Sculpture in the Garden’s 34th Turn at N.C. Botanical Garden

The North Carolina Botanical Garden sign wall, above which is this year's statement statue, Share This World by Mike Roig. Inset photos from left to right: swamp sunflowers, fall leaves, Helen Seebold's MidSummer Bluebird and Hearts-a-Bustin' blooms. Photos and photo collage by Pamir Kiciman.


By Pamir Kiciman

The North Carolina Botanical Garden is currently hosting its annual Sculpture in the Garden exhibit. Now in its 34th year, it is on display until December 4.

In an email to The Local Reporter (TLR), Communications & Exhibits Coordinator Emily Oglesby said, “Sculpture in the Garden began in 1988, when assistant director Ken Moore and his wife, artist Kathy Buck, brought the work of 22 local artists to the Garden.”

This year’s exhibit began on September 18 and, as usual spans the seasons of late summer, fall and winter. This is significant because the Garden changes with the weather—and so too does the visitors’ experience.

“Displaying sculptures in a garden, especially over a period of several months, makes for an ever-changing exhibit,” said Oglesby.

“Now, in mid-October, entirely different plants are blooming than when the exhibit opened a month ago. Leaves change color, and those colors then interact with the sculptures. By the end of the show in December, the landscape is much more open and barer than the lush summer greenery that ushered it in.” she added.

If you visit soon, you are likely to encounter not only some leaves turning, but also swamp sunflowers in dazzling yellow and the tiny yet eye-catching Hearts-a-Bustin’, or strawberry bush (Euonymus americanus).

At its core, Sculpture in the Garden is an invitation “to experience art, the natural world, and the relationship between the two in a new way,” according to the exhibit’s webpage.

Left: Wrestling Match by Judith Simpson (with fallen stalk). Top right: Stacey Wright’s Judgement. Bottom right: HANDS OFF by Anna Schroeder (inspired by Japanese yokai, depicted as a headless person with a face as their torso, said to represent someone who should be ashamed). Photos and photo collage by Pamir Kiciman.

N.C. Botanical Gardens is operated by University of North Caolina-Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) with the purpose of being a conservation garden.

“Placing sculptures in a garden — especially a native plant display garden like ours — presents more complications than dropping them off on a grassy lawn in a more typical sculpture park,” Oglesby said.

“Every garden bed is a sensitive site; even if a spot looks relatively open, it might be home to dormant spring ephemeral wildflowers. Stepping in the garden beds, even just to install a work, can compress the soil and damage the plants and microbes.”

Artists can submit up to two original pieces to the exhibit each year, as long as it hasn’t been previously shown in the Garden. Other criteria include the ability to withstand pressure from wind, rain and freezes, as well as the ability to stand freely or anchored in soil or grit.

“We ask artists to provide photos, dimensions, and an artist’s statement about their submissions. We then review those entries with respect to our mission and eligibility criteria,” said Oglesby.

When it comes to how the sculptures are placed in the display gardens, a task Oglesby oversees, great care must be taken. “Siting within the Garden is a complicated process. It involves a lot of input from our horticulture staff and from the artists,” she said.

“Many parts of the Garden can’t accommodate a large or heavy sculpture. Transportation is also a concern: some larger sculptures can’t travel far from the parking lot.”

Top: Lava Zen 1 and 2 by Frank Holder (made from and sanded down with lava). Bottom right: Everyone by Karen Ives (“I thought about colors and the infinite shades they make in nature ….”) Bottom left: Emergent Phenomena by RJ Dobs (This piece “is part of an ongoing series exploring the twists and turns of species evolution.”) Photos and photo collage by Pamir Kiciman.

Sculpture in the Garden aims to create a show with broad-based appeal and access. “Our goal is not to curate a set of sculptures that will appeal to one particular set of aesthetic values. Instead, we hope to serve as a venue where the work of local artists can interact with nature,” Oglesby said.

The interaction with nature changes both the sculptures and the flora in the Garden. Sculpture is a spatial art form. Gardens are also “spaces.” The juxtaposition of the two has an alchemical effect. Both garden and sculpture are transformed.

Oglesby observes that “Unlike the comparatively static background of an indoor gallery, the backdrop of our native plant display gardens shifts with the weather, the light, and the seasons.”

Video of Douglas Tilden’s Black Swan. (“A black swan is an unpredictable event … and has potentially severe consequences …. Of late there have been a few.”) Video by Pamir Kiciman.

This adds a randomness to the visitors’ experiences of both the Garden and the artworks on display. This writer had a visceral experience of this with Judith Simpson’s Wrestling Match, which had a dried stalk from the surrounding bush fallen on it. Not wanting to photograph it because of this led to embracing the moment and making a wonderful photo.

One of the criteria for the show is that each piece is accompanied by an interpretative statement by the artist, and the statements are prominently displayed on signs. As Oglesby said, “The statements from the artists add a new dimension to the show.”

The work of two artists in particular were striking in their contemporary statements and sculptures. The first, Judgement by Stacey Wright, in part reads: “‘Stop messing with my planet! My body, my choice! Why do guns matter more than me?”

The second, HANDS OFF by Anna Schroeder, in part reads: “HANDS OFF is an expression of the rage and frustration felt by all those whose control over their own bodies is taken away through cultural shaming, systemic biases, and litigation.”

One of the sculptures is placed behind the sign wall of the Garden as a statement sculpture, visible from Fordham Boulevard (US HWY 15/501). This year, Carrboro’s Mike Roig brought a huge crane to place his Share This World there, according to Oglesby.

Hamidou Sissoko’s Grandpa’s Garden, which was awarded Best in Show. (“This piece celebrates my father-in-law, who turns 90 this year. He had a large flower garden that attracted pollinators and other insects.”) Photo by Pamir Kiciman.

The show also awards a Best in Show and several Honorable Mentions, decided by jurists who are local artists but otherwise unassociated with the exhibit. There’s also a People’s Choice Awards voted for by visitors. All three come with monetary rewards.

“We give out a first, second, and third place People’s Choice Award! You can vote once per day (as long as you vote for a different sculpture each time). Voting is open through November 17,” said Oglesby.

This year’s Best in Show was awarded to Hamidou Sissoko for his Grandpa’s Garden. Sissoko is an artist from Mali who lives in Pittsboro, N.C. He began fixing cars, bicycles and simple machines. With a keen eye for reusing scrap metals, he eventually imagined how to make a dinosaur for his son. After that he became serious about making brightly colored outdoor sculptures from discarded metal and machine parts.

The Garden is free to visit during its normal hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. There is a glossy, color-coded and numbered show program available for a self-guided tour. This year’s exhibit boasts 77 installations by 50 artists.

Pamir Kiciman is a writer/poet, artist/artisan, photographer, healer, and meditation teacher. To learn more, visit or contact him by email:

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