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Creepy crawlers come to life in sculptor Dave Rogers' exhibit at the Botanical Garden. 

Bugs in the Garden

Sitting here slapping mosquitoes buzzing in my ears on an otherwise perfect warm fall afternoon, I am reminded how much I hate bugs. Bugs sting, annoy, draw blood and pockmark broccoli. Look at their mouthparts under a magnifying glass and try to suppress a shudder. Ugh.

New York sculptor Dave Rogers would beg to disagree. In a special exhibit of 14 sculptures at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden through Dec. 31, Rogers has glorified the bug. In a "Big Bugs" kind of way. His 20-to-30-foot sculptures of earwigs, grasshoppers, ladybugs and other winged and crawling creatures are crafted out of the most exquisite amber woods of cedar and locust. They are absolutely stunning and ... well ... beautiful. Already the show has awed visitors to the Epcot Center in Florida, Callaway Garden in Georgia, the Chicago Botanic Garden and the New York Botanical Garden.

The praying mantis in front of the newly opened E. Claiborne Robins Visitors Center at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden stares at you from two polished black locust eyes nearly 20 feet from the ground. With its ultrathin body and legs made out of highly polished and resined wood, it makes clear the influence of Rogers' ship-building days. The sculpture is transformed into a honey-gold piece of art, using wood to evoke a presence that has warmth, fragility, and grace. It has a simplicity about it, much like the 61/2-foot-long ground beetle and the 7 1/2-foot-long earwig serenely settled in amongst liriope and holly in the garden.

Rogers takes a simplistic approach to his bug sculptures, alluding to their essence by using the deep ochre tints in a piece of red cedar to accentuate the eye and tail segments of a damselfly perched on a piece of carved wood in the island garden, or the grain in black walnut to evoke the cracked lines in the ground beetle's scales.

When Rogers began creating giant sculptures out of wood in 1991, the 39-year-old remembers crafting the "perfect" dinosaur out of a downed maple on a cousin's farm. "I made these huge rows of teeth," he says. "Then I pulled them all out. Minimal is best, as a suggestion of what's there."

The media went wild over "Goliath." H&G featured his work in a issue, then CNN, Charles Kuralt, The New York Times, and all the major networks aired pieces on Rogers and his art. But it wasn't until three years later that his big bugs materialized.

The Dallas Botanical Garden was looking for an exhibit to bring people to the garden during the winter months. Rogers, with a lifelong fascination with insects, immediately suggested bugs. "It came to me like a bolt of lightning," he says. "Insects play the most vital role in the garden — they're the aerators, the pollinators — they're the partners in the garden. It seemed like a damned good idea."

Of course, there were a few minor details to be worked out. Says Rogers with a laugh, "I had to ask the obvious question: 'How do you take a half-inch ant and blow it up to 20 feet?'" He solved the problem using children's books as reference, and creating plywood templates of each section. "Then I got up on the roof of my shop and looked down and said, 'Well, is this the right proportion?'"

As one can well imagine, Rogers is not enamored with convention. Having spent most of his adult life at various occupations, from creating bentwood furniture to boat building, to ski patrolling and performing magic, Rogers lives the truth that adaptation, be it in bugs or in humans, is the key to creation.

Although the show was originally designed to be built on-site, Rogers was forced to switch gears and redesign the sculptures into modular form to take them on the road. This "ultimate engineering challenge" intrigued Rogers, who designed a way to marry steel to plywood with a series of steel tongues. So, though much of each sculpture is solid wood, the removable and fragile pieces, such as antennae and legs, are reinforced with steel. As a result, each ant weighs 700 pounds. An 11-foot grasshopper of black locust weighs 200 pounds.

Rogers uses a chainsaw, a huge sanding machine, and a die grinder nearly exclusively to create his work — hand tools are pretty much out of the question. "A chisel is too literal for me," he says. "It's diving too deep for a sculpture that big."

When it's all over, Rogers has worked his magic. Suspended dramatically over the lake framed by the garden's Robins Tea House, a 17-foot-long dragonfly of willow with red cedar wings rises over the water, reflecting the afternoon sun. This is form sublimated into art. It's the essence of nature—something we're often too busy scratching our bug bites to
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