Things have really started hopping over at Massachusetts Horticultural Society with the installation of Ribbit the Exhibit, running through Sept. 7 at The Gardens at Elm Bank. Nineteen whimsical 4 – 7 foot copper frog sculptures depicted by North Carolina artist J.A. Cobb have been placed throughout the 36-acre property. There’s Cora the Local Garden Enthusiast in the Bressingham Garden, gleaming metal watering can in hand; Emerson, A Morning Person, relaxing on a bench with a cup of coffee; Edward the Treefrog, perched in a tree, of course; and the rest of the engaging and amusing crew. Each frog comes with a backstory—just look for the nearby signs.
Every large-scale sculpture in the traveling exhibit takes the metalworker up to 4 weeks to complete, and he crafts them one at a time. The work on Ribbit The Exhibit starts in the studio, but it doesn’t end there. Once a public garden books the frogs for an exhibit, Cobb personally delivers the pieces by truck, loading, unpacking, and supervising the installation of each sculpture. Don’t take him to be a micro-manager, though. Cobb leaves it to the staff at each garden to decide where to place his sculptures. Early on he found trying to site each frog perfectly in a garden he didn’t know was a waste of time when there was already a group of people on hand with strong artistic opinions. “The staff already knows these gardens like the back of their hands, and they do a great job with placement. They nail it every time,” he said.
Cobb’s artistic ability lay dormant until he was 42. The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill graduate had majored in business and did not take any art-related classes beyond the most basic UNC requirements. Graduation led to a job in corporate sales, where he worked for 21 years until burnout set in. But from the ashes of burnout came the rays of an epiphany—the artist’s life would be his path forward. Once Cobb traded in his three-piece suits and starched shirts for jeans and a t-shirt, he never glanced back.
What started as an exhausted former exec fiddling around with some clay and copper has led to a vibrant dream career that keeps Cobb in the studio six days a week. He and his wife JoEtta and their rescue pup Charlie live in a small village on the Atlantic Ocean. The waterfront location with its natural habitat for herons, shorebirds, and other coastal creatures provides Cobb with plenty of inspiration. Although his amphibians are pure fantasy, Cobb says, “I hear over and over at gardens ‘it looks like they belong here.'”
“Ribbit the Exhibit has been a massive hit with families this summer” Mass Hort President, James Hearsum said. “There are 19 sculptures altogether and in every area of the Garden, so just finding the complete set is a fun challenge. Each one has a unique personality and shares important information about the garden, the importance of our local ecology and global environmental issues. It is important to visit soon – they are all hopping back home after Labor Day, so don’t delay your garden visit.”
It’s looking like Mass Hort simply can’t do without Cora. The organization has been in talks with Cobb to leave her behind when the exhibit ends. Cobb only has a hard time letting go “…if if I think they won’t be taken good care of. Then I won’t let go of them. But I know Cora will be taken care of.”
Hundreds of his frogs and other creatures have found permanent homes in pubic and private gardens throughout the United States, England, and Canada. “Not only do I do the exhibits,” he says, “but I have yet to be able to turn down a commission. After 25 years, the greatest thing to me is making people happy. If I can work with someone to produce something that makes them happy every single day, then that’s as good as it gets. I’ve got five commissions going right now.”
Cobb’s first large, whimsical frog was patterned after Toad from Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s book, The Wind in the Willows. Other famous figures he’s frog-ified are Degas’ Little Dancer sculpture; ballroom dancing greats Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; Grant Wood’s American Gothic; and more.
Cobb hand draws each sculpture, then cuts out the pieces from 16-ounce flat sheets of copper. After the cut lines are drawn on the copper, he hammers and folds the sheet into the 3-dimensional image he has planned, much like origami. The pieces are then assembled by using a metal-joining process in which two or more pieces are joined together by melting and flowing copper into each joint. This brazing process, along with assembling the pieces around a steel armature, gives the sculptures the strength to last for decades. Cobb says all of his sculptures are built to last and, once completed, require little to no further maintenance.
“My first Ribbit Exhibit show was in 2008,” he says. I was trying to make a living selling sculpture, but in 2008 the economy had tanked. Cape Fear Botanical Garden in Fayetteville had seen some of my sculptures and asked if I could do an exhibit in the garden. I was looking for exposure. They said I should bulk up the size of the show and bring sculptures to other gardens.”
Cobb took that advice and now typically has exhibits going at two gardens at any given time. Some of the gardens his frogs have appeared in are Dow Gardens in Michigan; Reiman Gardens in Iowa; The Morton Arboretum in Illinois; Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina; Harry P. Leu Gardens in Florida; Airlie Gardens in North Carolina; and Mounts Botanical Gardens in Florida.
At 68 years of age, Cobb has no plans to retire. He just enjoys what he does too much to let it all go. His artist’s creed: “Whatever you’re doing, have fun. If it’s not fun, I will quit.”
Ribbit Exhibit is included with daily admission to The Gardens at Elm Bank, 900 Washington Street, Wellesley, MA. $10 for adults, free for ages 12 and under. Free for Massachusetts Horticultural Society members.
More at Mass Hort:
- In September Mass Hort will unveil a “Virtual Reality Contemporary Art Experience” as part of a global consortium of 12 top botanical gardens, led by Jerusalem Botanic Garden.
- As a little extra, Mass Hort knows that many families missed out on their annual tradition of visiting the Festival of Trees last year. The Festival will return in November 2021, but for all the little (and not so little) boys and girls who cannot wait to see the model trains, the train room will be opened for “Christmas in July” from Sunday, July 25 through Saturday, July 31. The train room will be operating 10am-5pm and is free after normal garden entry fees.
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