040617 Brookgreen Gardens: Copper frogs leave the pond for a display in the woods
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Brookgreen Gardens: Copper frogs leave the pond for a display in the woods

- By Nikki Best
Coastal Observer

Each spring the Waccamaw Neck welcomes its latest batch of humming, jumping, kicking and licking frogs into the world. This year, Brookgreen Gardens discovered a new species. They’re 5 to 7 feet tall, can’t swim and don’t make a sound.

Ribbit the Exhibit, a touring installment by Wilmington, N.C., artist J.A. Cobb, opened Saturday. The 23 frogs will make the gardens their home for the next 13 weeks.

“They’re just so cute,” said Lauren Joseph, director of marketing at Brookgreen Gardens.

After Cobb retired from a career working in corporate America, he began sculpting, but it wasn’t always frogs.

“I started doing little stuff,” he said. “Like so many artists I was carving out of wood.”

It started as a hobby, carving fish from wood. From wood he progressed to copper. From one-sided fish he progressed to realistic wildlife. Then came the frogs.

“You know as an artist, you want people to get a reaction from your work,” he said. “And when people see my frogs they always smile.”

Each frog takes about 100 hours to complete. They have steel skeletons, “to make them strong,” Cobb said. He bends sheets of copper to create the frog skins. A torch is used to bring out the natural patinas, acetic acid for the verdigris and then there’s the eyes.

“The eyes are actually the same thing real glasses are made of,” Cobb said. “It’s a polycarbon.”

He paints them backward. First comes the gold, then he scratches the iris in and then covers them over with black.

“It’s very simple, but it took me a long time to figure out,” he said.

Where technique ends, art begins. Cobb has created more than 50 frogs for tours, and even more for private collections. The first frog he made was inspired by the children’s novel “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame.

“Do you remember old Toad,” Cobb said.

The character was a representation of the British upper class during the turn of the century. He was an aristocrat who inherited a large estate, and spent frivolously, before he learned maturity and a more grounded lifestyle. The complexities of his character were not lost on Cobb as he crafted his first frog in tails.

“It turns out Toad never wore a waistcoat,” he said. “But in my mind he did, because of all the formal things he did.”

His first frog didn’t really resemble the ones on display. His hand looked more like a claw, Cobb said. A newer, evolved version of the first frog is on display in the welcome center at Brookgreen Gardens.

It isn’t just book characters that inspire him, Cobb also likes to recreate famous works of art in frog form. At Brookgreen, his version of Rodin’s “The Thinker” muses near the butterfly house. He’s also created anthropomorphic frog versions of Grant Wood’s painting “American Gothic,” Edgar Degas’ Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer and the chorus dancers from “Swan Lake.” He doesn’t have a favorite.

“It’s like children, you say you love them all equally,” Cobb said. “You don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.”

Most of Ribbit the Exhibit is installed at a specially created garden near the butterfly house, but some are scattered throughout the property. Meditating Frog is in the native wildlife zoo and Binoculared Frog is in the waterfowl aviary.

“This is Ribbit II, just because it came after Ribbit I,” the artist said about his creations. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m already thinking about Ribbit III.”

Not all the frogs are leaving in July. Cobb made one frog as a gift to Brookgreen Gardens.

“The Butterfly Catcher is going to stay,” Joseph said.

Ribbit the Exhibit continues through July 9 and is included in regular admission to the gardens. Visit brookgreen.org for more information.

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