Who is painting the trees pink at the Atlanta Botanical Garden?
In a through-the-looking-glass twist, the Midtown attraction is assembling some strange foliage, painted in the kind of ice cream colors not seen in nature.
The pink, lavender, chartreuse and blue-green trees are part of an installation opening May 6 called “The Curious Garden,” created, in part, to get people to stop and smell the roses.
Or, more accurately, to stop and gape at the maples.
Adam Schwerner, 53, creator of “The Curious Garden,” is director of horticulture at Disneyland and prior to that was in charge of parks in Chicago. That was when he first painted trees.
“I was responsible for 200,000 trees in Chicago, and I felt like they were invisible,” said the energetic former New Yorker, striding around the Botanical Garden on a sunny Thursday. “So I painted them. And they weren’t invisible anymore.”
Why paint trees? First of all, the Chicago trees that he painted were dying. He picked out a handful that were going to come down anyway, and gave them a bright funeral suit. The result: People ran into each other on Lakeshore Drive as they gazed up at the strange creatures. And they talked.
Not everything they said was complimentary. “Some people got (ticked) off,” said Schwerner, stepping into the Fuqua Conservatory, “but they talked. When you put the artificial next to the natural, conversation happens.”
“It’s a little lipstick on nature,” joked Mary Pat Matheson, the garden’s director and CEO.
These 130-or-so pastel-painted maple trees at the Atlanta Botanical Garden were actually culled from a nearby nursery during the cold months (none have leaves on them). They were given nontoxic paint jobs and erected with the help of re-bar supports. (A few will even be hung from the 70-foot tulip poplars at the garden’s center.)
Other elements of Schwerner’s installation are equally dramatic, though some are subtle.
- The Fuqua Conservatory is adorned with dozens of sparkly chandeliers, each draped with orchids and trailing aerial roots, as if the jungle has overtaken a decaying Southern mansion.
- Hovering over the Kendeda Canopy Walk are eerie red discs, several feet in diameter. Schwerner calls them “dilating pupils.” They are intended to bring the eye up into the canopy above.
- A river of 2,000 gourds, each one painted a shiny metallic red, flows through the Storza Woods, putting a bright slash of color into the subdued palette of the surroundings.
- In the Skyline Garden stands a phalanx of 40 purple columns, echoing the sharp edges of the Midtown office buildings in view on the horizon.
Each element serves to augment or comment on its surroundings.
“It’s refreshing,” said Lisa LaScola, 32, an airline industry employee, walking through the garden as workers used cranes and front-end loaders to assemble the pieces of Schwerner’s puzzle.
Matheson and Schwerner met some years ago when she spoke at a meeting of the American Public Gardens Association on the topic of connecting art with nature, “which,” she said, “we do well here.”
In fact, the Atlanta garden has had great success incorporating art objects in its landscape, most notably with the glass creations of Dale Chihuly. Chihuly’s sculptures brought large crowds to the garden for shows in 2004 and 2016, and a few sculptures still remain, including a tower of saffron-colored curlicues in the Storza Woods section.
What sets Schwerner’s work apart is that it was created strictly for this setting, and will disappear at the end of October. Said Matheson, it’s “aimed at generating conversations, to get people curious and talking about nature.”
There are some elements that seem quite a long way from the natural world, such as the racks of beakers and flasks at the entrance to the conservatory. These are intended to pay tribute to the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s important work with plant conservation, which often involves laboratory work, petri dishes and white coats.
“They do tissue culture here, and I wanted to bring that out — the integrity of this place and its work,” said Schwerner. “They find (plants) that need help surviving. It’s the foundation of ornamental horticulture.”