New York's unusual wreath show lets it all hang out

What do you like on your holiday wreath? Toilet paper? Dead bugs? Fake fingernails? Some New York artists do.

Countless questions spring to mind as you wander the gallery in the Central Park Arsenal, taking in the annual holiday wreath show.

Let's start with the obvious. Why, oh why, is there a wreath made of dead bugs? And whose idea was it to create a wreath from a toilet seat and dress it up with a bow made of three-ply toilet paper?

"I'm always surprised," said Jonathan Kuhn, director of art and antiquities at the city's parks department, as he surveyed the 55 circular and not entirely circular wreaths at this year's "Wreath Interpretations" exhibit. "People are constantly trying to one-up themselves."

The 32-year-old show is a holiday tradition in New York City, as regular as the Rockefeller Center tree-lighting and the dropping of the ball in Times Square on New Year's Eve. Unlike those events, which look pretty much the same each year save for a few snowflakes or raindrops, the wreath show never is predictable.

Exhibitors range from professional artists to regular people with irregular ideas of the ideal wreath. This year, those ideas included a wreath made of household sponges, a wreath made of brightly painted fake fingernails and a wreath crafted from white plastic sandwich bags.

There is a wreath of Smarties candies, another made of lost keys and one that pays homage to ocean debris with a collection of items found along the shore: a flattened beer can, empty pill bottles, little airplane booze containers still bearing traces of sand and dirt.

Most of the wreaths — even the black one with the velvet, whip and chains titled "Have You Been Naughty?" — evoke a whimsical if not traditionally holiday feel.

"Just like any art show, we're looking for anything that is innovative and well made," said Kuhn, who once submitted his own wreath that made use of a stuffed coyote and a radial tire. "It was a little homage to Rauschenberg," he said of the wreath, which was modeled after Robert Rauschenberg's "Monogram," which featured a goat and a tire.

Park officials put out proposals for wreaths in October. Anyone can submit an idea, and more than 100 did this year, said Jennifer Lantzas, the parks department's public art coordinator. This year set a record for submissions, said Lantzas, who sorts through the proposals with a team that gives the yea or nay to would-be wreathers.

"It's like opening presents on Christmas when we go through the proposals and see what ideas people have," Lantzas said. Nothing surprises her, not even a wreath made of rattraps displayed one year. Most of the wreaths are for sale, with some of the proceeds going toward the parks department's art program.

Many wreaths speak to the creator's passion for a cause or evoke a major news event. The marine debris wreath and another one featuring a piece of pine wood salvaged from Superstorm Sandy are evidence of the 2012 storm's haunting presence. A common theme is reuse of materials that might otherwise be tossed, such as the red and green duct tape used to create one wreath.

The mastermind behind the toilet wreath is Libby Phillips Meggs, a 71-year-old former advertising art director and children's book author. Meggs' daughter, Elizabeth, who has her own wreath at this year's show, urged her mother to submit a proposal.

"Just as a joke, I submitted two sketches," Meggs said. One envisioned plastic spoons melted together. It was not accepted. The other, which to Meggs' surprise was accepted, was drawn from her childhood memory of public bathrooms with toilet seats perched upright into what were supposed to be sanitizing compartments.

"That sort of stuck in my mind, and I thought, you know, you could make a wreath out of one of those," Meggs said. The toilet wreath now hangs in snowy white glory from the Arsenal wall, its puffy bow attached to the upper right of the seat.

Meggs calls it "The Duchamp," after artist Marcel Duchamp, who used a urinal for his "Fountain" piece in the early 20th century.

A team from the horticulture department on Randall's Island, a city park, thought a wreath featuring insects could help people appreciate the bug life around them, said Jillian Gall, who helped develop the idea.

"People think of New York as a landscape packed with people, cars and skyscrapers. What we forget is that we share it with smaller animals, like insects, so basically we wanted to introduce the public to the local insects and show them that not all insects are scary," Gall said. "Some are quite beautiful."

Park workers plucked bugs from the ground, including palm-sized praying mantises, butterflies, a stink bug, bees, a ladybug and ground beetles. The bugs were frozen and pinned onto a slab of tree trunk.

The piece resembles a macabre insect ice-skating rink.

"Some people are completely mortified," Gall said. But others pick up the magnifying glass placed below the wreath to encourage people to study the insects.

Robert Rothman leaned in close and did just that as he toured the exhibit one afternoon with his wife, Rita.

"Look! Ladies' nails!" Rita Rothman exclaimed as she spotted the wreath made of fake fingernails.

Together, the Rothmans studied Meggs' toilet wreath. Both are repeat visitors to the show and said this year's was their favorite.

"These are ordinary things you look at and think, hey, I could've done that," Rita Rothman said. "It's one thing to say that, though. It's another to actually do something creative with a toilet seat or a bunch of sandwich bags."

Twitter: @TinaSusman

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