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Terrarium prototype

Artists set Lake Merritt terrarium project afloat

on September 25, 2010

An aquarium, everyone knows, is a glass case that holds fish.  A terrarium is the same thing without the water, so it holds plants, along with the occasional lizard or tarantula.  What, then, might be found inside an eight-foot, 3,000-pound sphere called the Wonderarium?  Two Oakland artists are trying to decide—and when they do, they want to put it in the middle of Lake Merritt.

Sarah Filley and Yvette Molina, a pair of artists living in Oakland, are trying to join their experience in art with their passion for plants.  The final result will be a car-sized transparent terrarium floating on the surface of the lake.  The terrarium, or Wonderarium, as it is called, is not just a work of art; it is also a science project.  Above the pumice and soil that make up the terrarium’s floor, Molina and Filley intend to arrange eight to twelve compatible plant species—from regions as far away as Europe, Africa, and New Zealand—as the project’s centerpiece.  At the moment, they are experimenting with about 50 species to see which will best cohabitate inside the sphere.  Likely candidates so far include the Blue Mediterranean Fan Palm, asparagus fern, and tree aeonium, a Moroccan succulent with leafy green rosettes that requires a little shade, but should hold its own under an acrylic shell in the middle of an urban lake.

Yvette Molina and Sarah Filley

Yvette Molina, left, and Sarah Filley demonstrate how a terrarium is made.

“It could be a little Noah’s Ark, with one of each species,” Molina says.  But the artists are trying to find a balance that will be both botanically sound and visually appealing.

“There’s something kind of magical” about terrariums, Filley says.  “From small children to old men, everyone’s just fascinated.”  As the artists discuss their plans with museum audiences and potential benefactors, a number of people have said they’d like to climb right inside the Wonderarium (unfortunately for them, the space is for plants only).  Filley and Molina say they are inspired in part by the world’s fairs of the past. In building the Wonderarium, Molina says, the pair seek “to make something kind of fantastical, for wonder’s sake.”

The finished Wonderarium may not hit the water until 2012, but Molina and Filley are finding ways to make getting there half the fun.  At the moment, for example, they are taking a quarter-scale version of the Wonderarium on tour.  Since August, the pair have presented their work in scientific, artistic and botanical venues across the Bay Area, including San Francisco’s Exploratorium, the California Academy of Sciences, the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, San Jose’s Green Prix Parade, and the Worth Ryder art gallery at UC Berkeley.  While the 27-inch terrarium they carry to these events was built primarily as a prototype for the full-scale model, the public appearances have themselves become a form of interactive art.

The prototype, a globe half-filled with soil, was large enough to turn some heads when Molina and Filley first brought it to Lake Merritt earlier this year to see whether it would float.  It attracted a group of curious children, and in the course of explaining the project, the artists were struck by the idea that plants could make kids come running as enthusiastically as they might chase an ice cream cart.  In the spirit of such a cart, the pair commissioned what they call their “Mobile Plant Ambassador”: a heavy-duty steel wagon custom-designed to carry their terrarium, along with drawer space to hold the various ingredients that go into one.

While the Mobile Plant Ambassador “was born out of the Wonderarium,” Molina said, “it’s kind of become its own project.”  The pair now roll the cart along at their public appearances, where Filley said it functions as “a mini-classroom”: it can travel indoors and outdoors—and can support a patio-sized umbrella if the sun is too bright.  Whenever they stop, the artists pull materials from the cart’s big metallic drawers—pumice in one, soil in another, as well as live plants on top—to help audience members build their own terrariums in five-inch glass balls, which they can then take home and cultivate.

Plants called succulents

Succulents await homes atop the Mobile Plant Ambassador.

“This project is about sharing plants with people,” said Molina, a veteran gardener.  “This is how gardening should be.”  The Wonderarium concept traces its roots back to a series of much smaller terrariums that Molina built for herself, to satisfy her own curiosity about them.  “I’d been wanting to go more into the microcosmic world,” she said.

Filley, who maintains an amateur vegetable garden, was quickly attracted to the idea as a larger project.  She noted that terrariums require the viewer to practice “intimate observation” in order to “slow down to the pace of plants growing.”  And because the artists are able to pass out free plants—usually succulents—with the help of their Mobile Plant Ambassador, Filley added that “we really like the idea of public art.  It’s democratic.  It’s accessible.”

Molina and Filley note that their interest in terrariums is part of a larger phenomenon.  “Terrariums are in the air right now,” Filley said, citing an article describing the trend this summer in The New York Times.  But what makes their terrarium unique, aside from its unusual size, is the way it will be integrated into its surroundings.  Filley noted that in addition to its artistic and scientific sides, “there’s a large civic and cultural aspect to this project.”  In particular, this project is very much in the spirit of Measure DD, a $200 million bond measure passed by Oakland voters in 2002.  The measure was designed to improve water quality and green space access, among other things, in the area surrounding Lake Merritt.  The artists hope their work will beautify the lake, but it may also have secondary benefits.  For example, Molina speculated that a desire to see the terrarium up close might drive up boat rentals on the lake.

The Wonderarium is still nearly two years from completion, and will depend on its makers raising funds enough to build it, as well as on the completion of substantial road construction projects around the lake’s perimeter.  But crucially, they already have the city’s backing, and have enlisted fundraising help from the Friends of Oakland Parks and Recreation.  To Molina and Filley, the toughest obstacles are much more mundane.  Said Molina: “Everyone in the city was worried about keeping [the terrarium] clean from bird poo.”

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  1. dosolivas on September 25, 2010 at 11:12 am

    Planting non-native species in Lake Merritt within a terrarium may lead to the spread of non-native spores and seeds. This would be catastrophic for the native wildlife. The spread of non-native species has been devastating wildlife across the country. It’s a dangerous idea to do this project with non-native species, ecologically unsound.

  2. Wonderarium on September 30, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    Thank you for for taking the time to comment on our project. The question of planting Native species came up early on in our research. Public Art can engage the community it serves in meaningful conversation as much as it can inspire wonder. We are committed to having a dialogue surrounding ecology and climate with this project.

    Lake Merritt has extremes variations in salinity, temperature, and tidal flow. This makes for a harsh environment. What can survive here is what currently grows around and in the lake. Over 90% of the plants are non-native. For the last 100 years or so it has been an Urban park and not a pristine wilderness preserve. There is no evidence to suggest that a temporary contained installation of plants would have any negative impact. Similarly, the terrarium is an extreme environment and could serve as an excellent educational tool within the existing scientific programs in the Bay Area to educate about climate variation, micro-systems, and the unique habitat of the Lake itself. So far we have had the support of the Exploratorium, the California Academy of Sciences, and the SF Conservatory of Flowers with our project, these are all science institution committed to education and engagement.

    During conversations with our lead collaborator Chris Carmichael, Associate Director of Collections and Horticulture at the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley as well as staff, Docents, and volunteers at the garden we have chosen plants which are both moisture and drought tolerant and will survive the extreme conditions of the terrarium.

    We have introduced our project to Dr. Bailey, Executive Director of The Lake Merritt Institute, the folks heading up Measure DD, the Oakland Arts Advisory Council, and the Oakland Parks and Recreation. We have also introduced Wonderarium to many organizations, busnesses, and community groups around the lake. Since October, 2009 we have listened and integrated all comments, advice, and recommendations and our project is stronger and we hope,a genuine reflection the community around the lake.

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