Coral Gables, Florida -- If you've ever doubted that Mother Nature is the inspiration for striking art, you'll be convinced at Fairchild Garden, where you see the natural beauty and Dale Chihuly's glass creations side by side.
I've visited the garden, near Miami, before and have always been impressed by its lushness and the variety of tropical plants covering acres of land and water. The dozens of varieties of palm trees alone are worth a visit, while the hothouses full of orchids and other rarer, brilliantly coloured plants are an artist's dream.
It seems strange to segue from Fairchild to glass sculptor Chihuly's work. In fact, much as I admire the craft involved in his creations, the individual pieces I've seen at a gallery in Toronto's Distillery District are bizarre and unsettling rather than attractive.
But put his work in a garden setting and you have imagistic magic. Running until the end of May at Fairchild, the Chihuly exhibit includes hundreds of pieces of sculpture, large and small. On site, his glasswork becomes impressively organic. And it's cleverly integrated into the garden itself in such a way that its form and colour either echoes or contrasts with the natural greenery.
In fact, "greenery" isn't always the right term. The tropical plants are sometimes red, orange or yellow rather than green, and the shapes and tones of the sculptures look like extensions of what's growing in the soil.
You're captivated as soon as you enter Fairchild and see a 15-foot-tall piece called Citron Green And Red Tower, made up of variously coloured tentacles snaking out of an invisible central base. I don't want to think about the possibility of breakage when workers install such seemingly delicate pieces.
Nearby is the Carnival Boat, an old rowboat floating in one of the garden's several ponds, filled with dozens of differently shaped and coloured sculptures. Round shapes contrast with curlicues that zigzag in all directions.
Not everything works. A tower made up of pink crystals seems tame, and some pale blue pieces floating in another pond resemble nothing so much as balloons losing their air.
But these are outnumbered by dozens of jaw-dropping installations, including several multicoloured globes floating on the Amazonica pool, home to lily pads big and small. The largest of these are speckled with browns and greens, and the iridescent shimmer of the Chihuly globes on a sunny day provides a spectacular reflection of the their colours and shapes.
At times it's hard, at a distance, to tell the plant from the sculpture until you catch the sheen of sunlight on the latter. Red and amber shoots protrude in the middle of a desert area of cacti and other plants, while in the garden's rainforest, bulblike or open-flower shapes rear up in supernatural beauty. Hanging from an old oak, a huge yellow-green object resembles a giant hornets' nest made from pale, tapering needles of glass.
The interplay of glass and plant moves to another level on Thursday nights, when the installations are lit dramatically.
In the tropical fruit pavilion, for instance, three similar tentacle-like pieces hanging high up acquire a new presence when you see them as purple, green and red shapes throwing their reflective colours on the plants and clear glass walls beneath them.