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Creeping crawling critters

A 15-foot praying mantis has taken up residency in Claremont’s Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG).

Luckily for residents it’s inanimate.

The bug traveled over 340 miles to land at the local botanic garden Tuesday as a teaser for artist David Rogers’ Big Bugs Tour, an exhibit of giant insects that will be scattered about RSABG starting next Saturday, February 25.

RSABG’s latest attraction, which will be on display through July 15, looks to familiarize its visitors with its landscape’s “hidden gardeners”.

“It provides a window into the natural world that can get people excited,” said Eric Garton, RSABG’s director of visitor services. “It gives us the opportunity to present [an exhibit] that is very visual and attracts audiences in alignment with our mission of ecology and preservation. Having [the bugs] at a large scale invites people to ask more questions and be more observant of the natural world around them.”

In its 18th year traveling to botanic gardens across the country, the display reverses the role of dimension and perception by taking common garden creatures and recreating them on a large scale. For Mr. Rogers, the effect allows viewers a fascinating in-depth look at those tiny critters that are often viewed in a negative light, eliciting an “ew!” or occasional scream.

“From the time we are young we are told, ‘don’t go near that spider’ and are instilled with fear,” Mr. Rogers said. “But these ‘hidden gardeners’ play an essential role. They are our pollinators. We would be in a lot of trouble without them.”

Ten towering sculptures—including the praying mantis currently located in the wildflower meadow—will be placed throughout the entirety of the garden’s 86 acres. Joining the praying mantis next week will be 3 10-foot ants, a dragonfly with a 17-foot wingspan, a spider and its web, a ladybug, grasshopper, damsel fly, and an 11-foot assassin bug.

Each has been crafted and re-invented over the years, using all-natural materials: whole trees, saplings and other forest findings.

Mr. Garton looks forward to the exhibit’s soft opening next weekend after waiting and preparing to bring the bugs to Claremont for the past 3 years.

“[Mr. Rogers] has exhibits booked several years in advance and we knew we had some other [projects] in the works as well. We knew the exhibit would attract a lot of people and we needed to be ready for that,” Mr. Garton said.

The goal is to inspire a new generation of garden-goers, according to both Mr. Garton and Mr. Rogers.

“It is attracting an audience that would have not otherwise come to our garden,” Mr. Garton said. “We ultimately hope it will get younger parents’ and kids’ interest peaked so that they are inspired to keep coming back.”

For Mr. Garton the lengthy tour’s track record speaks for itself, Big Bugs is still a strong pull for visitors nearly a decade after its inception.

A hands-on work ethic instilled in him through his family’s auto business in Long Island, New York, Mr. Rogers claims he always had an affinity for creativity and construction.

“As a kid I was always up in a tree with a hammer and nails in my mouth building things,” he said.

At age 13 he transformed that forte into welding, using salvaged car parts and other scrap materials. Ironically one of his first creations was a miniature steel-framed dragonfly. He continued to create sculptures out of wood, something he also enjoyed throughout his childhood.

Originally making a name for himself with a display of wooden dinosaurs and dragons at Dallas Arboretum, he soon traded ancient and magical creatures for creeping crawlers.

“They said dinosaurs are cool, but what else you got?” said Mr. Rogers, who looked to old insect sculpture designs for inspiration. “I did 10 bugs in 7 months for the first show.”

That first exhibit opened in 1994 and the show has not slowed down since. In helping to further botanic gardens mission statements and popularity, Mr. Rogers’ artistry helped him stumble into his life calling.

“All of these gardens are here to teach about preserving and protecting the natural world, and there is nothing more important than that,” Mr. Rogers said. “In my own way I am getting to help them achieve that goal. After all these years I have finally found my place.”

For more information about Big Bugs or other RSABG exhibits visit www.rsabg.org, or call 625-8767. Background on the artist and exhibit itself can be viewed at www.big-bugs.com.

—Beth Hartnett

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