NUTS ABOUT SQUIRRELS: Airlie Gardens opens latest outdoor exhibit ‘SQUIRRELS!’

Originally published in encore magazine, August 26, 2020

There are still a few activities 2020 and COVID have yet to take away from Wilmingtonians, and one is strolling through Airlie Gardens. Maybe I don’t go often enough, but it just never gets old. Though there aren’t a lot of changes from season to season with the flora and majestic live oaks, the familiar grounds always seem untapped.

It helps to visit with a toddler, of course, as everything is new and beautiful, unique and magical. My daughter, just 2 and a half, reminded me that lasting memories come from Airlie, too. As we walked through the Butterfly House, she asked, with real earnest in her voice, “Where is Ho Ho?” (We last visited during December 2019’s Enchanted Airlie—like I said, maybe we don’t go often enough.)

Airlie’s art installations also add layers of color, adventure and education. It is especially true with its latest “SQUIRRELS!” exhibit, open August 22-November 30. Featuring 10 giant rodents—err, cute, furry creatures—each fiberglass sculpture reflects a vision executed by almost a dozen artists.

“We were looking for something that would be relevant to the garden and also whimsical and fun,”  Airlie’s director of donations Janine Powell says. “Squirrels fit that mold perfectly!”

Like 2018’s “Gnome Invasion” or last year’s “HeART of the Gardens,” each 5-foot squirrel is decorated in a variety of genres and media, including mosaic glass in “Squirrels Just Wanna Have Fun” by returning artist Brooks Koff. Of the 40-50 submissions, returning artists include Jen Schellenberg—whose “Wild Tonti” gnome now lives at the Arboretum—and collaborative duo Kristin McLaughlin and Tara Sall (“Sweet Tooth Gnome”) joined forces again for a carousel inspired squirrel. Recurring artists from 2019’s “HeART of the Gardens” include Laura Kalina and Courtney Kapczynski, whose “Pollinators” heart is seen at the start of the tour.

Added to this year’s outdoor scavenger hunt are little nuggets of info about squirrels. Did you know that tree, ground and flying squirrels are part of the Sciuridae family? How about that Fox Squirrels are the largest in North Carolina at about 3-feet long? (Whaaaat?)

“We wanted to add an educational aspect to the exhibit, and this was a fun way to do it,” Powell tells. “[A favorite is] that Brevard, NC’s famous white squirrels allegedly originated from a carnival truck that overturned. These rare squirrels are actually eastern grey squirrels with a mutation in their genes that makes their coats white. Brevard, NC holds an annual festival in celebration of them!”

“[W]hat surprised me was the fact posted next to my squirrel [‘Acorn Defender’],” artist Laura Kalina adds. “It stated the sizes of the largest and smallest squirrel species. The smallest species is only 5.5 inches! Crazy!”

Kalina’s “Acorn Defender” goes by the name Sir Reginald, and guards the Minnie Evans Bottle Chapel from those who would take from his nutty cache—like a purple dragon, who peeps its head through Reginald’s bushy tail.

“The dragon is friendly but naughty,” Kalina explains. “My piece is called ‘Acorn Defender,’ but the dragon is hiding in the squirrel’s tail with an acorn it stole. Sir Reginald evidently isn’t the best at what he does!” [laughs]

To make the dragon, Kalina dabbled in using a moldable clay-like substance, Apoxie Sculpt, for the first time.  Originally, a photographer from Northern Virginia, most of Kalina’s work has revolved around wildlife conservation. She moved to Wilmington in 2017.

“I tell people all the time that moving to Wilmington was the best thing for my artistic career,” she notes. “The arts community is so unbelievably welcoming here and I am proud to be a part of it!”

Now, her woodburning artwork is the focal point of her Mossy Fox Studio at The ArtWorks in the South Front District. “These days I do a lot of custom woodburned pet portraits, which I adore,” she says. “I still try to create pieces that instill a sense of wonder about animals. I am hoping soon to create pieces to auction off for conservation-based nonprofits. I love talking to people at shows where I am selling my pieces, and you can always strike up a conversation about animals with me!”

When Airlie Gardens called for artist applications for “SQUIRRELS,” Kalina knew her theme. “Literally the first thought that came to my head was, I want to give one a suit of armor!” she says. “There wasn’t any deep meaning behind it, unlike the heart I designed for them last year [for ‘HeART of the Gardens.’] This was just a fun and whimsical idea I knew I would enjoy working on. I didn’t know it was going to be placed at the Bottle Chapel until later, but I am so proud he now gets to stand guard there!”

While Sir Reginald and his dragon are last on the exhibit trail, they are preceded by nine other friends. Upon entering the grounds, Sara Toothman’s “Uptown Squirrel” (named for Bill the squirrel’s fondness of “Uptown Girl”) greets visitors. Evelyn Fischer’s “Mutts Gone Nuts!” honors furry friends who love to bark at and chase away squirrels.

“‘Sciurus Noctis’ by Jen Schellenberg is a personal favorite,” Kalina offers. “I love outer space and seeing her ‘squirrely’ interpretation of it was so fun!”

“What we love about this exhibit is that each piece is so different,” Powell adds, “which is part of the reason each artist was selected. I know this sounds cliché, but we really do not have a favorite piece. Each squirrel is so unique; they all hold a special place in our hearts. I enjoy asking guests which piece was their favorite— it’s so much fun to hear the variety of answers!”

Despite COVID, Powells says Airlie has actually seen an increase in attendance; remaining open since May, the outdoor gardens remain a safe space for people to go. “We ask that all guests pre-purchase tickets online and wear masks while they are in the building,” she clarifies. “Masks are not required while walking the grounds, however, we do ask guests practice safe social distancing while touring the gardens.”

All pieces from “SQUIRRELS!” will be available for purchase via an online auction, date to come.

Airlie Gardens, 300 Airlie Rd.
Open daily, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. (Last admission 4:30 p.m.)
Adults, $9; NHC residents and military (ID required),$5l Children, 4-12, $3; Under 4, free

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