arboretum is located on Illinois Route 53, just off the Northbound exit of I-88. Hours are from 7 am to 7 pm, and admission is $9 for adults, $6 for children.