Landfall Foundation Grant – Airlie Gardens Art Exhibit

Photo credit Terry Reilly

The Landfall Foundation is part of the broader community working to support
projects with Cape Fear nonprofits and schools.
Airlie Gardens has always been a special place to transition from the every day to the soothing sounds and sights of nature along Bradley Creek. In July, visitors found themselves actually going down the rabbit hole as they searched for ten specially created rabbits hidden among Airlie’s marshes, creeks, gardens, lakes and woods.
The four-foot rabbits are a magnet for kids and families. Stormy Collins from King, NC, visits Airlie every year. “I saw the first art exhibit 10 years ago and just love wandering among the ancient oak trees,” said Collins. She watched as her 7-year-old daughter, Shaylee, yelled with delight as she found and hugged the “Beach Bunny” rabbit.
Over 60 artists submitted sketches of their vision for a magical rabbit that would inhabit Airlie from July to December. Although open to artists throughout North Carolina, those selected included eight from the Wilmington area. After submitting rabbit sketches, the winning artists are selected by the Airlie Gardens staff. From the administrative staff to the gardeners, everyone selects their top ten.  “It’s a blind pick, meaning artists are not identified. The result is a great mix of artists because of the diversity of the judges,” said Janine Powell, Airlie Gardens’ Director.
A $5,500 grant from the Landfall Foundation supports Airlie’s $33,000 project. Fourteen other nonprofits and schools received over $70,000 from the Foundation for this year’s music, theatre, film and dance initiatives.
The idea of adorning fiberglass frames of animals to promote art originated in Switzerland in 1998. A year later, the concept arrived in Chicago with 300 “Cows on Parade” scattered throughout downtown with the goal of attracting more tourists. It worked. The “cow parades” are now annual events in major cities throughout the globe and have involved over 10,000 artists.
Ten years ago, the staff at Airlie Gardens brainstormed how to attract visitors during the slow summer months. One staff member suggested adopting the Chicago Cows concept.
The idea became reality when local copper artist, Andy Cobb, was charged with unleashing his twenty metal frog sculptures throughout Airlie. “Ribbit, the Exhibit” worked its magic, and attendance surged by over 50%. The exhibit drew in people who had not been to the gardens for years.
These are “hoppy” times at Airlie, with annual visitors increasing from around 110,000 to almost 140,000. “People come back four or five times. Every time a new group of friends or family comes to town, they bring them here for the same exhibits, especially grandparents,” said Powell.
To pull visitors through Airlie’s 67 acres, a scavenger hunt offers hints for each rabbit’s location. Tucked within a forest of camellias is artist Jessica Gates’ rabbit named Ilaria, an Italian name meaning cheerful or merry.  Gates explained her creative process. “The theme ‘Hoppy Times’ led me to think about what makes me most happy, and that is nature. Springtime is my favorite time of year, so I based my design on all the beautiful flowers that pop up in spring.”
Artist Sara Toothman finds inspiration in music. “I like to start with a song or a play on words. I was thinking about Buddy Holly's song, "Peggy Sue," while sketching for this project. I started thinking about the 1950s and the sock hop gymnasium dance culture. Poodle skirts, cat-eye glasses, and bright colors came to mind.”  Visitors can find her “Peggy Sue” rabbit near the Butterfly House.
For those wanting to purchase a rabbit, an online auction will go live later this year. Proceeds will help offset the project’s costs. Regardless of when they sell, the rabbits will hang out at Airlie until New Year’s Eve.
No matter where you live in the greater Wilmington area, the Landfall Foundation
is a great way to make our entire community a better place by supporting projects
for nonprofits and schools. The all-volunteer Foundation has contributed $6 million with 1,123 grants since 1995, with 97% of contributions flowing directly to agencies.
To learn more about volunteering or donating to the Landfall Foundation visit