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A Big Bug's Life

Large sculptures of insects catch the eye of L.A. County arboretum's smallest visitors.

August 17, 2000|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Mom, can I feed the ant a piece of bread?" asks the little girl, who's barely knee-high to a grasshopper . . . though the grasshopper here, admittedly, is no ordinary insect. And neither is the 700-pound, 25-foot ant, one of three poised to march across the lawn at the Arboretum of Los Angeles County.

Eleven gigantic insects are the stars of "David Rogers' Big Bugs" exhibit, opening at the arboretum this week and continuing through Nov. 30. New York artist Rogers, who created the artworks out of wood, is jazzed about the little girl's response to his ant sculpture. And the fact that he finds plastic cars and other evidence of kid-tampering stuck into the nooks and craniums of his giant sculptures clearly warms his heart.

"It's the kids' way of paying homage to the thing," says the artist, who relishes the honest, natural reactions children have to his work.

With a tool belt around his waist and a bandanna covering his head, Rogers installed the bulky bugs over two sweltering days last week.

"That's how you see a grasshopper in the real world," he said after situating the 11-foot orthopteran in the deep grass on Tallac Knoll, a lush area above the arboretum's waterfall. His simple designs emphasizing big eyes, protruding antennae and long legs are meant to be easy to recognize rather than detail-oriented.

"Instead of trying to imitate the look [of each insect], I imitated the engineering," he says, and in doing so, he made some interesting discoveries.

"I marvel at Mother Nature's redundancy. I noticed that the spiny things on a grasshopper are almost the identical shape of rose thorns, and they serve the same purpose--protection."

In place in the natural settings throughout the arboretum gardens, the insects, made of all natural components, look like something out of "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." A 17-foot dragonfly lurking in a pool, a 3-foot spider in a web spanning 15 feet between two eucalyptus trees, and a 1,200-pound praying mantis are just a few of the oversized insects infesting the 127-acre botanic garden.

Appearances, however, can be deceiving. Ordinarily, one might be tempted to squash a praying mantis or the ominously named assassin bug (although in this case, one would need some help), but if there's one thing visitors will learn from this exhibit, it's that not all bugs are bad.

"People know they have [insects] and they want to get rid of them," says Gwen Hartley, special projects manager at the arboretum. "Actually, beneficial insects allow you to maintain your garden without using chemicals."

Sundays during the exhibit are designated Family Days at the arboretum, beginning this weekend. The botanical garden will be abuzz with workshops, entertainment and educational crafts for kids, and docent-led tours of the gardens are included in the arboretum's regular admission price.

Highlights of opening weekend include two showings of Pasadena's Kidspace Museum's "It's Good to Be an Ant," a 30-minute production that premiered this summer at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre; magic by the Wacky Entomologist; and music by the percussion group the Beat Bugs (also performing the following three Sundays).

Educational crafts and classes are planned each week, each focusing on a different Big Bug.

It's the first time an exhibit of this magnitude has been mounted at the arboretum. There's been tension between Los Angeles County's recreation-oriented parks department and the research/education-oriented arboretum since the parks department inherited the Arcadia facility after the dissolution of the County Department of Arboreta and Botanic Gardens nearly a decade ago. The "Big Bugs" exhibit appears to be the type of program that may appease both camps, with entertainment as well as educational value.

Arboretum an Oasis With Lush History

The garden is a lush oasis in the Southland's urban sprawl, the historic center of what was the 46,000-acre Lucky Baldwin ranch in the mid-1800s. Several buildings constructed by Baldwin have been restored and are open to the public, including the Coach House, the Depot and the Queen Anne Cottage, also known as the "Fantasy Island" house because it was used in the opening credits of that TV show.

The arboretum has been a popular film location for decades: Johnny Weissmuller swung through the trees there as Tarzan in the 1940s, and it was also a site for scenes in "Road to Singapore" (1940) and "The African Queen" (1951).

The gardens are divided geographically, into the Australian, North and South American, Asiatic, African and Mediterranean gardens. The newly restored Herb Garden is not only home to Rogers' 150-pound ladybug, but also a recently planted, butterfly-shaped corn maze. The maze should be full grown by October, when the arboretum plans the Big Bug-a-Boo Fest on Oct. 29, the last "Big Bug" bash before the exhibit moves on in November.

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