Eight whimsical creatures are stirring up magical memories at the UGA State Botanical Garden during the inaugural Winter WonderLights event that runs through Jan. 9.
Created by local artists using welded metal and thousands of dazzling lights, a cardinal, a unicorn, polar bear, penguin, bluebird, goldfinch, giraffe and elephant dot the landscape along the half mile path of the show, which is presented by the Office of the President of the University of Georgia.
Local metalwork company St. Udio made the metal frames for the animals, and local artist Chris Taylor wrapped the sculptures using holiday lights and zip ties.
Caty Swanson, the lead vent hood fabricator at St. Udio, built most of the animals, working off of sketches she made from looking at photos of the animals, said Mike Harboldt, who owns St. Udio. She used machines like a compact bender and hand roller to sculpt the metal into the shapes she needed to create the animal forms and welded the pieces together, he said.
“She built all of the animals, so any life those animals have really came from her,” Taylor said. “I can’t emphasize what an amazing job she did. Every time I went to go pick one up [before installing the lights] I was just floored at how beautiful, they were works of art in and of themselves.”
Taylor started working on the animals in August, and installed the giraffe and finished the unicorn the day the light show opened, on Dec. 1.
“We are grateful that St. Udio and Chris Taylor worked so hard to create the animal sculptures for Winter WonderLights,” said Jenny Cruse-Sanders, director of the State Botanical Garden. “The animals add so much fun and light to the show, especially to the children’s garden.”
All the individual lights on the animals are zip-tied onto the frames. Each animal has at least 2,000 lights. Taylor said the giraffe and the polar bear both have the most lights, 5,600 lights each, or the equivalent of 28 boxes of string lights.
Taylor said you can’t find any information about how to wrap holiday lights onto sculptures like these, he had to figure it out on his own, and the learning process involved a lot of trial and error.
“I cut a few wires and got shocked a couple of times,” Taylor said. “I learned a lot about LED lights, I think we all did.”
He said it took at least 12 hours to wrap each animal in lights, but a better idea of the time spent on the animals may be how many movies and TV shows he watched while making them.
“The polar bear, I watched the entire series of The League, the elephant I watched almost all nine seasons of Seinfeld,” Taylor said.
Taylor worked with the designers of the show on the colors for the animals. He decided that the unicorn should have a rainbow mane, tail and horn, and the penguin should be purple with orange lights.
“It was very collaborative, everybody that worked on it, we all worked together,” said Taylor, who spent 17 years as the director of art for the UGA Terry College of Business.
“That Hairy Dawg picture with the penguin, that meant a lot to me. That was really, really special. He’s got his head cocked, and the penguin’s got its head cocked, and to know that I became part of the face of this whole thing, I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” Taylor said.
He added that it has been a thrill to see the animal sculptures in the garden. “Knowing that so many people will see it has been a little daunting. I’ve had shows before, but I’ve never had this many people.”
“We are now a part of all these kids’ memories, forever. If this continues, there will be kids in Athens that will be coming back to this for years and probably bringing their kids 15 years from now. That’s very powerful,” Taylor said.
For more information about Winter WonderLights and to purchase tickets, which are only sold online, visit wonderlights.uga.edu.
Writer: Laurel Clark, Laurel.Clark@uga.edu, 706-542-6014