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Glass in the Garden

Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden celebrates its 20th anniversary with a blockbuster exhibit.

by Page Leggett

China is the traditional gift for a 20th anniversary, while platinum is the modern choice. To commemorate its 20-year milestone, Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden is eschewing both. Instead, the Belmont destination plans to mark the occasion with the suggested modern gift for a third anniversary: glass.

In this case, it’s better than platinum. In a larger-than-life exhibit, Seattle-based artist Jason Gamrath is installing 40 hyper-realistic, botanical glass sculptures, including 10-foot orchids, technicolor pitcher plants and beautiful-but-deadly Venus’ flytraps.

Grandiflora: Gamrath Glass at the Garden debuts Friday, May 24 at the nearly 400-acre garden. Blending man-made sculptures with natural flora is no easy task, according to the artist. “Inside a gallery, we can isolate the work. There are fewer distractions,” he says by phone from his Washington state home. “But out in nature, we have to make it look like it belongs. You can’t fight with nature.” The artist will be on-site for the installation, which will take between two and three weeks, and for the exhibit opening.

Gamrath, 32, has been working with glass for more than half his life. He discovered the medium when he was just 15. “I got to play with fire,” he says. “Who wouldn’t want to do that?”

Photographs from Lumina Studio

When you think of glassblowing and Seattle, another artist’s name might come to mind. The Emerald City is also home to the world-famous studio of Dale Chihuly, whose distinctive glass sculptures graced the gardens at Asheville’s Biltmore last year. Aside from geography and medium, the two artists share much in common: Both produce intricate, eye-popping, colorful and curvilinear forms on a grand scale.

“Chihuly was really the first to break out of that ‘glass-has-to-be-functional’ mindset,” Gamrath says. “He said, ‘I want to make something people have never seen before.’”

That’s Gamrath’s goal, too. His work has parallels to Chihuly’s, though his style is completely original. Chihuly’s work pays subtle homage to nature in its flowing, snake-like forms, yet it remains rooted in the abstract. Gamrath’s work, on the other hand, is based on his close study of the botanical world. It’s realistic to the point of being anatomically correct — except for its exaggerated size.

“I like to think I’m a mix of some of my favorite artists,” Gamrath says. Chief among those is William Morris, a California-based glass artist and former assistant to Chihuly. Gamrath began working as an assistant to Morris at 16. “I opened and closed the door [to the oven],” he says. “I was the low man on the totem pole, but I soaked up all these skills.”

Photographs from Lumina Studio

Photographs from Lumina Studio

Today, Gamrath has his own studio and his own staffers, which he describes as “extra hands attached to my body.” However, he’s not ceding any control. “I have my hands on every single piece,” he says.

His studio includes “shops” where specific tasks are performed. “Probably 50% of my work is glass,” he says. “There’s a lot more than just glass blowing that goes into this work. So, there’s a glass blowing shop, a grinding shop, a metalworking shop and a painting shop. Each is a very specific skill, and there’s no room for error.”

Gamrath’s attention to detail would make a botanist jealous. “There are infinite numbers of mysterious things going on in nature we don’t see,” he says. “I like finding the seldom-noticed thing and bringing attention to it. It could be a beautiful curve or the organized randomness along the edge of a flower petal. Nothing happens by accident in nature.”

Nothing happens by accident in his studio, either. His highly methodical process begins with thorough examination of his subject matter. “I find a real specimen and watch it develop,” he says. “I’ll cut a bud open to examine what it looks like. I’ll study the backs of flowers — the part you never see. Then, I try to replicate the stages of development in glass. Since glass is an alive medium, it can mimic the growth of a plant.”

Photographs from Lumina Studio

Photographs from Lumina Studio

Like most glassblowers, Gamrath began by making utilitarian vessels. He soon sought bigger challenges. “I decided to try to make something realistic,” he says. “Then I wanted to take it a step further and make something hyper-realistic. Then, the next challenge was to scale everything up. I wanted to push the limits of scale and accuracy.” It’s both that intricate detail and the enormity of Gamrath’s botanical works that captivate in equal measure.

Most of the pieces in the Daniel Stowe show are part of Gamrath’s personal collection. But there’s one new piece he made especially for the Belmont garden. His Cattleya Orchid “covers all phases of that flower’s blooming and opening. You can see new, fresh buds, the in-between stage and the full flowering.” This piece, which will be displayed at Founders Hall in the visitors pavilion, is the one he’s most excited to view.

At Daniel Stowe, the gardens are getting a spring makeover to ensure they’re ready for the exhibit. Big, bold, beautiful plants with large flowers and leaves will complement the sculptures placed among them. Guests can explore the Butterfly Bungalow by day, or enjoy a drink and live music in the beer garden on select evenings.

Gamrath’s advice for exploring his work? “Don’t think too hard. Enjoy the beauty, and allow yourself to be carried away.” That should be easy to do on a sticky summer evening — when it’s too hot to think, anyway.

It may be Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden’s anniversary. But visitors are the ones getting the gift.  SP

Experience Grandiflora: Gamrath Glass at the Garden May 24 through Sept. 29 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Beginning May 30, the exhibition will be open Thursdays through Sundays from 6 to 10 p.m. DSBG will be closed for a private event the evening of June 16.

Adult admission is $14.95. Seniors 60 and up are admitted for $12.95. Kids 2–12 get in for $7.95, and children under age 2 get free admission, as do DSBG members from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Members get a 30% discount on evening admission. Tickets are available at the door for daytime admission and both online at DSBG.org and at the door for evening admission.

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