Sunday, July 08, 2007

Optical magic at Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Top Eyepiece View
I've seen a lot of startling, beautiful surprises at Olbrich Gardens, but this one really took my breath away -- partly a miniature garden, partly an interactive sculpture, and partly an optical toy. And pure psychedelic magic.

Garden KaleidoscopeWhen I first spotted it right outside the visitors' center, I wasn't sure what it was. A bowl with plants in it was mounted in the center of an oxidized steel frame. There were a couple of what seemed to be telescope eyepieces attached. It was completely disorienting, and for a moment I thought, "Oh, a telescope for plants." Which made no sense.

Garden Kaleidoscope Top Eyepiece with InstructionsThen I saw the small sign reading "Garden Kaleidoscope by Robert Anderson." One look through the eyepiece, and everything made sense. My field of vision exploded into a kaleidoscopic pattern of forms and colors that endlessly shifted as I gave the bowl containing the garden a spin. I wondered if I could shoot through the eyepiece by pressing my camera up against it. As I kept my eye the LCD screen, I was amazed by how well the flat top of the eyepiece lined up with my camera. The photo above is the result. (Note how you can pick out the multiple reflections of the bench in the image taken through the eyepiece.)

But that was just the beginning. When I read the instructions more closely, I realized that it wasn't just the eyepiece that turned. So did the bowl containing the mini garden. A quick spin of the finger set the bowl revolving silently and gracefully. The swirls in the eyepiece became even more incredible, an endless, flowing metamorphosis of shapes and hues. The photo doesn't really do it justice. It wasn't so much a view through a kaleidoscope as a look at the tempestuous surface of the sun during a major solar storm.

I wondered who Robert Anderson was, and I wanted to know more about the garden kaleidoscope. Was this a one-off, or had he made others? The staffer I asked did not know, and there was no literature about Anderson's creation. But I found an article on the web in Door County Magazine from a couple years ago that answered my questions.
Singer Lionel Richie has one. So does the Green Bay Botanical Garden, Lands' End Co. and a New York penthouse resident. Garden kaleidoscopes by Robert C. Anderson of Sturgeon Bay stand on private properties and in a growing number of public places nationwide. The sculptor also creates tables, outdoor furniture and wacky inflated pieces - all from steel.

He left a good job as a maintenance engineer in Sacramento, Calif., in 1996 after selling hoards of art at a juried show in Madison. More recently, his wife, Ann, left her job as a human resources manager for 20 years to join her husband in the business. After real estate hunting on the Internet in 2003, the couple landed in Door County, closer to where Anderson grew up in Stoughton, Wis.
Click here to read the whole article. I like what Anderson says about how people perceive his sculptures.
The kaleidoscopes are just fun, and they get people talking. People will share with each other in a public space, and that is nice. They give two strangers something to talk about. But a lot of times, we think we know what things are. People see the kaleidoscopes and they say, "Oh telescopes," and keep walking. So they miss an experience that may be fun for them. They think they know everything. Don't trust your eyes so much. Use two senses: your eyes and touch it. Ask questions. And life's a lot more satisfying that way.
I've put these and some additional pictures in a set on Flickr. Clicking on any of the photos will take you there, or you can click here for an overview of the complete set.

UPDATE: Chris Norris mentions in the comments that he posted a shot of the kaleidoscope at Olbrich on Flickr last fall. He's one of the intriguing photographers whose work I follow in the Madison Flickr Group. He uses the screen name "thechrisproject." He also has a cool photo website.

My question is, where were they hiding the garden kaleidoscope? I never saw it before the other day, but it must have been out there somewhere. Or maybe I'm just blind -- a blind photographer.


thechrisproject said...

Wow, that's a great wealth of information about the Olbrich kaleidoscope. One of the first pictures I put on Flickr was of that kaleidoscope. I like your shots a lot.

Madison Guy said...

Chris, thanks. See above. Was it in the same location last fall?