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Floating terrarium artists invite hands-on help outside Oakland’s cathedral

on October 10, 2011

A bright green banner stretched across the plaza in front of downtown Oakland’s Cathedral of Christ the Light, where people gathered Friday evening to scoop stones and soil into small glass globes. This plaza will be the future home of the Wonderarium, an 8-foot terrarium that, if everything goes according to plan, will eventually be floating on Oakland’s Lake Merritt.

“This is more than a public art piece,” said Sarah Filley, one of the artists behind the Wonderarium project. “It’s an actual living exhibit piece in a public space.”

A terrarium is a transparent case that holds plants, and the Wonderarium is a “big, fantastic, bombastic” version, said Filley. Once it is built, the car-sized acrylic globe will hold eight to twelve compatible plant species. Filley and collaborator Yvette Molina, who is also an artist in Oakland, announced Friday that the Wonderarium will be placed for a year in the cathedral plaza before being moved to Lake Merritt. The pair brought their Mobile Plant Ambassador—a two-foot terrarium on wheels—to the event, as part of Oakland’s monthly First Friday Art Murmur.

The Mobile Plant Ambassador is just that—an ambassador for the artists’ Wonderarium project. This rolling terrarium, lined with stones and soil and filled with plant varieties in endless shades of green, is a quarter-scale model of the planned Wonderarium. It serves as a testing ground for the different plants Filley and Molina have considered using inside the Wonderarium. The model terrarium is mounted on a metal rolling cart with drawers that on Friday contained pumice stones, soil, moss, and glass bowls, as well as colorful pebbles and trays of tiny succulent plants donated by Garden Hortica in Oakland—the supplies for do-it-yourself terrariums.

Passersby on their way home from work or just admiring the scenic view of Lake Merritt were invited by Filley and Molina to create free miniature terrariums that they could keep for themselves. “Exposing people to nature in urban areas is great,” said Kiffanie Stahle, who stopped at the Mobile Plant Ambassador to make a terrarium on her way home from work in downtown Oakland. “And taking home a terrarium is awesome!”

Cathedral officials are excited to host an art installation that will draw people onto the public plaza, Filley said. The architects who designed the cathedral—Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP—intended the plaza as a “gift to the community,” she said. Kim Bardakian, marketing manager for the Cathedral of Christ the Light, and Mike Brown, public relations director for the Catholic diocese of Oakland, were both at Friday’s event. Bardakian made her own terrarium, choosing an aloe plant with pink-tipped leaves as her centerpiece.

Temporarily installing the Wonderarium in the cathedral plaza will open up to the public a space that many people mistakenly regard as private, Filley said. “And it has a fantastic view of the best community asset in Oakland—Lake Merritt,” she said. A home on the lake is their ultimate goal for the giant floating terrarium, but securing an on-land location was the first step in getting fundraising efforts off the ground and actually building the Wonderarium, which has been in the works for about two years.

“We are eager to get it built and installed,” said Molina, who has been working with Filley on this project since 2009. “But it totally depends on funding. We would love to do it by the late summer or fall.”

There will be three $50,000 stages, Molina explained. The first chunk will pay for building the large Wonderarium and installing it on the plaza. The next $50,000 will pay for the land-based maintenance and technology, and the last fundraising effort will get the globe out on Lake Merritt, where it will float for one or two years.

Installing the Wonderarium on land for a year will make it easier to monitor the plants inside, Filley said. The pair carefully chose their plants—the centerpiece will be a Mediterranean Blue Palm, said Molina. They chose the blue palm because, not only does it fair well in humid conditions, but it also has a shallow root system and grows very slowly, making it ideal for the enclosed environment of the terrarium. “It also has a beautiful silhouette,” said Molina. “Like if you have your hand and you stretched out your fingers.”

Though they have been testing the plants in the smaller mobile terrarium, the first year will let them evaluate how the species fare in the larger sphere. Molina and Filley are partnering with Oakland businesses to incorporate the latest technology into their project, such as cameras and sensors monitoring the plant growth and the climate of the terrarium. They also want solar powered lights to illuminate the Wonderarium on the plaza at night.

“We want to tap into the richness of the Bay Area,” said Filley. “There is so much high tech innovation, people concerned with sustainability, greening our cities. We are two artists who have lived in Oakland. This is a way for us to celebrate the richness and diversity of skills and entrepreneurship here. We offer this project as a gift back to the community.”

This was the idea behind outreach using the Mobile Plant Ambassador, which the pair had built about a year ago and have taken to a few different events. This is the first time the rolling terrarium has come to Oakland. Friday evening people gathered around the metal cart and, under instruction from the artists, scooped dirt and stones into their glass spheres before choosing their plant from among five types, ranging from a small spiky aloe plant to one that resembled a green rose, called “sempervivum tectorum”—which means “always living,” said Molina, the self-described plant lover of the pair.

“People have a pretty extreme emotional reaction to these terrariums,” said Filley. “It is something you can tend, and care for, and observe. They sit in the palm of your hand. It is a really emotional entry point for people to talk about science and climate change and plant life.”

After over an hour in the cathedral plaza, the artists embarked on a procession, rolling the two-foot terrarium, green banner flying, through downtown Oakland, from the plaza at the Cathedral of Christ the Light to the center of Art Murmur. Filley and Molina stopped at the Era Art Bar & Lounge on Grand Avenue at Broadway and Krowswork gallery on 23rd Street, where they again invited people to make free miniature terrariums.

“We both believe that community art can create city pride,” said Molina. “When you have something that is beautifully designed and well done, it makes people feel proud of their city. I think the Wonderarium will have that effect on Oakland.”

Learn more about the Wonderarium project here.


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