ATLANTA – Rain sprinkles from some of the umbrellas hanging from the ceiling of the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Orchid Center atrium. Bowler hats are aloft as well, only they don’t produce a drizzle.
Through a door into the Orchid Display House, gaudy high heels serve as planters, dangling like ripe fruit from the branches of “shoe trees.” At the entry to the Fuqua Conservatory, things are more than a little off kilter. Visitors are greeted by a gallery of orchids set off by funhouse-style mirrors that make the people and the plants alternately tall, skinny, rippled and distorted in other ways.
What in the name of Salvador Dali is going on here? Well, it is Salvador Dali – and some of his partners in artistic illusion – going on here, as the Botanical Garden presents “Orchid Daze: Surreal Beauty” through April 14.
Organizers of the annual show always take interesting artistic liberties to try to best frame views of the flowers. That’s important because “Orchid Daze” is the garden’s biggest draw in that quiet time between its holiday lights show and springtime, presenting a rare burst of blazing color amid the grays and browns of the 30 acres of wintering grounds.
In prior years, they have “planted” garden antiques and art glass among the “Orchid Daze” flowering displays. And in more recent shows, they’ve dispensed with the “objet” and treated the orchids themselves like “d’art.” The surrealist theme turned loose the imaginations of the creative team led by Botanical Garden designer Tres Fromme and Orchid Center manager Becky Brinkman.
“Becky and I always wanted to include everyday objects and pair them with orchids, but it never fit any of the show themes we were working on,” Fromme explained. “Then we realized, surrealism would pull this all together and allow us to go artistically crazy without necessarily needing a reason.” In fact, the more the “Orchid Daze” team researched surrealism – specifically the images and the thoughts of Dali, Rene Magritte, Jean Arp and Giorgio de Chirico – the more creatively emboldened they felt.
To better make the connection for visitors, they blew up famous paintings by that quartet, covering windows and doors with the murals, and they posted explanatory quotes by the artists. So, for instance, guests are greeted by one of Dali’s famed melting landscapes across the Fuqua Conservatory front facade.
Once inside, they find a quote by the Spanish surrealist above one of the funhouse-mirrored walls: “Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.” The next room, the Orchid Center atrium, pushes that notion. Walk in and it’s like entering a composite of Magritte paintings, from the hovering umbrellas and bowlers to the huge banner of clouds that forms a backdrop for dendrobium orchids hanging upside-down from the ceiling and pastel-hued cymbidiums reaching skyward from low beds.
Those beds are puddle-shaped, mimicking the biomorphic forms in an Arp painting displayed on the door into the next area, the Orchid Display House. The curving beds are edged in fake turf, another reality-tweaking touch and something so unapologetically artificial, it’s safe to say, you’d otherwise never find it at the Midtown green spot.
“We think people won’t be expecting to see orchids in quite these manners,” Fromme said. “That’s one reason we do ‘Orchid Daze.’ We have an amazing collection of orchids all year (including 300 genera – or classes – and 2,000 species), but how do we spark something so people want to come run and see (‘Orchid Daze’) and get to see the collection once they’re here? What’s the hook to help bring the collection into new focus?” So as much work as the event team put into locating just the right colored and sized shoes for the “shoe trees,” and then figuring out how to waterproof them and make them drain, it’s not really about the stilettos but the jewel-toned ladyslipper orchids (paphiopedilum and phragmipedium) that they showcase.
Still, Fromme is clearly proud of the way the hot-cha-cha-cha shoes hang from the trees, like Dali’s classic clocks melting from bare branches.
“I spent a lot of time online looking for women’s shoes,” Fromme allowed. “Then we had a lot of discussion about what orchid color went well with what shoe and which shoes called too much attention to themselves as fancy. I learned way too much about women’s shoes doing this.”