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3,000-pound “wonderarium” could float on Oakland’s Lake Merritt

By Kelsey Williams | 26 Oct 2010

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Oakland artists Yvette Molina and Sarah Filley showed off their Wonderarium prototype at Lake Merritt in May. (Photo: Lydia Gonzales)

In the Bay Area, you don’t have to go far to find beautiful plants near sparkling waters. But, two Oakland artists have a more creative vision. They hope to showcase plants on water – with a giant terrarium that will float atop Lake Merritt.

The “Wonderarium,” a 3,000-pound, 8-foot acrylic sphere, is the dream of  Yvette Molina, 38, and Sarah Filley, 39. They plan to construct it, fill it with an exotic array of brightly colored plants, light it with LED lights, and mount it on a floating platform. The target date for completion is in 2012, and the artists believe their project will appear to hover magically above the lake.

Molina and Filley, both Oakland natives, dreamed up the idea in October 2009. Molina had just finished a series of botanically themed paintings on aluminum rounds, and Filley had been working on various projects emphasizing the environment, technology, and civic engagement. Inspired by Oakland’s efforts to rejuvenate Lake Merritt, they decided to combine forces and create “something on a grand scale as an expression of civic pride,” Filley says — part science project, part art installation, and part community activism.

As with any good science project, this one posed serious puzzles. The first: what plants could survive the extreme conditions (including heat, lack of shade and constant moisture) that a giant terrarium in the center of a lake would endure? For guidance, the pair sought out Chris Carmichael, associate director of collections and horticulture at the University of California, Berkeley Botanical Gardens.  Intrigued by the puzzle, Carmichael suggested options including Blue Mediterranean Fan Palm for the upper canopy, exotic carnivorous plants for the moist areas around the edge of the sphere, and succulents, small drought resistant plants, known to weather most extremes.

“What caught my attention,” he recalls, “was their interest in using a creative format to introduce concepts of ecology and eco-systems to a wide audience.”   Based on Carmichael’s suggestions, Molina and Filley began to construct prototypes to test the plants’ survival rates.

In May, Molina and Fillley built an 18-inch prototype of the Wonderarium and filled it with emerald green Norfolk pine, blue carpet sedum, and jade plant. They mounted it on wheels, then they took it for a walk along the shore of Lake Merritt, drawing a crowd of curious passersby. They have since built 24 inch and 27 inch prototypes, and are currently raising funds to build the first incarnation of the giant terrarium.

Meanwhile, the artists tackled logistical challenges; constructing a 3,000 pound terrarium on public property would require city consent and community support. Fortunately in 2002, the city of Oakland had passed an urban renewal measure dedicated to restoring Lake Merritt, which offered incentives promoting public art. The measure boosted the possibility that Molina and Filley could obtain the permits and city support they’d need. To solidify public support, however, Molina and Filley set in motion a grassroots campaign to engage both city leaders and local sponsors.

Surprisingly, the project soon found its greatest support  not from civic government or artistic patrons, but from local “sciences, education, and more publically oriented groups,” explains Anuradha Vikram, curator of the Worth Ryder Gallery at UC Berkeley. For instance, the UC Botanical Gardens, traditionally focused on science, have recently sought to collaborate with the arts in order to connect with more community members.

In turn, Molina and Filley have focused much of their outreach on scientific institutes and educational events.  To this end, they have catered to dedicated set of supporters who had embraced the Wonderarium concept from the start: children. To encourage and build children’s interest in the project, the pair taught a carnivorous terrarium-building workshop at the UC Botanical Gardens, participated in the East Bay Mini Maker fair on Oct. 24, and are now brainstorming ideas for classroom visits, planned for the fall of 2011.  Meanwhile, for the child in everyone, they created the carnival-like “mobile plant ambassador + succulent circus,” an ice-cream cart with a 24-inch Wonderarium prototype affixed to the front.  They’ve circulated the cart at evening events aimed at adults, including AfterDark at the Exploratorium and Nightlife: Parklife at the California Academy of Sciences. From the cart, they pass out succulents in ice cream cups, hoping to garner support for the Wonderarium. “The adults were just as excited as the kids,” Filley says.

While Vikram explains that community outreach is necessary for any grassroots art campaign, Molina and Filley feel that community connection was both an incentive to start the project and the ultimate goal of the Wonderarium.  “My hope,” Molina explains,  “is that this is something that will jar people out of their routine and reconnect them to their love of Lake Merritt.”

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