KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
When you're a little kid, everyday things can be amazing - twigs, bugs, even old tires. It's that sense of wonder that the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., is trying to capture. And its new show in the newly renovated art museum is called Wonder. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: A mountain range made of hundreds of thousands of index cards. A rainbow made of miles of colored thread. Giant nests made of sticks - mine artists, nine installations in nine spaces. The Smithsonian is really going for the wow factor here.
NICOLAS BELL: I want people to be overwhelmed, to feel as if you're - there's something in the world greater than yourself.
BLAIR: Curator Nicolas Bell has spent a lot of time thinking about wonder, that feeling you get before mental clutter like intellect and taste drown out the senses, as he puts it. Bell looked for artists who would transform the building's spaces, like Seattle-based artist John Grade. He told Bell, I'm going to bring you a tree.
BELL: I said, John, I don't even know what you mean. He said, I'm going to go find a tree that's the same age as your building, and I'm going to build it for you.
BLAIR: The Renwick was built over 150 years ago. John Grade went to the Cascade Mountains and found a tree that's about that old and made a plaster cast of it.
BELL: They rigged-up ropes, and they covered this whole tree with tinfoil so that it would protect it, and they covered it with plaster, and then they popped these pieces of plaster off the tree and took them back to his studio. And then they used that as a mold.
So they had hundreds of volunteers coming in off the street - people on their lunch hour, people coming in after work and on the weekends, saying, I want to build a tree with you, John.
BLAIR: Those volunteers helped John Grade rebuild the tree using a half-a-million small blocks of reclaimed wood from a bridge that was being torn down. At the Renwick, the tree is now suspended on its side, filling one room.
The natural world is where most of these artists found their wonders. Maya Lin created what she calls a jewel-like map of the Chesapeake Bay using clear, blue-green marbles.
MAYA LIN: If you look at each marble, they're not precious. They were very functionally made. They're cracked, they have flaws. But the color, to me, is probably the closest I can get to capturing the shimmer and glimmer of water.
BLAIR: To wonder is also to question - I wonder what that's all about? Artist Janet Echelman was trying to understand a natural disaster, the tsunami that hit Japan. For the Renwick's grand salon, she created a massive undulating net suspended overhead from the forty-foot-high ceiling. The net's colors and shape change slowly, casting shadows on the walls. You almost feel like you're underwater. Echelman was inspired by data from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
JANET ECHELMAN: It's the wave heights across the entire Pacific Ocean from the tsunami that hit Japan. And it's about these deeply-held interconnections and interdependencies, some of which we understand and some of which we don't understand and can't predict. So it's my own personal way of making sense of the world.
BLAIR: Curator Nicholas Bell wants visitors to the show Wonder to feel that childhood sensation of being awestruck. Bugs - giant exotic bugs. That should do it.
JENNIFER ANGUS: Here are some grasshoppers from Madagascar.
BLAIR: With grasshoppers, cicadas, moths, beetles and other real but dead insects, Jennifer Angus created an elaborate floor-to-ceiling pattern. She says most of the bugs are from Asia. Some were farmed, some were caught wild. Angus has a background in textiles. She had a eureka moment when she was doing research on tribal dress in northern Thailand and came across a shawl.
ANGUS: And on the shawl's fringe were strung green metallic beetle wings, just the very same beetle that I have up on the wall. And I was really amazed. I never thought of insects as beautiful beyond butterflies, but gradually I found I was just more and more interested in them.
BLAIR: That's how it works. Great learning begins with wonder. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.
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