You never know what kind of offer will turn up in an email. For Christine Hobart, executor director of McKee Botanical Gardens in Vero Beach, one she received earlier this year suggested a possible exhibit for featuring welded scrap metal sculptures of African animals.
After thinking about the offer, Hobart agreed to host the playful exhibition featuring 24 beautiful sculptures hand-crafted specifically for McKee that opened Nov. 4. Nestled among the towering palm trees is a 16-foot giraffe foraging silently on the leaves high above in the jungle canopy. Two playful and mischievous young elephants prove that big hearts come in small packages, while the matriarch elephant is nearby watching them closely.
Back in the day animals roamed the 80 acres of tropical hammock and engaged with visitors wandering the lush jungle trails. It was one of the most popular pre-Disney Florida attraction.
"It really did seem like a perfect fit for us because of our history,” Hobart says. "Back then there was an elephant, monkeys, two chimpanzees and even a bear. It drew thousands of visitors each year until it closed in 1976."
The group of 19 African artists are part of the Ark Collective that is represented by Wildlife Garden Creations, located in Nairobi, Kenya. They used reclaimed materials discarded from the car industry and other sources. Ranging in age from 22 to 42 years old, most of the artists come from the Luo community and are known for their metal works, while others are from the Kamba community known for their carving skills.
"We've leased the sculptures for three to six months with the option to purchase several of the pieces," said Hobart. "What has impressed me is the detail. They look like they're in their natural habitat. How lifelike they are. They fit right into our landscape."
Elsewhere in the Garden, a 5 ½-foot gorilla (its hair are actually long nails) crouches in the underbrush pondering her surroundings as she watches her human companions pass by her hiding place along the Main Jungle Trail. Perhaps she’s looking out for the charging rhinoceros preparing to rush past. Sculpted at 7-foot tall and 13 feet long, he is fierce looking with his detailed armor and remarkable horn.
Meanwhile, a magnificent hippopotamus, sculpted life size at 5-foot tall and 9-foot long, basks beside a pond. Other animals hiding along the Garden pathways are a lion and lioness, zebra, crocodiles, owls, peacocks, cranes and an eagle preparing to spread his wings and fly.
"What has struck me with the children I've seen coming to the exhibition is the element of surprise," Hobart says. "As they navigate through the Garden the expression of surprise on their faces when they discover the next sculpture."
The African sculpture exhibit continues through April 29, 2018.
Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday, noon–5 p.m., and closed Monday. Admission is $12 for adults, $11 seniors, $8 children ages 3-12. McKee members and children under 3 are admitted free.
McKee Botanical Garden is located at 350 US Highway 1, Vero Beach. For more information call (772) 794-0601 or visit www.mckeegarden.org.