The whimsical and captivating Ribbit the Exhibit, was on display from January to mid-July 2020. It featured 23 larger-than-life frog characters created out of copper by North Carolina artist, J.A. Cobb. The Frog Blog is a series of articles that invites you to a behind the scenes look at some of the exhibit pieces themselves and to learn more about our approach to selecting, installing and landscaping art in the Garden.
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Painting a Perspective
Jacques has been working on this particular painting for three years. Every time he gets close to finishing, he gets moved to a new garden! The Ribbit Exhibit discovered Monsieur Blanchet painting in Giverny, France. He loves painting in the countryside and dancing to the music of the James Brown Band.
Jacques Emile Blanchet is not just a study in the paints he uses for his plein aire work, but he loves to tell the story of the paint that brings him and his friends to life.
The color is a very conscious choice by J.A. Cobb; green immediately comes to mind when you think of a frog, but it cannot be a green that would blend into its garden surroundings. The natural choice is a copper patina, reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty’s green. Being exposed to the elements and oils from visitors’ interacting with the sculptures meant that an ugly rust would form with time in the elements. So what does an artist with a paint question do? Ask Sherwin Williams! The Sherwin Williams help desk worked with Cobb to create a solution that was reminiscent of the natural copper patina. Cobb uses a polymer stain that was originally developed for concrete trucks to drive on and not crack or discolor. He first etches the copper before applying the stain which has been mixed with sand to create texture. A lacquer coating is used to protect the exposed copper from warping over time.
Jacques brings the Garden to his art, like many plein aire painters and photographers before him. But it is important that we bring art to the Garden. Temporary exhibits give us a reason to draw attention to areas in the Garden that are frequently overlooked. Jacques could have been placed so that he was painting the bright blooms of the butterfly garden or looking across the lake at the poinciana. Instead he hopped into a patch of bamboo leaves, painting a clump of saw palmetto. He brings a new perspective to an area that is frequently looked at as a pass through on your way to signature ridge from the dry stream bed. Jacque’s subject matter, the saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) grows wild in Florida’s natural areas but can bring a great texture in a landscape underneath a new or established tree. It’s highly salt-tolerant if you live in a coastal area, and tolerates a wide range of conditions and supports native wildlife.
Take a note from Jacques and look at the nature around you with a new lens, let us know what you discover!
Storytelling in the Garden
A distant relative of the brothers Grimm, Axel spent 10 years working with the Mouse in the Fairy Tale department. Although he loved it there, he joined the Ribbit family in order to see the rest of the U.S., one garden at a time. He reenacts many of his favorite fairy tales. Here he has transformed into the Frog Prince, or frog with a golden ball.
Traditionally, the Frog Prince is the first story in the collection of the Brothers Grimm’s written fairy tales. In the tale, a spoiled princess befriends the Frog Prince, after meeting him when she drops her golden ball into a pond and he retrieves it in exchange for her friendship. For a Brothers Grimm story, it has a surprisingly positive ending – although in terms of happy ending frog stories, it still cannot compete with the more recent animated Disney adaptation, The Princess and the Frog. Frogs have gone on to major starring roles in all sorts of media – Kermit from the Muppets, Michigan J. Frog from Looney Tunes, Frog and Toad from the children’s books by Arnold Lobel, the video game Frogger, Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows. And that’s just frogs, our catalog of animal stories is incredibly vast. What is our obsession with animal characters?
Simply put, in the words of J.A. Cobb, “animals doing anthropomorphic things captivates people.” And that’s inclusive of Mr. Cobb himself. His first frog sculpture was created in 1998 and inspired by Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows. Prior to that, he had primarily been inspired by the animals around him in coastal North Carolina, sculpting a wide range of realistic copper fish and birds.
When it comes to bringing the sculptures to the Garden, we need to consider that we are bringing their stories with them. In the case of Axel Grimm, what are the key elements of his story we can bring alive? Well, he sits having just recovered the princess’s golden ball – we don’t have a well but we do have a lake! Knowing that we want to place him on the edge of Lake Orth, the bench underneath the royal poinciana was a natural fit for his story. The royal poinciana (Delonix regia) is known for its large shade canopy with bright colored flowers (this one blooms red, but they can also be orange or yellow). It creates a great environment to relax in the hot Florida summers, though it needs a large open space to grow due to its large surface roots.
When summer rolls around, enjoy reading a story in the shade – who knows, there might just be a Frog Prince who hops on by your bench.
Axel Grimm would love to share his retelling of the Frog Prince with you, and has published it here!
Diana took the bronze medal in archery during the 2012 summer Olympics in London, and she loves reenacting the part of the goddess, Diana, for the exhibit. She says she really identifies with this goddess when she has her bow in her hands.
Stories and literature are not the only inspiration for J.A. Cobb, some of our frog friends hop right out of museum galleries! Diana gets her name from the roman goddess of the hunt, the moon, and birth. But she gets her design inspiration from the sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
The original Diana, sometimes referred to as Diana of the Tower, has a storied history as a New York City landmark. During the construction of the second Madison Square Garden (the modern Garden is New York’s fourth building to carry the name), Saint-Gaudens was commissioned by architect Stanford White to create Diana as a weather vane. Beginning in 1891, she would stand atop the tower which at 304 feet tall was New York’s second tallest building. Her original form was 18 feet tall and weighed in at 1,800 lbs which turned out to be too heavy for her to function properly as a weather vane. Saint-Gaudens made adjustments, adding a scarf to the design to better catch the wind and address complaints about her nudity from Anthony Comstock and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. This did not fix the issues and Saint-Gaudens resolved to create a second version of the piece. The original Diana was taken down and sent to sit atop the Agricultural Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
A second version of Diana was created, her height scaled down to 14.5 feet and fabricated with a hollowed copper, weighing in at 700 lbs, less than half her previous weight. Installed in 1893, this new Diana was light enough to rotate with the wind. Her gilded figure could be seen as far away as New Jersey, and she was lit with electric lights at night. She remained atop the tower until the Garden’s scheduled demolition in 1925, and now resides at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. New York hasn’t lost their icon, with multiple copies located in the city. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has both a half-sized gilded bronze cast from 1928 and a small bronze statuette on display, where they inspire artists to this day.
Like her namesake, Ribbit’s Diana is also a weather vane. Many gardens who have hosted the traveling frogs, choose to place her atop a structure at their entrance. However at Mounts Botanical, the queen’s wreath (Petrea volubilis) has claimed the entry roof as its flowery kingdom. Playing off her roman goddess influence, she would fit in well mimicking the placement of sculpture in a formal garden. Our trial garden design, with the semi-circular paths is about as close as we get to a formal garden. With the right annuals, the team felt like we could turn one of the beds into a perfect home for Diana. And with her bed of sweet alyssum (Lobularia martima), our horticulture team completely transformed an area originally designed for sod testing into a beautiful formal garden fit for a frog-goddess.
Growing a Garden through Art
The horticulture team is here to help: Cora, Trevor, Digger Smith, and Lenard want to make sure that every garden they visit looks its best! Cora grew up on a small farm in Nebraska and learned the value of caring for your garden in order to get the greatest yield. Trevor has taken the art of topiary to a new level. He has won hedge trimming contests across the U.S. and took 1st Place in the Topiary Nationals, trimming a 40 foot western cedar into an exact replica of the Statue of Liberty. Digger Smith has enjoyed digging in the earth as long as he can remember. From his first sandbox to gold mining in the Klondikes, Digger has felt that good shoveling is an art. Lenard is a hydrational specialist – he loves his job keeping all of the garden plants watered during the busy growing season. Besides, no one understands the need for good clean water like a frog.
Although J.A. Cobb sculpted his first frog in 1998, it would not be until the early 2010’s that the frogs came together in the form of Ribbit the Exhibit. And unlike their long bus trip down to West Palm Beach, the frogs had a short hop from Cobb’s studio in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina to their first two public garden appearances. Premiering at Cape Fear Botanical Garden in Fayetteville before going on to Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, Cobb created an exhibit that was tremendously successful at not just showcasing his own work but also the gardens they visited. The biggest benefit was that the frogs helped public gardens reach their visitors in a new, engaging way.
Ribbit the Exhibit really feels like a partnership between artist and Garden, in more ways than one. The frogs feel so alive because they interact with the space in our reality. They may be frogs, but they read and paint and mow the lawn and tend the weeds in their garden. So when it came to deciding where each frog would live at Mounts Botanical, the team also looked at what areas of the Garden needed help to tell its story. The exhibit arrival was perfect timing for the Edible Garden, which had been undergoing extensive redesign and planting but even with its newly designed entry points, did not seem to be catching visitor’s attention. The four gardening frogs of Ribbit (Cora, Trevor, Digger Smith, and Lenard) seemed like the perfect additions to the horticulture team at the Garden, less for their labor and more as ambassadors for the hard work of their human counterparts.
The Edible Garden display beds are constantly shifting with the growing season (believe it or not, some vegetable gardening can even happen during Florida’s hot summers), so the garden itself would dictate where the frogs would land. The day of their arrival, they were chauffeured via golf cart to the grassy border area. With the frogs now on site, the horticulture team worked with Cobb to find their semi-permanent homes. The corn was too tall for Digger Smith to be working and not be obscured, but the kale was just the right height. The sweet green peppers were a great color compliment to Lenard and he would have a curtain of the attention grabbing snake gourd (Trichosanthes cucumerina) as his background. Trevor found his home just outside of the Edibles Garden, at the Children’s Maze. The maze walls, comprised of orange jasmine (Murraya paniculata) make the perfect canvas for Trevor’s topiary hobby. A compact evergreen shrub with fragrant spring blooms, the branches can drape between his clippers, bringing him to life as he snips at the unruly branch. Trevor reminds the children who play in the maze that this is not your ordinary jungle gym, but a living play space that has its own special magic. Trevor and the rest of the horticulture team are a great reminder that a garden is an ever growing work in progress.
Bentley and Tortuga were part of a traveling circus during the latter part of the ‘90s. The travel was beginning to wear on them both and they decided to seek employment elsewhere. The calm and beautiful life in the public garden arena has suited them well, and they are happy to be part of the Ribbit Exhibit family.
Willie had a fishing show on a Louisiana TV station when he was first spotted by the Ribbit Exhibit. Although he was a major presence in front of the camera, he now enjoys the tranquility of cane pole fishing on a quiet pond or lake.
Some of the frogs in Ribbit the Exhibit have very distinct inspirations, while others hop from the imagination of J.A. Cobb into a fitting garden activity. When the Garden staff were first introduced to the cast of characters, the assumption was made that Bentley and Tortuga were in the latter category. The pair called for a location that was near our resident turtle populations. Lake Orth’s turtles welcomed Tortuga and his frog friend to the bank on the island surrounded by the overlook, an area the turtles love to sun themselves and use for their nests.
Garden staff received a bit of a surprise when Cobb shared that Bentley and Tortuga were not just a cute unlikely animal friendship, but are actually inspired by a trip to Florence, Italy. Cobb was specifically inspired upon seeing the Fontana del Bacchino di Nano Morgante at Boboli Gardens. Boboli Gardens has a rich history as a Florentine landmark, the creation and development of the Gardens spans a 400 year time frame and different families added their own personal touch. The result, an example of “green architecture” decorated with sculptures and the prototype which inspired many European Royal gardens, including Versailles.
Fontana del Bacchino di Nano Morgante originates from a time in Boboli’s history when the Medicis were the family to please. The original fountain was sculpted from white marble by Valerio Cioli in 1560. Cioli chose Cosimo I de’ Medici’s favorite of five court dwarfs who served as jesters, Nano Morgante as his subject matter. Morgante was Cosimo’s favorite and appears in various art from paintings to bronze sculptures as artists attempted to win Cosimo’s favor. Cioli portrays Morgante as a drunken Bacchus riding into court atop a turtle in a grotesque style that was popular in mannerist gardens in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a combination of the idealism of the Renaissance style with an element of caricature and satire.
Bentley and Tortuga remind us to expect the unexpected and they are not the only ones. The wildlife of Mounts Botanical loves to get involved. Just like the turtles helped to find a home for Bentley, Lake Orth’s koi and tilapia guided Willie to his secret fishing spot. Staff made the assumption that Willie would be left in peace on the bank of the island across from the feeding platform since the only access to the sculpture was by wading through the lake. The resident raccoons had other plans. The mud flats underneath the bridge are one of their favorite areas to grab a late night snack and they were quick to investigate the fishing bobber on Willie’s line tangling the line on night one. On night two, they managed to break it off the line completely and scurry away with their new trophy. In an effort to replicate the look and help keep the line untangled, our horticulture team made a temporary bobber from supplies in their shop. But the replacement bobber was captured by the furry thieves as well. The raccoons made sure to remind us that our gardens exist for more than just human enjoyment.
With the Garden, there is always a surprise around the corner and it very well may be the last thing you expect.
Setting the Stage
Sasha danced for three seasons with the Bolshoi Dance Company in Russia. On her last visit to the United States, she just knew that this was home. She took early retirement, joined our company and has been with us for two years.
Unlike many of her peers who hopped into already existing flower beds and garden focal points, Sasha found her Mounts Botanical home in a unique location. Directly opposite from the entrance to the Herb Garden of Well Being had been an open area of mulch and dirt, and Sasha was the perfect reason for the horticulture team to reinvent the area. When visitors stroll by, they do a bit of a double take. Distracted by the formal area of the herb garden and the upcoming open lawn space, Sasha’s presence is as much a surprise as her inspiration, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, was to audiences at her premiere.
Little Dancer Aged Fourteen by Edgar Degas was the only sculpture he would ever exhibit in public. Her debut in the spring of 1881 at the sixth impressionist exhibition was met with incredible backlash. In a time where sculpture was primarily white marble or shiny bronze, Degas’s mixed media dancer created a stir. The beeswax sculpture with clothes and human hair placed the student dancer of the Paris Opera Ballet in the room in a very realistic way. But it wasn’t just the mixed media that caused backlash, she was a modern subject which was unusual for sculpture at the time. The model, Marie van Goethem, was the daughter of a Belgian tailor and laundress. Her working class background was typical of student ballerinas, referred to as “petits rats de l’opera” or opera rats. The student dancers would scurry around backstage with tiny steps reminiscent of a little mouse, but the nickname had a darker jab at the poverty that many of them came from. These girls were the targets of male “protectors” who would take advantage of them, and now this tiny fourteen year old dancer was center stage reminding everyone of the reality of the opera rats. The backlash Degas received for thrusting the reality of the art world into view led Degas to never show another sculpture again. He continued to sculpt in private and after his death, more than 100 wax sculptures were found in his studio. His estate authorized bronze castings of the piece, and now Little Dancer is displayed in museums around the world to much acclaim.
Sasha’s stage was created to draw attention to an area that visitors frequently overlook. If asked to locate the sausage tree (Kigelia africana), the one that frequently gets mentioned is located behind the Mounts Building directly off of the main entry parking lot. Although near the path, the sausage tree in the Light Tropical Shade Garden (and the garden itself) are glossed over. The large tree with heavy sausage-like fruits and deep maroon flowers for nocturnal pollinators is a show stopper when it gets to take the spotlight. Our horticulture team created a stage of stone planted with baby tears (Soleirolia soleirolii), a ground cover with tiny, round leaves cascading down slender, fragile stems. Border grasses create a row of footlights for Sasha. Liriope grass (Liriope muscari) frequently used in Florida landscaping takes on a new role in Sasha’s ballet.
Zenny began his life in a Buddhist Monastery in Yokohama, Japan. He taught the art of meditation there for 12 years. He joined the Ribbit Exhibit family of frogs three years ago in order to meditate in the most beautiful gardens in the world.
Zenny sits amongst the papyrus (Cyperus paprus) of Windows on the Floating World with a big secret. Had the Garden received enough rainfall during his visit, Zenny would no longer be seated in the reed-like plants but floating there! His lily pad is designed with a secret float and anchor system and is just one of the many adaptations the frogs of Ribbit the Exhibit have that allow them to thrive in a garden.
Exposure to the elements is a major consideration for any piece of art that goes into a garden, and J.A. Cobb learned this lesson the hard way. The sixteen-once sheet copper that he uses to form the frogs is fantastic for the artist because it is easily manipulated by hand. Unfortunately, that means the copper is also easily manipulated by mother nature. It only took one sculpture coming back to the studio looking like a crumpled piece of paper for the lesson to be learned. Now, Cobb forms the copper sheeting around a skeleton of sorts. Steel rebar is placed inside of copper plumbing pipe to prevent rusting and creates an internal support system. There is no pre-existing guide to creating life size frogs, so Cobb uses an assortment of found tools to cut and shape the sheet copper to fit around the skeleton. Everything is welded together with “phoscopper,” a 96% copper and 4% phosphorus solder mix, at the high heat of 1,200°F with a propane and oxygen mixture and a frog is born!
Mounts Botanical Garden hosts art exhibits for months at a time. Staff has to carefully consider how changes in the Garden over six months will affect pieces. Windows on the Floating World is a great example of that shift in environment, with plants taking over the banks in the dry season to be pushed back when the water comes in. Typically, a sculpture could never be placed in Windows unless it can adapt like Zenny can. Plant phenology plays a part of sculpture placement as well. Horticulture staff takes into consideration which plants may be blooming during the course of an exhibit so that a piece does not get covered in a mess of pollen or petals that could potentially stain or trap moisture.
Florida comes with its own unique set of challenges. The Sunshine State lives up to its nickname, bleaching the color out of anything left outside for a long period of time. The Garden staff has to take into consideration how long an exhibit can be in residence before it needs some R&R. South Florida has a seasonal population, but exhibits take place in the winter and spring for more than just the crowds. It’s a carefully calculated scheduling choice to avoid hurricane season. Buttoning down the Garden in preparation of a storm is a big enough task without an additional 23 non-native frogs. But we are happy to welcome them to the Garden during our beautiful warm winters, where everyone can enjoy escaping the snow.
Interested to find out more about the making of Ribbit the Exhibit? Learn about how the frogs get their distinctive coloration with the Frog Blog: Painting a Perspective.
A Night On the Town
Trombone Shorty, Charlie Parker, & Miles Davis enjoy touring their smooth jazz around the nation. This trio was found playing for change below ground in the Metro, somewhere in the outskirts of Paris. Their talent as musicians was easily recognized, and they were recruited to be part of the Ribbit Exhibit, where they have happily participated for three years.
The joy of Ribbit the Exhibit is that each frog comes alive. J.A. Cobb works with the same base materials to create a varied and rich collection of stories throughout the garden. Without words, each frog becomes its own character. Cobb uses little details to create individuals, relying primarily on the hands and eyes of each sculpture to convey emotion. The Jazz Trio is an excellent example of the differences between sculptures that create an individual and personality. The three come to life on their stage of trailing chenille (Acalypha pendula), and if you listen carefully you may just hear the tune they play. The intricacies of their hands create an element of realism: they aren’t just holding the instruments, they are playing them. With a bend in his toe and an outstretched snappy hand, Trombone Shorty taps out the beat not just for Charlie and Miles but for all Garden visitors.
The stories of Ribbit can be enhanced by the plants around them. Although some plant-frog relationships are obvious (Freddy the Butterfly Boy in the Butterfly Garden and Trevor at the Children’s Maze), others rely on a little bit of botanical knowledge. Not only does the Rainbow Border create a miniature amphitheatre for the jazz trio, but they are surrounded by plants that can help you get all dolled up for a night out on the town. On the corner of the Herb Garden of Well Being where the path forks and opens up to the Rainbow Border is an annatto tree (Bixa orellana). Before synthetic dyes, the tree was planted commercially for the orange-red pigment that comes from the waxy coating around its seeds. The coloring was commonly used in foods, as it did not alter the flavor and was non-toxic. It was also used as a dye in cosmetics where it gets another nickname, the lipstick tree. A perfect preparation for kissing your frog prince.
Two nearby plants provide fragrance options for your night on the town. Bay rum (Pimenta racemosa) forms the border around the formal area of the Herb Garden of Well Being. This member of the myrtle family is commonly used in cooking, but its essential oil can be distilled to produce a fragrant cologne in combination with rum. The scent is common to many men’s colognes including the original man your man could smell like, Old Spice. Just across the path is the large ylang ylang (Cananga odorata). The dwarf variety is found in the Rose and Fragrance Garden, as both trees are covered in highly fragrant flowers. The drooping petals change from green to yellow and yield an oil that is used in various scents. It is especially famous for its appearance in Chanel No. 5. The fifth sample scent Chanel was presented was the winner in her search for a new scent that would appeal to the flapper and celebrate the liberated feminine spirit of the 1920s. At the time, “respectable women” favored the essence of a single garden flower and Chanel No. 5 made waves with a combination that included the ylang ylang.
Gardening inspiration can come from anywhere and with the right eye, your bathroom counter may lead to your next planting.
A Bigger Meaning
Edward grew up in Costa Rica and is a member of an endangered tree frog family. His species is losing their habitat at an alarming rate due to deforestation. No trees means no home for his family. He is glad to be a member of the Ribbit Exhibit family and to be here with plenty of trees to make his home.
Edward has a big impact and that’s not just due to his size, although he is the tallest of the frogs. His story is the most serious of the cast of Ribbit the Exhibit, and Edward has chosen to travel to tell his tale of habitat loss. J.A. Cobb has created a team of environmental ambassadors with the Ribbit frogs who play to our childish sides. The frogs capture the imagination and hearts of those they interact with, in order to help the gardens they call home deliver a bigger message.
Anything on display in the Garden, whether part of the living collection or not, goes through a rigorous process of evaluation. Whether part of the permanent collection or a temporary installation, art is displayed in the Garden through an outlined process. Referred to as the Art in the Garden Master Plan, the outline guides the selection and display process to make sure the installation furthers the mission of the Garden, to inspire and educate through nature. The Art in the Garden plan outlines three major themes: Environmental Sustainability, Nature’s Beauty (Ornamental Horticulture), and People-Plant Connections. Patrick Dougherty’s Cutting Corners, created in January 2019, is a fantastic example of the way that nature inspires the art that comes to the Garden.
Past Frog Blogs have touched on the connection between Ribbit the Exhibit and guided discovery of new areas and plants by visitors. But the connection does not stop between plants and people does not stop there. The inclusion of art and exhibits creates the opportunity for fantastic programming. Last month, Mounts Botanical Garden education staff partnered with the University of Florida’s Scientist in Every Florida School program to provide a virtual field trip to the Garden for students. The program, When Art Meets Science, saw the frogs of Ribbit the Exhibit teaming up with Dr. David Blackburn, Associate Curator of Herpetology at the Florida Museum of Natural History to teach students about the many curious characteristics of frogs. Partly due to a switch to distance education, the program brought Mounts Botanical Garden, Ribbit the Exhibit, and their real life frog counterparts directly to hundreds of students across the country.
Art provides the opportunity to connect our community with the plants and environment in new, engaging ways. We hope Ribbit the Exhibit has led you to discover something new about Mounts Botanical Garden.
We hope you enjoyed this insider’s look at Ribbit the Exhibit. If you have any additional questions or comments about anything discussed in the Frog Blog, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org We’ll be premiering a new blog series soon, so keep your eye on Garden communications!
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About Ribbit the Exhibit
Ribbit the Exhibit features a cast of 23 whimsical, larger-than-life frog character in 17 locations throughout the Garden. These remarkable sculptures are handcrafted by artist, J.A. Cobb, from copper, to delight visitors of all ages.
Thanks to our Frog Sponsors
Audubon Society of the Everglades
(“Charles the Bird Watcher”)
(“Freddie the Butterfly Boy”)
Braman Motors/Bentley Palm Beach
(“Bentley and his trained tortoise, Tortuga”)
Ruth Arneson and Rodney Johnson
Zimmerman Tree Service
(“Edward the Tree Frog”)