Article by Ashley Ashburn
Leafy green vegetation covers the surface of the steel mesh, thriving in the sunlight as people stop to take pictures with the giant topiary-like figures. Knights, card soldiers, and a mysterious doorway adorn a black and white chess set the size of a living room as part of the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s new exhibit Imaginary Worlds: Alice’s Wonderland. The exhibit, which opened in May 2019, includes over a dozen giant topiary-like structures of fantasy creatures and characters. Emily Saccenti, the exhibition manager for ABG, refers to the structures as “mosaiculture,” an art form similar to topiary but not quite the same.
“Mosaiculture was first done by a company called Mosaiculture Montreal International,” says Saccenti. “Instead of taking one plant and pruning it to look like an animal like topiary, they take metal and steel mesh and make these frames. Then the frames are filled with dirt and plants so that more than one kind of plant can grow on one piece.”
Saccenti first started working at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens about two years ago. Previously, she had worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as an exhibit manager until moving to Atlanta with her husband. While plants might not be the same as paintings, Saccenti says that there are some similarities between her old job and new.
“I come from a traditional art museum background, so there was definitely a steep learning curve,” Said Saccenti. “One of the things that have been important for both jobs is problem-solving. You can plan forever and still have problems.”
When it comes to differences, Seccenti says that there are plenty of those as well.
“It’s easier in some ways,” says Saccenti. “It’s a lot less restrictive. However, it also has other challenges like working with the weather, outdoor environment, and sheer size of the exhibits. For the dragon and white rabbit, they took up two tractor-trailers each. Some parts were too big to put together before transporting, so they were assembled here.”
The centerpiece for the Alice exhibit at the Botanical Gardens is a 27 ft tall white rabbit resting in an upturned umbrella in the middle of the fountain. Some of the other mosaiculture pieces share the white rabbit’s massive size, including three camels, a dragon and mother earth, who became a permanent addition to the garden after the tumultuous response from garden guests.
In addition to the work put into constructing them, the exhibit requires a large amount of upkeep. Just for the Alice portion of the exhibit alone, there are four full-time staff members dedicated to the watering, trimming and general caretaking of the Mosaicultures. The giant creatures tower above the garden guests as they stop for photos.
“You can tell where the good photo spots are by the grass,” says Saccenti with a smile. “If you look, you see it’s all flat and worn down.”
After the opening of the exhibition in May, the gardens saw an increase in attendance. Saccenti says that she expects that attendance to rise again near the end of the exhibit in October because of Halloween. While Saccenti herself hasn’t seen any real-life Alice characters wandering around the garden, she says that she has heard about a few from co-workers, some being little kids with their families while others were cosplaying taking advantage of the Wonderland setting so close to home.
The Atlanta Botanical Gardens is not the only place Alice fans can go to feel like they’re part of the movie. Another destination reminiscent of the Lewis Carroll story is Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party. Located about 20 minutes away from the Botanical Gardens, Dr. Bombay’s offers different teas, scones, pastries and drinks that allows guests to feel as if they’ve stepped into the pages of Lewis Carroll’s famous tale. Patrick Dunlea, the manager at Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party, says that while many younger guests come dressed like princesses for high tea, one instance from around 5 or 6 years ago comes to mind when he thinks of Alice in Wonderland.
“A group came in dressed as the characters from Alice in Wonderland,” recalls Dunlea. “They brought their own table decorations and stayed in character for most of the time they were here. They seemed determined to recreate the tea party scene from the movies.”
Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party offers an array of options from high tea, which takes place at 4 o’clock from Monday to Friday and three times a day on the weekend, to a simple pot of tea with a few scones. The feel of the restaurant is distinctly “kitschy,” as described by Dunlea, given the fact that all the linen and dishes are bought from garage sales, thrift stores and occasionally antique shops. In some sense, each teacup and saucer are unique. Truly a tea shop worthy of a mad hatter.
“We’re not serving the queen’s high tea here,” says Dunlea. “Our goal is that you should leave here having fun.”
Georgia resident Madison Woodard decided to do just that when she visited the Atlanta Botanical Gardens a few days before her birthday to see the new Alice’s Wonderland exhibit. A fan of elaborate birthday parties, Woodard gazed up at the mosaiculture pieces with interest.
“If I was going to plan an Alice in Wonderland themed birthday party, I would have everyone dress up as one of the characters from the Disney movies and come to the botanical gardens to take pictures,” says Woodard. “Then, we would go shopping at the Disney store and have high tea at a tea shop nearby, probably Mary Mac’s or Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party since they’re nearby. That seems like the perfect Alice birthday party for me.”
Given a standing ovation the Imaginary Worlds exhibit has received, it’s very likely that it will be making another comeback in the near future, possibly with new themes pieces.
“There’s already talk about what the exhibit is going to be like next year,” says Saccenti. “A lot of people are saying they want dinosaurs. Personally, I think giant flowers would be nice. Flowers made out of other flowers- It could be something.”