Saturday, March 21, 2009

Glass in the Desert

Shortly after arriving in Phoenix last week, and after getting fueled up with an excellent lunch Haji-Baba, a little gem hidden in one of Phoenix's many unassuming strip-malls, we set off as planned to visit the Desert Botanical Garden. The weather was perfect – clear, blue, mid 70s – so it was the ideal time to go wander around the garden. As an additional bonus surprise, the garden was hosting a Dale Chihuly exhibition with numerous large installations throughout the garden (the exhibition runs through May).

I had previously been familiar with Chihuly's work through the massive Medusa-esque chandelier in the entrance hall of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the slightly more subdued one at Claridge's (seen below in the photo that got me in trouble with a posh twit):

I can't say that I was particularly a fan before – certaily I was impressed at the enormity of the chandeliers and I thought they were amusingly eccentric, but that was about it. With the DBG installation, however, I was really impressed and he seems to have been genuinely inspired by the surroundings. If you get a chance to visit before the end of May, it's really quite a thing to behold.

Some of the sculptures blended seamlessly with the forms of surrounding plants, others were more free-form and abstract but still somehow worked in context, and others were simply so strange they looked to be the handiwork of Willy Wonka (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, depending on your point of view). The garden itself is already somewhat of a fantasy landscape, filled with snake-like chollas, towers of organ-pipe cacti, and Dr. Seussian boojum trees, and Chihuly accentuated this aspect of the garden with his pieces.

A dramatic sculpture blending well with surrounding agaves

Several of the installations involved forests of tall tapering columns of glass

Chihuly naturally couldn't resist a chandelier or two

I think he neglected the plants on this one and focused instead on frightening small children

And then there was this thing

Not to mention the boat full of Everlasting Gobstoppers

There was so much glass, it was hard to imagine how Chihuly managed to make it all and transport it to Arizona. The garden is a large place, and around nearly every corner you would find yet another glass installation. The fact that Chihuly employs a small army of glassblowers helps explain it, but the sheer scale of the project must have demanded months and months of work.

Chihuly and his loyal team of glassblowers

The landscape at the Desert Botanical Garden

The collection of cacti was impressive

Cactus skyscrapers

Boojums, cacti, and glass

This rare crested saguaro was a standout

I really appreciateed the sign that informed patrons that all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti. Unfortunately a nearby sign had a less than satisfying definition of a cactus, saying only that it is "a plant in the family Cactaceae." Not exactly illuminating. They could easily have said something general like "Any member of a New World family of plants (Cactaceae) adapted to dry environments, most having leaves modified to become spines, and succulent stems that are capable of storing water through long dry periods," but then they didn't ask me.

A blooming desert Penstemon

There was a fair amount of wildlife to be seen in the garden as well. I was hoping to see a desert tortoise strolling around, but I never spotted one; however, we couldn't help but see dozens of lizards, happily buzzing carpenter bees, and a variety of birds including lots of goofy head-bobbing quail.

A Sceloporus spiny lizard

We also saw butterflies

And the butterfly's brother-in-law, the caterpillar

Even without the glass exhibition, I'll rush back to the Desert Botanical Garden next time I'm in Phoenix. I could have personally used a bit more labelling of the plants, and I didn't see a single desert fern in the whole place (although there are certainly areas we missed, so they may have been hidden somewhere), but in all other ways the garden is magnificent, extremely well cared for, and in a beautiful hilly desert setting that you wouldn't expect to find so close to the center of town.


An American in London said...

There was a Chihuly-in-the-gardens exhibit at Kew that looks similar to what you've captured in your photos. It must have been here in London before you and Maggie moved here.

Anyway, you managed to make Phoenix look appealing. :) I visited a friend there years ago and liked the Heard Museum, in case you're still there and are not yet museum'd out.

Caterpillar-In-Law said...

Hey you two!

Just wanted to say thanks for visiting us down here in Phoenix. We really enjoyed seeing you both and hope to see you again soon. Thanks so much for posting the pics to your blog - Andy, you have a nice touch with the camera that really seems to capture the essence of the place.

See you soon!

-Colias eurytheme