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A melting sculpture at ZooTampa spreads message about climate change

A wax sculpture of Florida panthers will melt over days to illustrate rising temperatures.

TAMPA — Under the warm midday sun, a small group of climate advocates met at the zoo Friday afternoon to show off the sculptures.

The mother panther dripped brown wax, like long strands of spaghetti hanging from her torso. The display sat front and center at the park entrance, beside a splash zone where children scurried through a ring of fountains. The wax gathered like mud on small plants and a drop cloth below.

Children play around the fountains just behind "Melting Panthers," a biodegradable wax sculpture out to melt at Zoo Tampa to highlight the threat of climate change and raise awareness, on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The sculpture of Florida panthers installed at ZooTampa will illustrate Florida’s recordbreaking temperatures by slowly melting over days to reveal a message about climate change.

It’s part of the #FlClimateCrisis campaign rolled out this month by the CLEO Institute, a Florida-based nonprofit dedicated to climate change education and advocacy, in partnership with the VoLo Foundation. The campaign’s aim is to underscore the urgency of climate change in Florida.

Speakers traded the microphone and shared messages about how scientists project Florida’s already taxing heat to become more challenging, with added days of feels-like temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. Charging people with a “moral obligation” to reduce carbon emissions, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa) spoke of the toll heat takes on people who work outside and tourists who come to enjoy the beach.

Congresswoman Kathy Castor, gets a closer look at "Melting Panthers," a biodegradable wax sculpture out to melt at Zoo Tampa to highlight the threat of climate change and raise awareness, during a press event on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

“More heat, less wildlife. More heat, less beaches,” said Yoca Arditi-Rocha, the executive director of the CLEO Institute. “More heat, the less quality of life for all of us.”

If they would have looked at the weather application on an iPhone then, they would have seen a feels-like temperature of 93 degrees and a warning: “Unhealthy air quality for sensitive groups.” People with existing conditions like heart disease were advised to avoid strenuous activities outside.

The campaign places other melting sculptures throughout Florida. Through a partnership with Zubi Advertising, Los Angeles-based artist Bob Partington was commissioned to create three biodegradable wax sculptures. Partington is an award-winning commercial film director and mechanical sculptor who starred in his own show on the History Channel called Thingamabob.

A lifeguard hut is installed at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Miami, where it has melted considerably. The Florida panther mother and cub sculpture was unveiled at ZooTampa on Sept. 18. A third sculpture of a grandfather and grandson on a park bench will be installed in Orlando at City Hall on Sept. 24.

“We were trying to find creative ways to connect to Floridians, through art, science and communications,” Arditi-Rocha said over the phone. “We wanted to engage Floridians to protect our beaches, wildlife and biodiversity and way of living. With these extreme rising temperatures, we have to rethink how we grow our food, what time we play outside. These three icons represent that.”

If distorted images come to mind when thinking about the melting sculptures, don’t worry: They won’t melt in a grotesque way. There are internal structures made of a composite material that will remain. Parts of the wax will fall away over about 4 to 5 days to reveal the educational hidden messages. QR codes posted at all three sites share more information about climate change.

"Melting Panthers," a biodegradable wax sculpture out to melt at Zoo Tampa to highlight the threat of climate change and raise awareness, on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Partington said he and his team tested different waxes from candle suppliers and created an index of different melt levels. He came to Florida to test the melting levels, so he experienced the heat this summer, too.

“The process was really interesting,” he said in a phone interview Thursday. “It was so unique. There was no model for the concept, so we had to come up with a new way to do things.”

Partington works in a wide variety of media, but one common thread is that he likes to make things that people can understand and experience. He was in Miami for the installation of the lifeguard hut and could see viewers’ reactions.

“I like creating things that people can be a part of and form this visceral link,” he said. “They’re part of the payoff. People get it. You can see stats (about climate change) all day long, but this grabs you. It’s powerful.”


After the event wrapped, Jessica Schuetz, a zoo guest from Riverview, walked near the panthers with her four children, ages 2, 4, 6 and 9.

Jessica Schuetz and her four children, including Eli, 6 and Lilli, 9, get a look at "Melting Panthers," a biodegradable wax sculpture out to melt at Zoo Tampa to highlight the threat of climate change and raise awareness. Schuetz was aware the sculpture would be out and wanted to bring her children to the zoo to see it before it melts, on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

She had read a blurb about the exhibit while making reservations and hoped to return in a few days to show her family how different the figures looked after more melting. Schuetz homeschools her children, she said, and the art offers an easy lesson.

“I want my kids to be aware of how heat affects the planet,” she said.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

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