Exhibit of hands-on sculptures at Missouri Botanical Garden

Crina, 10, and her 7-year-old sister, Camille, knew exactly what to do when they spotted the huge, colorful, recumbent dragon near a pathway at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.

They were all over that statue by French sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle, whose works are displayed throughout the grounds of the St. Louis gardens this summer.

Christine Krueger of Webster Grove, mother of Crina and Camille, said she brings her girls frequently to the gardens to see what's new and to revisit favorite spots like the koi pond in the Japanese Garden, where children can feed the fish and the ducks that crowd in for handouts. Krueger said she and the girls like the Niki exhibit, which will be on the grounds through October, because it's hands-on art that children can actively enjoy.

"It's very interesting and very fun," Crina said.

Added Camille: "It's nice because you can climb on it."

St. Louis resident Morris Coller, who spends almost every weekend photographing favorite spots at the gardens, said the 79-acre site is a good family destination because there's plenty for both adults and children to see, and visitors can cover it in a day.

"January's the only month it's not good to come here," Coller said. "But from then through December, there's always something new to see."

Coller said he has taken pictures of all 40 of the Niki oversized mosaic statues, and he also recommended on-ground glass statues by the artist Dale Chihuly, subject of another art exhibit in 2006, as an attraction. He said garden supporters purchased several Chihuly works, including a blue column hanging from the ceiling in the Visitors Center, the "onions" floating in a pool near a rose garden and sunbursts topping gates in another garden for the permanent collection.

Lynn Kerkemeyer, special exhibits marketing manager, said the Niki exhibit was a natural for Mobot, as frequent visitors call the gardens, because her work is so accessible.

"It's art that has very broad appeal, and it can be in an outdoor setting," Kerkemeyer said. "Art has always been a part of our gardens, but not all fine art can be outdoors."

She said she started working out exhibit details in March 2007, but the sculptures were scheduled to go to a show in Chicago first. The contract was finally signed last September for the St. Louis show.

"The installation went very smoothly," Kerkemeyer said. "It took two weeks working with seven people. We used the same installers Chicago used, so they had worked with the art before. We had a huge crane, and they were fabulous, threading guide wires for some statues through the branches of trees."

The statues are made of molded polyester and some have steel infrastructures; the lightest weigh about 100 pounds, but most weigh 500 pounds up to several tons, she said.

"We have 39 installations and 43 individual sculptures," Kerkemeyer said. "We've seen that touchable, interactive art is appealing to the public. Most art is hands-off, so that tactile feature is appreciated. We've seen autistic children reacting to the statues outside their typical behavior.

"Blind children can experience these statues."

She said there's no debate about which statue is most popular with the visiting children.

"It's 'La Cabeza,' a skull," she said. "A couple of adults were dumfounded that we'd put a scary skull in the garden, but the kids love it. None of them are afraid of it, and it looks friendly to me."

Kerkemeyer's personal favorite statue is "Nana on a Dolphin" installed in one of the fountains in the gardens.

"The Nanas are her most iconic images," she said. "She really wanted to celebrate women and their vitality, so there's a feminist angle to that. She went to Sea World and loved the women trainers, the dolphins and the whales.

The dolphin statue is one of many Nana statues spread throughout the grounds.

Kristin Sanders of St. Louis watched her sons splash in the pool near the dolphin statue. She said she brought her parents, visiting from Florida, and her sister's family, visiting from Houston, to Mobot because it's a favorite outing. "We wanted to see the Niki exhibit," she said. "It's so fun and colorful. The kids like to check out the fountains – and run through them – and they like to feed the koi and run through the maze at Shaw's house."

"We love all this stuff," said Teddy Sanders, age 9.

"We visit the botanical garden at Houston, but I don't think it's as good as this one," said Sarah Roemler, Sanders' sister.

Kerkemeyer said Niki's art, which included a lot of work with fiber, eventually caused her death in 2002 of lung-related illness. She has a theory about the creation of "La Cabeza" linked to that fact.

"It made a frightening subject approachable ,so she could embrace and accept her coming death as another aspect of life," she said. "It's very powerful. The skull has a meditation room inside with silver stars and moons and celestial bodies. I think she wants people to think about life and death."

Coller, of St. Louis, a member of the gardens for 40 years, said the plantings and the art exhibits there are a huge asset to the city of St. Louis because they draw visitors from all over the world.

"Henry Shaw knew what he was doing when he gave the gardens to the city," he said.

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