Unexpected Art: Walk the Treasure that is the Arboretum

Shovel sculpture
Christopher Fennell, an artist from Alabama, works the sculpture that is made of steel pipe and shovel heads during the construction of a shovel head swirl in the Arboretum on Thursday October 21, 2013 at UC Davis. The shovels were donated by the community. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Part I: See Arboretum Art East of Mrak Hall

By Leigh Houck, UC Davis News and 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.

This art tour is in two parts. The next part of the walk will be published next week.

By Leigh Houck, Media Relations Intern, UC Davis News and Media Relations

The UC Davis Arboretum is an outdoor space like no other. It covers approximately 100 acres and contains more than 20 different sections to explore. Many of these sections contain art hidden amongst the abundant trees, bushes and flowers.

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.

Starting at Mrak Hall, head east toward downtown Davis. Take the path through the East Asian Collection, or the path through the Mary Watts Brown Garden of California Native Plants. Either way, end up at the T. Elliot Weier Redwood Grove. The towering trees will usher you to a small tunnel underpass that connects the Redwood Grove to the Arboretum GATEway Garden. While cars going to and from campus pass overhead, the quiet and cool space underneath is the unlikely home of a colorful mural. 

T. Elliot Weier Redwood Grove

"The Redwood Grove From a Lady Bird Beetles Perspective." By the teachers and students of Entomology 1: Art, Science and the World of Insects, fall quarter 2006. 

  • In this mural, creepy crawlies take center stage. Ladybugs, dragonflies, and bumblebees crawl on plants and flit around animals around this larger-than life mural. Silhouettes of people bird watching, reading, and enjoying nature are in the background. A butterfly appears about to alight on a fingertip. On the right side of the mural, a painted guidebook allows you to identify different insect species. This mural was sponsored by the UC Davis Art-Science Fusion Program, and clearly brings entomology and accessible public art together. 

Now, make your way through the Australian/New Zealand Collection. While there is no man-made art in this section, there are plenty of colorful creations by mother nature: an abundance of flowers bloom on all sides. Once you see a sizable archway, you’ve arrived in the Arboretum GATEway Garden. 

Arboretum GATEway Garden 

“Shovel Gateway” by Christopher Fennell: The downtown entrance to the Arboretum is located just behind the Davis Commons plaza and sushi restaurant Mikuni’s. The transition from commercial property to gardens is marked by a metal archway that looks like a giant tangle of vines. This archway is actually a work of art by Christopher Fennell. The shovels were donated by members of the community. See story here

  • “At a distance this gateway will look like vine inspired ironwork, but up close the viewer will notice that the vine leaves are actually used shovel heads,” explains Fennell. “The diversity of shapes, sizes, and rusty patterns on used shovel heads collected from the community will give the sculpture a richness and character that would be unattainable with new materials.’”

Beautiful Benches Await

Worn out from your stroll or bike ride through the Arboretum? Take a rest in style on one of four benches created by the Community Built Association Conference that was held in Davis in 2014. Tom Arie Donch and Donna Billick led community members in creating four benches made of concrete, mosaic and ferrous cement. Each of the benches celebrates flora and fauna. 

  • Papilionidae Albino bench by Tom Arie Donch: This bench was inspired by a type of Swallowtail butterfly, the papilionidae albino. Read more about Papilionidae Albino bench here.
Albino bench Papilionidae Albino bench by Tom Arie Donch (Courtesy photo)
  • Cottonwood Leaf by Donna Billick
    • As with the other benches, Cottonwood Leaf celebrates the flora and fauna of Davis. According to the UC Davis Arboretum, “cottonwood trees on campus are the native Fremont’s cottonwood (Populus fremontii) and natural stands of these trees are found along the Arboretum Waterway and Putah Creek in our campus's aptly labeled Putah Creek Riparian Reserve. There is also a dorm in Tercero named Cottonwood.”
Cottonwood Leaf Mosaic, Cottonwood Leaf, 2014 (Courtesy photo)
  • Walnuts by Sophia Othman: A rather unconventional bench, this piece is made up of three separate walnut sculptures. Spaced in a half circle, the round walnut shells are more of a collection of low ottomans than of a bench. However, the purpose remains the same: a convenient place to sit and a quirky piece of nature-inspired art. 
Walnut benches Walnut Benches (Courtesy)


  • Lobata by Tom Arie Donch: This bench is in the shape of a leaf, presumably the leaf of the Valley Oak Tree (Quercus Lobata). According to the UC Davis Arboretum, this tree is a California native and provides shelter and food for native insects and animals. Similarly, the Lobata bench provides respite for humans. Learn more about the tree that served as Donch’s inspiration here and learn more about the Lobata bench here. Leaf

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