Mythmakers are creating ten new bird sculptures at McKee Jungle Gardens in Vero

Mythmakers are creating ten new bird sculptures at McKee Jungle Gardens in Vero

VERO BEACH — The ancient Greeks had Heracles. The Vikings had a bull. Mackey Botanical Gardens includes Donna Dodson and Andy Morlin. The pair – known as the Myth Makers – are the creators of the Botanic Gardens’ latest art installations.

The attraction – a “tropical flock of bird avatars” – is interactive and integrated into the Botanical Gardens landscape, highlighting the plant collections. The artwork fits seamlessly into the surrounding landscape, without overwhelming it and retaining its character.

“We are truly determined to leave a mark on our world,” Morlin said. “We wanted to create something as beautiful and natural to the Jungle Gardens landscape as possible.”

More than a myth

The artwork consists of 10 individual bird sculptures, created using eco-friendly media such as bamboo and recycled materials.

The birds pictured are native to the Sunshine State – a belted kingfisher, two tri-colored herons, a short-eared owl, three wood storks, an anhinga, a white peacock and an American bittern.

By weaving bamboo together using recycled wire, the sculptures are made lightweight and strong. The figure is over 10 feet tall and is interactive. Storks include bells, while owls encase a room within their timbers.

Bamboo has been a staple of McKee since its opening year in 1932. While the bamboo used in the installation was not grown in gardens, it blends seamlessly with McKee’s fabric.

Ideally placed within structures and installations in the gardens, these birds appear to be permanent residents. The heron seems to have a permanent home among the turtles and fish in one of the many ponds. Wood storks with their bells are perched precariously near the Children’s Garden so young visitors can play music. A peacock guards the entrance to the palm grove walkway, inviting guests to stroll through the inner walkway.

“From the moment you walk in and start seeing the sculptures, you start getting views and hints of other sculptures. So it’s a really intimate experience in the garden,” Dodson said. “The sculptures are designed to be a treasure hunt. You see one and then go and look for the next, and then you get hints about the next. It takes you on a self-guided tour of the garden.”

Dynamic duo

The Mythmakers first met at an art gallery in New Hampshire and fell in love. Through their love, creativity flowed and took on a life of its own. Eventually, they began creating public art displays together.

“In 2017, we stayed together in Taiwan, so we worked a lot with bamboo,” Dodson said. “We are constantly evolving together. We are a team. We are always innovating with materials and ideas. The exciting thing about Macy’s is that we do a lot of things that we have never done before.”

McKee’s first contact with the Myth Makers was in August 2022. Through tours and conversations with park staff, the idea began to take shape. Much of the construction was done in New Jersey and shipped to Florida. The artists and a team of gardeners worked for a week to assemble all the structures. Every detail has been carefully considered, from the exact placement of each sculpture to the spacing between the bamboo weaves.

“It was truly a team effort,” said Connie Catherman, McKee’s director of marketing and events. “There was a lot of communication by phone and by email. Once they got here, there were a lot of late nights. We actually moved one of the sculptures at the last minute because its placement didn’t do it justice.”

“Flock of Tropical Birds” is the artists’ largest project ever. There is also a strong personal connection between the artwork and Florida. Each species of bird represents a part of Florida or Vero Beach history.

Clatter – the name of the trio of Wood Storks – commemorates the three founders of the McKee Company – William Lyman Phillips, Arthur McKee, and Waldo Sexton.

The takeoff — Anhinga name — commemorates Bessie Coleman, the first Indigenous and black female pilot.

Setting the stage

The gardens were founded in 1932, and throughout the first half of the 20th century they regularly received more than 100,000 visitors. The early days were marked by a wide variety of exotic plants and even wild monkeys, crocodiles, chimpanzees and bears.

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During the 1970s, attendance dwindled, and 80 acres of the original gardens were developed into residential units, leaving only 18 acres remaining. In 1976, Macy’s closed and remained dormant until 2001, when it reopened, redesigned with an emphasis on plants and exhibits, which helped increase attendance.

“Tropical Flock of Bird Avatar” runs until April 28.

“We connect the sculptures and concepts to the local birdlife. So it was really important to work with Mackey,” Dodson said. “We want everyone to have the experience of learning about birds and the Florida history we celebrate. We believe it allows people to experience the kind of inspiration we find in birdlife.”

Nick Slater is TCPalm’s Indian River County Watchdog reporter. You can reach him at Nick.Slater@tcpalm.com and 224-830-2875.

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