Who is Ai Weiwei?


Ai Weiwei

Essay by Joseph Antenucci Becherer, Chief Curator and Vice President

Artist and activist Ai Weiwei is among the most inspiring and influential cultural figures in the world today. In the last few years, his image and images of his work have been featured on the cover of every major art publication and most magazines and newspapers across the globe. In recent months, his exhibitions have shattered attendance records in London, Paris, Helsinki and San Francisco. In 2017, his work is coming to Grand Rapids in a highly unique exhibition designed especially for Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. But, one might ask, who is Ai Weiwei?

One of China’s most recognizable citizens, Ai Weiwei has celebrated both the art and people of his native country, and has criticized the government over the suppression of human rights and freedom of speech. Such concerns have not been limited to China, as he advocates for the dignity and equality of all people through his art, his actions and his active social media presence. Although the type of work he creates may vary greatly from project to project, his meaning and message are always meant to engage and enlighten his audience. Antique furniture, backpacks, kites and even Iron Tree, from our permanent collection, form a significant part of his repertoire and his messages to the world.

Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957. His father was the highly regarded and influential poet Ai Qing. When he was still an infant, the government suppressed thousands of free thinking intellectuals like his father and the family was exiled to a remote labor camp in northwest China. Once among the nation’s most highly regarded cultural figures, Ai Qing was forced to scrub toilets for nearly 20 years. Young Ai Weiwei and his brother grew up far beyond the developing boundaries of modern and industrial China yet grew attached to the longstanding traditions and artisan efforts of rural China.

The family returned to Beijing in 1976 following the death of Chairman Mao and the brief relaxation of government restrictions that ensued. Two years later, Ai Weiwei entered the Beijing Film Academy and became a central figure of that city’s youthful avantgarde. In 1981, he obtained a visa and came to the United States, eventually settling in New York for nearly a decade. Although he briefly studied art, the importance of the American experience for the artist developed through photography and his observations of the freedoms Americans enjoyed, as well as the creative diversity of the art world centered in that city.

It was during this period that Ai Weiwei began to understand and undertake a more conceptual, idea-based approach to his art. Influenced by iconic masters like Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, Ai Weiwei realized that any object found could be transformed into a work of art, and that the very act of creating was sometimes as powerful as the work itself. In 1993, at a time when his career was unfolding in New York, he received word that his illustrious father was gravely ill and made the decision to return to China.

During Ai Weiwei’s American sojourn, Beijing and much of China had rapidly changed. As an artist, filmmaker, photographer, architect and activist, he found himself at the center of the capital’s art world. In 2005, he began blogging as an integral part of his artistic practice. Later, he turned to Twitter and Instagram, where he still posts daily. In 2008, he collaborated on the design of the famed “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympics, yet later that year, the infamous Sichuan earthquake became a focal point of his energy in criticizing the government for shoddy construction that led to the deaths of thousands. In the following years, Ai Weiwei came under surveillance and was beaten, hospitalized and denied the right to travel. In 2011, he was arrested and mysteriously detained for 81 days, to the shock of the international cultural community.

Throughout this entire period, Ai Weiwei continued to create a broad and diverse body of work. In the tradition of Duchamp and Warhol, anything could become the basis for a work of art: bicycles could be transformed as a means to discuss population; children’s backpacks could be assembled to illustrate the loss of innocent lives; works made of antiques, pottery or jade might be a vehicle to examine China’s past and present. Even our own Iron Tree in the Sculpture Park was based on dozens of found tree elements brought together as a way of discussing visual and cultural individuality and unity.

In July 2015, Ai Weiwei’s passport was returned and he was able to travel once again. Today, he divides his time between Beijing and Berlin, where he maintains studios. He works tirelessly on new projects and installations that allow him to experiment with materials and ideas, while still focusing on issues of human rights and freedom. Among his top priorities is a large exhibition under development for Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

A Horticulturist’s Holiday Home Decor

Written by Nancy Crawley


Here is some Christmas decorating help from a Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park landscape pro.

It’s a big, busy job.

Ed McKee, Meijer Gardens horticulture manager in charge of the acres of outdoor gardens, could be forgiven for skipping outdoor decorating chores at home. But no, he’s already dressed up his Jenison home for the holidays.

What does Ed do and what are this landscape pro’s secrets?

A wide porch at the house he and his wife Tricia bought this year inspired him to a whole new design – one organized around a Christmas classic, the nutcracker toy soldier.


He tucks colorful nutcracker figures he’s collected – from less than a foot tall to three feet – into window boxes and big porch pots filled with evergreen boughs.

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He also adds white birch branches to lighten things up and bits of Michigan holly and purple-green kale for contrast. He adds dried Juncus grass from his summer plantings for a bit of whimsy.

Of course, the doormat and chair pillows are decorated with nutcrackers. A small, lighted tree stands next to the door and wreaths, including a big, 30-inch-wide one over the window, complement his theme.


Ed offered more tips during a quick chat last week:

  • Use a variety of evergreens for more interest. Pine branches are firmer than other boughs and help with structure. Arborvitae give a graceful, feathery touch. Fraser firs lend a blue tone and balsam and spruce, deep green.
  • During your fall cleanup, leave root balls of mums and grasses in the pots so you can insert evergreen branches in between the root network to stabilize them.
  • Keep your design simple and natural.
  • Power your lights with a dark green electric cord that you can more easily hide and use battery operated timers to turn lights on and off automatically. He sets his for 6 hours.
  • When hanging bulbs on your tree, start with the biggest bulbs tucked inside, closest to the trunk and then move out along the branch with progressively smaller bulbs.

All this doesn’t take too long, he assures us amateurs. A few hours and, voila, your house is beautiful and welcoming for the season of good cheer.


20 gifts under $20 in the Meijer Gardens Gift Shop

As you head to do your holiday shopping, keep the Meijer Gardens Gift Shop on your radar! We have unique items that will please anyone on your list. These are just some of many great finds that cost less than $20!

December at a glance


Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park is full of the magic of the holidays – and 400,000 twinkling lights! We have a lot of fun events to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year.

  • Christmas and Holiday Traditions Around the World:
    • Ring in the holiday season with our most beloved winter exhibition. We’re taking a new look at stories of old, with an intriguing exploration of the folklore and traditions that shape holiday celebrations around the world. Honoring holiday cultures around the world, Meijer Gardens focuses on the authenticity of holiday traditions: Germany tree, adorned with handmade glass ornaments and homemade springerle cookies, the England tree with antique Christmas cards and mistletoe, and the beautiful Eid ul-Fitr display, which celebrates the end of Ramadan. The companion Railway Garden exhibition is a unique horticultural display that incorporates garden design, miniature buildings made from natural materials, and model trolleys and trains.
  • Santa Visits:
    • All visitors are welcome to share their holiday wishes with Santa. Remember to bring your camera for a Santa selfie or a photo with him on his sleigh. Santa will be in the Cook Entryway Tuesday evenings (December 6th, 13th, 20th) from 5:00pm – 8:00pm.
  • Winter-Time Walks
    • Tuesdays, Thursdays & Saturdays Winter in the Lena Meijer Children’s Garden can be chilly, but fun! Bundle up and join us on an outdoor interactive discovery walk (Tuesdays & Thursdays at 10:15am and 11:15am and Saturdays at 11:15am) to investigate the Children’s Garden in new ways. We’ll explore different winter themes, each with kid-friendly conversation, stories and finger plays.
  • Rooftop Reindeer
    • Reindeer will be on-hand near the entrance to the Lena Meijer Children’s Garden on Saturdays through December 17th from 1:00pm – 4:00pm. Guests can visit the reindeer, get an up-close look and maybe even pet them.
  • The Original Dickens Carolers
    • They’re a holiday tradition at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. Hear from this wonderful troupe of strolling singers as they perform holiday favorites. They perform Tuesday evenings (December 6th, 13th, 20th ) from 6:00pm – 8:00pm.


Hope to see you before 2017!

Why I Volunteer: Bob VanBragt

Written by Nancy Crawley

Dirt. Digging in dirt. Planting in dirt. That’s what Bob VanBragt wanted to do when he retired.


Bob VanBragt

It was natural, really. He grew up on a tulip farm in Holland, the West Michigan town famous for its annual Tulip Festival. He had learned how to grow all kinds of bulbs, but once he went to work in an office, he missed spending time with a spade and shovel.

So Meijer Gardens was on Bob’s to-do list when he retired 10 years ago. Attending one of the volunteer orientation meetings, he met horticulturist Ian Warnock. who gave him a tour of the Children’s Garden. It was clear they would find a common bond in their affinity for dirt.

“He has a Scottish accent and a great sense of humor,” Bob said of Ian, whose impressive resume includes the H.M. British Embassy garden in Washington, D.C.

Soon, Bob was a Monday morning regular at the Children’s Garden, tending the ever changing landscape winding through places like the sensory garden, butterfly maze, and the Great Lakes ponds.

“We’ll pull mums, plant bulbs and pansies, do a lot of weeding and pruning. You never know with Ian,” he chuckled.

Bob, 81, has gained many friends during his 1,500 volunteer hours. “I love being outside, with all the kids.” And, besides, at the Gardens, there’s always plenty of dirt yet to be dug.

To explore volunteering, visit meijergardens.org/involved/volunteer/, or contact Tom Hoving at thoving@meijergardens.org or 616-974-5221. Volunteer orientation sessions are set for Dec. 7, 2016, and Feb. 7 and April 11, 2017, starting at 10:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m.

Why I Volunteer: Chantra Laninga

Written by Nancy Crawley

Smiling faces, happy people. That’s why Chantra Laninga is quick to volunteer for all kinds of special events at Meijer Gardens.

For nine years, the Grand Rapids resident has been wrapping presents at the holiday gift show and hanging shiny bobbles on Christmas trees, checking visitors for stow-away butterflies at the Butterflies are Blooming show, tending blossoms in the orchid room, and lending a hand at the Farm Garden and Japanese Garden.

The variety delights her. “I never knew there were 20 kinds of tomatoes,” she marveled after working one of the Farm Garden shows.


Chantra Laninga

Chantra’s journey to Grand Rapids and eventually the Gardens’ volunteer ranks started on the other side of the world.

She was born and raised in Thailand. There, she taught lab sciences to medical students before coming to the United States at age 29 to accept an internship at Mercy Health St. Mary’s hospital.

She made Grand Rapids her home, working for 38 years as a St. Mary’s medical technologist. “I was a life scientist, doing all kinds of lab tests, whatever the doctors requested,” she said.

It was challenging and fulfilling work, but, like any busy hospital, the atmosphere was intense. Often, “people had sad faces,” she recalls. So nine years ago, while still working full time, she began volunteering, relishing the cheerful people in the beautiful Gardens.

Now 76 and retired, she still savors the same joy.

“When you walk in, you feel different,” she said. “You see people smiling, having fun,everything fresh. It’s hard to find that in this world.”


To explore volunteering, visit meijergardens.org/involved/volunteer/, or contact Tom Hoving at thoving@meijergardens.org or 616-974-5221. Volunteer orientation sessions are set for Dec. 7, 2016, and Feb. 7 and April 11, 2017, starting at 10:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m.

Why I Volunteer: Daryl Mick

Written by Nancy Crawley

The Chinese vase artfully displayed next to a silk scarf and handmade beads. Holiday cards and bonsai plants set to catch your eye.

Daryl Mick, 66, helps craft those oh-so-tempting displays at the Gardens gift shop. Twice a week, he’s there, unpacking boxes and ringing up customers, all to make sure the shop is revenue-producing hit with visitors piling off tour buses and local families looking for unique gifts.



Daryl Mick

It’s all old hat for Daryl who’s spent his career in merchandising. After 44 years with retailer giant Meijer Inc., the Grand Rapids native retired in 2013. Shortly after, he found his niche in a way that so many others have – through another volunteer encouraging him.

He was helping at the Gilda’s LaughFest fundraiser when a friend working with him suggested he’d be a natural for the Gardens gift shop.

She was right. “It’s good fit for me,” he said. “I like working with the people, setting up displays and helping with the pricing.”

He also pitches in on special events like “Butterflies are Blooming” and the holiday gift show – “I worked 25 hours in two and a half days,” he marveled after the gift show.

Now, he’s the one encouraging friends and family to join the Gardens’ volunteer ranks. “I plan to be here as long as I can.”

To explore volunteering, visit meijergardens.org/involved/volunteer/, or contact Tom Hoving at thoving@meijergardens.org or 616-974-5221. Volunteer orientation sessions are set for Dec. 7, 2016, and Feb. 7 and April 11, 2017, starting at 10:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m.