Botanica's newest garden in its first expansion could have looked like other children's gardens across the country.
But having local artists contribute their creativity has also made it into a sort of outdoor art museum unique to Wichita.
The artists were given the conceptual plans and then came back with ideas that blew Botanica's staff away.
"It is amazing how they came up with exactly what you wanted, or better," Jamee Ross, development director at Botanica, said of the artists.
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Ten of them created nearly 30 functional pieces of art that not only look beautiful or whimsical but can withstand the natural elements — from hail to the kids who visit.
The artists for their part are equally thrilled that Botanica gave them the freedom to follow their muse through a site west of Botanica that was originally a sandbar.
"It's really nice they went with local artists, because a lot of times these kinds of projects don't," said Connie Ernatt, one of the artists. "They let me go with my ideas, so it was really, really nice."
So nice that now that the garden is filled with stream and maze and monster woods and enchanted glen, Ernatt's imagination just keeps going wild.
"I see catfish in the stream, turtle-shell boats, archer squirrels with nuts set around as targets," she said.
Because the garden follows the natural rolling terrain and retains many of the original mature trees, "it doesn't feel like you're in Kansas," Ernatt said.
Botanica intends to keep adding new artwork, Ross said. And some of Ernatt's original artwork has been delayed because it was sitting in a foundry in Reading when a tornado hit the town in May. But she still had the original molds, so the work is being finished at a foundry in Oklahoma.
Almost all of the artists donated much of their time and some of their materials to the project, Ross said.
"They care so much about it," she said.
Here's a rundown of the artists' work:
'Mr. Biggles' Treasure'
Conrad Snider of Newton does big pots for big places, so he was hired to do a big pot for the entrance to the garden. The result is a squirrel whose curled-up tail allows him to slowly reveal himself as visitors walk around him. When the art committee first saw Mr. Biggles — named as the counterpart to Snider's pet chicken Mrs. Biggles — Ross said, "tears came to our eyes. This is perfect. This is exactly what we wanted!"
Terry Corbett's work is already familiar to Botanica's fans, especially in the tile work of the Button Fountain. For the children's garden, he created a fountain that takes the form of the middle of a sunflower (you get to it by following the yellow stem on the sidewalk at the garden's entrance).
The tiles are smooth and colorful and, because the piece is a fountain and the weather is hot, children are often seen draping themselves over it or simply cooling their hands in its water.
Greg Johnson of Wichita uses car parts to make art and has created a kinetic dragonfly perched on a very, very tall blade of grass. The face of the dragonfly is a total charmer.
"People gravitate to it," Ross said.
Turns out Johnson was a big fan of dragonflies as a kid. Douglas and Pat Horbelt donated it in memory of their granddaughter Julia Rose.
'The Legend of the Laughing Child'
Ernatt has created fairy houses of bronze that kids will get to decorate in Granny Jean's Treehouse. There are other surprises as well — things that a fairy might find, Ernatt said, including seed pods and cones that she picked up in walks along the river and then cast in bronze.
Among Ernatt's other work in the garden: humorous little salamanders in bronze having a water fight in Salamander Cove (and "hidden stuff is coming," Ernatt said, "hidden all the way through" the cove"), and the painting of the inside of the Party Barn and of a chicken coop on the back of the Farmer's Market. It includes seek-and-find items among the chickens.
Still to come from her: more salamanders, more fairy houses, and "Meunster Mission" — a bronze sculpture of mice building a rocket ship of twigs to the moon, which they've heard is made of cheese.
Alongside much of the artwork in the garden are supplies that allow children to do their own creating. In the case of "Meunster Mission," for example, they'll be supplied with twigs.
The initial plans for this little landing in the garden — the only place where artificial turf is used — called for a national company to provide prefabricated mushrooms and ladybugs.
"Something was missing," Ross said.
She saw on the Internet that Andy Newbrey of Towanda did big flowers, so thought maybe he could do big insects. And he did — casting the life cycle of a butterfly in colorful, powder-coated steel.
"Mr. Pillar" is a 9-foot caterpillar with compartments in the back that hold wings, crowns, swords and puppets to play with. A chrysalis holds waterproof books. A butterfly bench holds visitors who are ready to sit.
"Speed Reader," a snail reading a book, greets visitors.
Wood Spirits and Tree Creatures
In the Monster Woods, the big concrete trees were hand-made by Dallas company Dodson Studios, but local carving legend Gino Salerno has added characters sculpted from Osage orange tree trunks using a chain saw.
Rich Bergen of Salina made three big red ants and giant leaves alongside a tree-stump water pump where kids can play with a water and sand combination.
Charles Baughman of the Monart School of the Arts made the rainbow arch of powder-coated metal leading into Granddaddy's Musical Maze. The instruments that children can play came out of a catalog, but the French horns that have been converted into misters were recycled from Senseney Music.
Dustin Sypher of Tallgrass Forge in Coldwater made a wrought-iron fence at the entrance to the Cargill Children's Farm by combining old Kansas farm implements with a winding vine.
The decorative bins were painted by Pam VanBebber.