Unexpected Art: Walk the Gateway Gardens in the Arboretum

UC Davis Art program alum, Donna Billick, installs tiles at Nature's Gallery Court near Storer Garden in the UC Davis Arboretum in 2018. The gallery is a part of the GATEways project. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Arboretum Offers Art West of Mrak 

By Leigh Houck, UC Davis Media Relations Intern

In this time of social distancing, one of the few recreational pursuits available is a walk or bike ride outside. At the time of publishing, the UC Davis Arboretum is still open. If you visit, keep six feet of distance from others. If this appears impossible, come back another time. Read the full list of guidelines for visiting the Arboretum during the Coronavirus pandemic here. Unexpected Art is a regular feature of the UC Davis Arts Blog.

The UC Davis Arboretum is an outdoor space like no other. It covers approximately 100 acres and contains over 20 different sections to explore. Many of these sections contain art hidden amongst the abundant trees, bushes and flowers. Read on to learn more about this unexpected gallery, where even the bathroom is art. 

Of the 20-plus sections in the Arboretum, four are GATEway Gardens. The GATEways Project stands for Gardens, Arts, and The Environment, and you can learn more here. Fittingly, the Arboretum GATEway Garden contains not only beautiful native plants, but also nature-inspired works of art. 

The ‘ARTboretum’

This piece is a continuation of the Unexpected Art: Arboretum Art Part 1, which covered art east of Mrak Hall. If you haven’t had a chance to read Part 1 yet, click here. In this Part 2, we will focus on art west of Mrak Hall. There is such a plethora of art scattered in the Arboretum, it could be renamed the ARTboretum. And the plants are pretty great mother-nature art too. 

Starting at Mrak Hall, and behind the School of Law, head west. Make your way through the Native American Contemplative Garden, and the Rock Garden. Here, you will have to take a detour to avoid construction. Join back up with the Arboretum path by taking the entrance between the Valley Oak Cottage and the UC Davis Horse Barn. Go through the Mediterranean collection, and stay right at the fork. Once you pass the nursery, go right to arrive at the Nature’s Gallery Court. 

Nature’s Gallery Court GATEway Garden

The Nature’s Gallery Court mosaic mural is a creation made by the UC Davis Art/Science Fusion Program led by Donna Billick and Diane Ullman, with students in Entomology 1, the UC Davis Arboretum and members of the community. 

The Nature’s Gallery mural is visually stunning. It is a ceramic mural composed of 3D relief panels of over 100 local plants and insects. A plaque describes it: “Each tile depicts a drought-resistant plant in the UC Davis Arboretum’s Ruth Risdon Storer Garden, along with the pollinators and other insects that are essential to the plant’s ecological success.” 

  • The Arboretum website says: “This unique, high-profile project showcases the talents of the artists, students, community members and educators involved in its creation, and the generosity and support of our benefactors. Before permanent installation in its home on campus in 2012, the mural was featured at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, DC.”

As you exit the Nature’s Gallery GATEway garden, you will pass the Ruth Risdon Storer Garden that served as its inspiration. This garden highlights local plants well-suited to Central Valley yards and is currently in full bloom. 

Ruth Risdon Storer Garden 

Near the Storer Garden is a bathroom. While this bathroom is currently closed due to the pandemic, the building is not purely utilitarian. It is actually an unexpected work of art. Three sides of the restroom building are covered in mosaic art created by the Art/Science Fusion program.

art in arboretum
This unidentified art is under a bridge in the arboretum. (Leigh Houck/UC Davis)

Tree of Life

The front wall of the building is titled “Tree of Life” and was created in 2006 by ENT 001 Students, UC Davis Arboretum Staff, and Davis and Winters Community Members. 

The mosaic depicts an oak tree and the various animals who depend on the oak tree for survival. If you look closely, you can identify birds, insects, and  even arachnids on the tree. 

Valley-Wise Visions

The right side wall is titled “Valley-Wise Visions” and was created in 2007 by ENT 001 Students, UC Davis Arboretum Staff & Friends, and UC Davis Community Members. 

  • Similar to the Storer Garden itself, the mosaic mural features plants, flowers, and insects you might find in a sustainable Central Valley garden. 

Oak Family Tree and Oak Grove

The left side wall is titled “Oak Family Tree” and was created in 2008 by ENT 001 Students, UC Davis Arboretum Staff and Friends, Davis Community Members, and Willett Elementary School Students. 

  • This mosaic mural is one large tree. However, each leaf is from a different oak species which is identified by a small plaque bearing its Latin name. This beautiful and informative mosaic prefigures the mosaic labels that you can find at the feet of real trees in the Oak Grove. 

Turn right after passing the Storer garden and bathroom to enter the Oak Grove.

Upon entering the Oak Grove, you will pass by two curved benches, “Oak Food Chain” and “Oak Circle of Life,” and then into a grove of oak trees. The oak trees are marked with decorative and informative ceramic plaques that bear both the common and latin name of the oak variety. All of these projects were produced by the UC Davis Art/Science Fusion Program led by Donna Billick and Diane Ullman, in collaboration with Emily Griswold of the UC Davis Arboretum. A sign states that the “Mosaic tiles and plaques in the Peter J. Shields Oak Grove were produced by hundreds of student and community volunteers, including Entomology 1 students, Davis community members, Agra Quest staff and DaVinci High School students.” Many of the mosaic pieces bear dedications to loved ones. 

“Oak Food Chain” Curved Bench 

  • “Oak Food Chain” is a bench made out of mosaic circles. Its plaque states that the “Interlocking mosaic circles on this seat wall show the relationships of living things that depend on the native coast live oak for food.” A variety of animals, from mammals to birds to insects, are depicted in this intricate and colorful bench. 

'Oak Circle of Life' Curved Bench 

  • “Oak Circle of Life” is a bench made out of mosaic circles. Its plaque states that “Each circle in the mosaic surface of this seat wall depicts a milestone in the life of a mighty English oak tree, starting in the year 1210.” The mosaics depict peasants alongside the tree in medieval times and move forward from there. One of the final mosaics shows modern day people taking photos of the tree’s acorn with a digital camera, a nod to both new life and modernity. Take a seat on the bench and marvel at the longevity of this majestic species. 

Oak Mosaic Tree Plaques 

  • The Oak Grove is home to more types of oak trees than you could ever imagine. Beautiful mosaic plaques at the base of each tree inform visitors of the tree’s common and latin names. Many of the plaques also bear touching dedications to loved ones. Learning about the trees is made easy by the art on the plaques. For example, the Cork Oak (Quercus suber) had a mosaic showing that it is used to make corks for wine bottles. The mosaic for Vasey Shin Oak showed the mexican free tailed bats, nine banded armadillos, and Texas cave scorpions that often use the tree for survival. 

Get your steps in

It is the perfect time to take a self-guided tour of the Arboretum art. So lace up your walking shoes and put on your sun hat. Given the hot summer temperatures, best to get out in the morning. In addition to getting outside and appreciating some art, you’ll get in your steps for the day. The loops of the east half or west half are approximately two  miles each. As you tour the artworks, stop and smell the flowers. Mother Nature is yet another fantastic artist. 

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